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Chilean déjà vu: footnote to a drama

Now that Chile has our attention, it is worth lingering to explore a nation with a unique history of ‘firsts’ to its name
Malcolm Coad
26 October 2010

The story of the thirty-three trapped Chilean miners and their rescue was remarkable for many things. One of them - for this observer at least - was the odd sense of deja vu that it brought. For this was not the first time that Chile has appeared on the world stage in an unexpectedly prominent role. In fact, for 150 years this small and remote country has repeatedly taken on a kind of iconic status expressing political and economic processes far beyond itself. The history of this makes for an interesting footnote to an extraordinary drama.

Despite the hype that often surrounds it, touting it as the success story of Latin America, Chile's economy is still a classic example of underdevelopment based on the export of a few primary and agricultural products. But the way in which this economy has taken shape, and the social and political system that it gave rise to, have peculiarities which are not always shared by the rest of the region, and which account for many of these episodes of international attention.

The San José mine rescue is the latest example. Mine disasters very rarely end happily, least of all in developing countries. But Chile has depended on mining for more than a century. It produces more than a third of the world's copper, and the state company, Codelco, is the world's largest single producer, responsible for some fifteen percent of world production. Its operations, and those of the foreign-owned private sector, are highly sophisticated and the expertise it can draw on second to none. Given enough luck - and there was a great deal of it in this rescue, above all in the fact that the miners found a refuge underground - the chances of a successful operation were always greater here than almost anywhere.

In the past, Chilean events that have caught the world's attention - apart from its disastrous earthquakes - have been political and economic rather than a highly specific drama like this. But their origins also lay in the country's national peculiarities. In the almost three centuries before independence from Spain, Chile was a minor colony with few resources. Lacking plantations, gold and silver mines, or vast cattle ranches, it grew modestly by supplying the Vice-Regal capital of Lima, in Peru, with wheat and hides. It was a semi-feudal society of latifundistas (landowners) and peons, but without the vast concentrations of wealth and competing local interests that tore most of the region apart after independence in the early nineteenth century. In the ensuing decades, its elite developed a conservative but relatively stable parliamentary system modelled on Europe and far less beset by caudillos (strongmen) and the military than elsewhere in the region.

Then came the boom of nitrate production in the Atacama, and the War of the Pacific (1879-84) with Peru and Bolivia over control of the mines. The resulting wealth, and nationalist fervour after victory in the war, led to Chile becoming the only Latin American country ever to engage on a policy of colonial expansion. This fizzled out, never getting further than Easter Island (Chilean to this day), but for a while it sent shockwaves as far as the United States. The US had supported Peru during the war, while Chile's naval buildup made its fleet the most powerful on the American Pacific seaboard. There were real fears in the US Navy that the Chileans could destroy its coastal fleet and bombard California.

The nitrate boom, and the violent conditions faced by its workers, also gave rise to the next major development in Chilean politics: the growth of a powerful Marxist left, in striking contrast to the populist and nationalist movements that dominated mass politics elsewhere in the continent. The Communist Party (founded as the Socialist Workers Party in 1912) was born in the nitrate mines. Later came the Socialist Party, founded in the 1930s as a Marxist alternative to the CP. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, these parties formed the largest Marxist left anywhere outside Europe, the Soviet bloc and China.

In the 1930s, these parties joined with other smaller parties to form the only Popular Front governments outside Europe. In the same period, the Christian Democrat party (PDC), also a European-style party, was founded, and made its own international mark. In the 1960s, the PDC government of Eduardo Frei Montalva was chosen by Washington as the flagship of its Alliance for Progress policy in Latin America, designed to head off the rising left (the Cuban revolution had taken place in 1959) by sponsoring moderate social and political reform.

Perhaps the most famous example of Chile's presence in world politics was Salvador Allende's Popular Unity (UP) government between 1970 and 1973 - the successor of the Popular Fronts. The UP's attempt at "the parliamentary road to socialism" became a model for similar alliances in countries such as France and Italy. Its failure when overthrown by the military in September 1973 was the main impulse behind the Italian Communist Party leader, Enrico Berlinguer's, famous "historic compromise" with his own country's Christian Democrats and other forces.

The overthrow of the UP marked generations of the left worldwide, and the solidarity movement that followed was a signal event for activists at the time (second only to the campaign against the Vietnam War). But the regime that followed also became an international byword, not just for repressive brutality, but as the pioneer of economic policies that would later be put into practice in Europe and the US.

During the UP, an exchange between Chile's Catholic University and the University of Chicago led to the training of a cadre of young economists by the gurus of ultra neo-liberalism, Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. Back in Chile, these "Chicago Boys" designed General Augusto Pinochet's economic policies, using the laboratory conditions of a military dictatorship to apply what they had learned. In European and US terms this was Thatcherism and Reaganism avant la lettre, a fact later enthusiastically endorsed by Margaret Thatcher herself.

Then, with the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, Chile's transition to democracy also gained a kind of model status, especially the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by President Patricio Aylwin to document deaths and disappearances under Pinochet and open the way for trials of those responsible. This was not the first such Commission - Argentina had already instituted one - but it became the most influential, emulated around the world from South Africa to El Salvador.

All this may seem far removed from a mining accident. Nevertheless, there is a thread that runs through all these stories: that of a developing economy centred on a few powerful sectors, and the pockets of technical sophistication and the unusually European polity that grew up as a result. None of this gives Chile the exceptionalism that its elite often likes to claim. But it has certainly played out in remarkable ways.

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