The Chilean way: after the spotlight

The rescue of trapped Chilean miners after two months underground inspired both national unity and worldwide acclaim. But as the afterglow fades Chile’s government faces an equally monumental set of tasks, says the Chilean scholar Patricio Navia.
Patricio Navia
27 October 2010

The extraordinary rescue of thirty-three miners trapped underground for sixty-seven days has put Chile in the global spotlight. If you have good things to show, the spotlight is the best place to be. But when you are not quite as proud of some of the things that will be revealed by the unprecedented scrutiny you are facing - then be careful what you might wish for.

Since the transition to democracy in 1990 following the seventeen years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, Chile has achieved great things - some of them worthy of as much pride as Chileans feel about the miners’ rescue. Yet the country also faces wider challenges that will be even more difficult to overcome than safely retrieving the San José miners from a living hell. 

Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, played a prominent role in the operation to free the miners, and some of the glow of the accomplishment reflects on him. Since the end of the drama on 13 October 2010, he has repeatedly stated that the experience will be a turning-point in Chile’s history and create a new international image of the country. At last, Chile will escape its association with the brutal Pinochet era (1973-90), and now be defined by a marvellous rescue and the national unity that it generated. In seeking to convert the operation into a model for Chile’s future, Piñera offers a new national motto: “Do it the Chilean way”.

The miracle

It is understandable that Piñera wants to consign to history the memory of human-rights violations committed under military rule, not least as he is the first president since the end of the dictatorship who comes from the right of Chile’s political spectrum. Moreover, his victory in the second round of the presidential election in January 2010 shows that many Chileans are prepared to move beyond this painful past - though it was only the fact that Piñera himself had publicly opposed Pinochet that made it possible for many of them to vote for his side.

Where Pinochet’s government tortured opponents and caused them to disappear, Piñera’s has done everything possible to bring trapped miners back to life. It is a contrast that reflects well on him. At the same time, his coalition includes political parties that supported the dictatorship and still harbour authoritarian and anti-democratic temptations. Here, the positive coverage of Chile in the international media gives Piñera a great opportunity to highlight Chile as a “good news” story.

Chile has indeed achieved a number of things very well in the two decades since 1990: a transition to and consolidation of democracy, made more testing by the inheritance of a military-led constitution full of authoritarian provisions that tied the hands of democratic governments; sustained economic growth (GDP per capita more than tripled in real terms); and a combination of market-friendly policies and earmarked social spending that brought poverty down (from 40% to 15%) and created a larger middle class (more than half the population) than ever before in the nation’s history.

Much of the credit here belongs to the four consecutive governments of the centre-left Concertación which governed Chile from 1990-2010, whose leaders were free of corruption and committed to the country’s progress and development. All, moreover, refrained from trying to reform (or “fix”) the constitution to remain in office, a rare occurrence for one-term presidents in Latin American democracies.

It can truly be said that each presidency in this twenty-year period left Chile a better country - which means that each built on the achievement of his predecessors (including Chile’s first woman president, Michelle Bachelet [2006-2010]). The word “miracle” has been used excessively in Chile, but what happened in 1990-2010 was indeed a Chilean miracle.

The shadow

Yet if there is plenty to be proud of in Chile’s recent record, there are also some dark spots. Among them are enduring and deep-rooted socio-economic inequalities, deplorable conditions for many low-skilled workers, and the poor quality of public education. An incident that just preceded the rescue operation - a hunger-strike by several members of the Mapuche (indigenous) people, to press for historic demands and for a retrial over charges made under a Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law - is emblematic of these pending issues.  

The rescue operation, with all its complications, required strong technical capacity and an ample supply of resources. Chile will need both these and other assets to tackle its main longer-term challenges - investing in public education, improving health services, making the tax structure more progressive, and reducing inequality.

The pivotal one here is the last - for inequality, especially when combined with a lack of social mobility, makes it impossible for democracy fully to consolidate. Chile’s GDP is respectably high by Latin American standards, and the growth and development of recent decades have benefited everyone in some way; but these benefits are very unequally distributed, leaving many of the “have-less” or “have-nots” relatively even worse off than before. For example, around 15% of Chileans still live in poverty; approximately 80% of workers earn less than the national average wage, often in unsafe environments; and 50% of children are educated in low-standard public schools.

Many Chilean workers will have everyday experience of these realities, which themselves contribute to further deprivation and damage. If Chilean governments before the accident in the San José mine had spent as many resources and as much focused energy in enforcing (and improving) existing labour legislation to ensure they enjoyed proper working conditions, the thirty-three miners would have had a safe emergency-exit from the mine - and there would have been no need for such a costly rescue.

The successful operation seems to have infused the government with new energy. President Piñera has already promised to improve working conditions and make further significant progress in reducing poverty and inequality during his four-year term. It might be that the political capital he has earned during the rescue will give the government the space it needs for the tasks ahead, which require the country to enter uncharted policy territory in the search for innovative solutions - including the modernisation of Chile’s state and the introduction of pro-market (as opposed to pro-business) reforms.

The future

Will the president and his government succeed in this ambitious agenda? Perhaps, but one factor advises caution. The government’s strenuous efforts and commitment (including financial) to the rescue were vital in ensuring its success. But it did not act in a vacuum. In the early days of the accident, the miners’ families took the initiative in pressing the government to act at a time when hopes of finding their loved ones were fading; and - once contact with those underground was made via the exploratory probe - the international media attention to the drama became a powerful incentive for the government to do an ultra-safe and efficient job. However, when it comes to fixing the problems in Chile’s domestic policy arena, citizens’ voices can also be ignored, and global media “inspection” is absent.

The tasks now facing Chile’s state and political leadership are as monumental as the one they faced on the day of the accident at San José. But not to achieve them would be to leave millions of Chileans at the bottom of the social ladder, with little or no hope of a way out; and any international attention on these poor Chileans will be confined to critical media reports of the public disappointments and failures that followed the inspiring rescue of 13 October 2010. That should not be the Chilean way. 




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