Why Chile Really Matters

Why Chile Really MattersWhat’s critical is not its new president’s gender, but its quiet economic vibrancy. March 27, 2006 issue – In the reams of commentary about newly inaugurated Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, two statements are systematically repeated. The first contrasts the supposedly conservative nature of Chilean society against the fact that Bachelet is the first woman to be elected president of a major Latin American nation. The second hails the popularity and stature of former leader Ricardo Lagos, elevating him to the ranks of Latin American elder statesmen. Both items of conventional wisdom deserve closer scrutiny.It is true that Chile until recently had no divorce law, and that films were still censored when the church or someone else objected to their content. But social values involve much more than that, and in many ways Chile has always been one of Latin America’s most enlightened societies—not as European as Argentina, certainly, nor as liberal in its mores and culture as Brazil, but certainly more tolerant and open than Mexico, Colombia or Peru. It already was a middle-class country—granted, a poor one—as far back as the early 1970s, and its travails with modernization, dictatorship and democratization have made it open to political deals, social compacts and even cultural experimentation unthinkable elsewhere. Indeed, it is not only not surprising that Chile is the first country in the region to elect a woman president; it was to be expected.What is surprising is the stark contrast between Chile’s record and its standing in Latin America. Between 1989, when the current Socialist/Christian Democratic coalition reached power and democracy returned to the country, and 2005, the Chilean economy has grown nearly 6 percent per year, more than doubling per capita income. Poverty has been drastically reduced; education, health, housing and other social indicators have all improved significantly, and even inequality, that terrible bane of all hemispheric societies, has finally begun to diminish, albeit modestly. For practical purposes, Chile is on the verge of occupying the lowest rung of the highest ladder: becoming a still poor but now developed nation, perhaps like Greece or Portugal a few years ago in Western Europe, like Poland or South Korea more recently.Chileans have dealt with the past bravely and prudently, prosecuting, jailing and stigmatizing those who deserve it, but not allowing themselves to be consumed by score-settling and revenge. The country has gradually left behind much of the institutional legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, becoming a much more functional democracy today than most other countries in the region. And it has proved able to both disagree with Washington—as over Iraq at the United Nations Security Council in 2003—and get along with the Bush administration, not an easy matter for any government these days. Lagos left office last week with approval ratings of 70 percent and with the well-earned admiration of broad swathes of his countrymen.So why does no one else really care? Why is such a success story not moving the hearts and minds of millions of Latin Americans? In Mexico City’s National University, the oldest and largest in Latin America, Bolivarian Committees are springing up in support of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez; at last November’s Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, former soccer idol Diego Maradona rallied thousands of cheering Chavistas to denounce American imperialism, neoliberalism, free trade and whatnot. Yet there are no Chile Study groups at the universities; there are no Ricardo Lagos T shirts; there are no Chile groupies. Any comparison between Chile and Venezuela over the past seven years (since Chávez took office), or between Chile and Cuba since 1989, is a no-brainer: from any conceivable point of view, Chile comes out miles ahead. But somehow the Chilean model has limited appeal, though the size and weight of the three nations are quite similar.Some say Chile is simply boring, and not sexy enough to become a model. Perhaps, but many of us still remember when thousands of journalists, students, professors and fellow travelers visited Santiago in 1970 to 1973 to celebrate Salvador Allende’s "Chilean road to socialism." It certainly was sexy and exciting then; why not now? This may well be Michelle Bachelet’s greatest challenge and, if she succeeds, her greatest achievement. Latin America not only needs a success story; it needs an economic, social, political and diplomatic role model. Despite undeniable weaknesses and obstacles, Chile today is as close to that as any country in the region has ever been. The country just needs a song to sing and a script for others to follow and understand. If President Bachelet can put her genuine charisma and rock-star drawing power at the service of promoting her country’s progress in Latin America, she will do everyone a huge favor—and achieve a truly surprising victory.

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