This is my 50th blog and I make no apologies in using the occasion to return to the subject of Chile, a land that I love. In this year of the bicentenary of her independence from Spain Chile has been in the news for extraordinary reasons. Firstly the peaceful transfer of power from a centre left coalition to a centre right coalition led by Sebastián Piñera. Then, before he had taken over as President, an earthquake measured at 8.8 on the Richter scale, the fifth most powerful in recorded history. And most recently the amazing rescue of 33 miners from a cave nearly half a mile below the surface of the Atacama Desert.
President Piñera stayed at the pithead for 48 hours continuously without sleep to greet each of the miners and the rescue team as they emerged from the rescue capsule and immediately after the rescue was complete flew to London on an official visit. His first engagement was a reception last Saturday at the Park Lane Hilton to which my wife and I were invited and had the chance to meet him. I felt privileged to be there as one of only a handful of Britons as the event was intended for the Chilean community. After a spirited singing of the Chilean national anthem he told us the story of the rescue. He was informed of the accident when he was on a diplomatic visit to Ecuador. He and his Minister of Mining, Lawrence Golborne, immediately recognised that the private company which operated the mine was not capable of a rescue, which, if successful, would be the deepest rescue ever made anywhere in the world. The decision to take responsibility was not hard intellectually but was hard emotionally but they made it that night. Then 17 days of exploratory drilling went on before contact was made with the famous piece of paper with the message. “We are safe in a refuge here, the 33.” The President showed us the actual piece of paper that was received.
That day the President’s father-in-law was dying and Piñera went to say goodbye to him. The old man’s last words were “You must save them!” With such a message of encouragement his own formidable resolve was further strengthened. He instructed his cabinet to seek whatever help was required anywhere in the world. Three different drilling attempts were made, one with American technology, one Australian and one Chilean. The Chilean navy's engineers designed and built the rescue capsule. Then the rescue was prepared and much of the world watched it, an estimated audience of 1.2 billion. “Why” asked President Piñera, "did so many people follow a story of 33 miners at the end of the world?” The answer, he believed, was that this was a good news story, and I think that’s right even though we were aware of journalists here in London trying to find some political angle. My wife was asked by one journalist if the whole thing had been a put up job to attract publicity.
What is true is that President Piñera has unashamedly taken the opportunity to try to change the way the world thinks about Chile. Rather than a country notorious for its military government (See my blog Democracy in Chile 23 January 2010) she is a country united, hopeful and capable. Although the earthquake caused $30 billion of damage, 18% of Chile’s GDP, already more than 80% of infrastructural damage has been repaired and the government has already achieved its targets of building emergency housing for the homeless, getting all children back to school, and replacing most of hospital beds lost.
On Monday President Piñera gave a lecture at the LSE to which we were also invited. He received a standing ovation from the packed audience mainly of students even though I suspect most of the students there were left wing. Piñera told us that he plans to restore Chile’s previous fast rates of growth lost in the past few years, to 6% per year and is on track to do that this year despite the earthquake. He wants to defeat poverty in the next decade and achieve social justice and equal opportunities for all. He will use the old pillars of democracy, economy and a strong state to fight excessive inequality but add to these the new pillars of human capital, investment, entrepreneurship, innovation and technology. He wants to create 1 million new jobs by 2014, 20% of the labour force and is on the way with 300k this year compared with just 30k in the last year of his predecessor.
He told us of the Chilean paradox. While spending just 1/7 of US rates of expenditure per head on health, Chilean life expectancy is equivalent, its cancer death rate far lower and its obesity rates a third. He plans to double public subsidies on education and lift the remaining 15% of the population out of poverty.
President Piñera is a man in a hurry. Chilean presidents only have a single four year term so he has a lot to do if he is going to achieve these and other ambitious objectives. But he has already had three successful careers as a billionaire businessman, as an academic and as a politician. He was the son of a diplomat who was ambassador to Belgium and then the United Nations and so he grew up with an international outlook. He took his first degree in Chile and then his Masters and Doctorate in Harvard. At the age of 27 he returned to Chile having negotiated the rights to represent both MasterCard and Visa in Chile. That was the basis of his first fortune which he later diversified into a wide variety of interests including ownership of 27% of LanChile and Chilevision, Chile’s 4th largest TV station. He has sold his interests in LanChile and Chilevision, but kept his 13% holding of Colo Colo, a football club because he wants to help them win the Copa Libertadores, the equivalent of the Champions’ League in South America.
As a senator he was voted the best in the senate even though he was from a minority right wing party. As President he has proved inclusive and accompanying him in the delegation to London were senators and deputies from all sides of the spectrum including Senator Letelier, son of Orlando Letelier, the former Ambassador to the United Nations and later activist against President Pinochet, who was murdered by Pinochet’s secret police on the streets of Washington DC in 1976.
For years the world has thought of events like that when they think of Chile. President Piñera wants to change all that. As he told Luis Alberto Urzua, the last miner out ,who was the shift foreman credited with helping the trapped miners endure 17 days in isolation before Chileans discovered the men had survived the mine collapse, "You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this.”
Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved