“Viva Chile” Part 2: Bicentennial “18”
Chile and Chileans have modernized a huge amount in the past 40 years, but what persists with characteristic Chilean determination is their strong link back to a time when rural life was more the norm and rural customs prevailed.
In spite of the fact that 85% of Chileans now live in urbanized areas, half of whom live in the greater Santiago area, they all feel the pull of rural life, the rodeo and “fonda”, and traditional food, drink, songs, and the “cueca”, at least on the18th of September each year.
During 2009, the Michelle Bachelet administration spent much of their last year in office planning for a spectacular Bicentennial “18”. They prepared grand shows for the “18” itself, but throughout the year they also held events, inaugurations of schools, stadiums, roads, bridges, and hospitals throughout Chile. For a country making great strides to obtain so-called “developed” status, these were the logical manifestations of progress to be celebrated (especially in an election year!). Many of the plans for celebrations were derailed when her coalition’s candidate Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (son of Eduardo Frei Montalvo who was president of Chile when we were Peace Corps volunteers in the late ‘60s) lost the Presidential election to Sebastian Pinera. Then the February earthquake, that occurred just after the election, put a real damper on spirits and serious pressure on the national treasury during the first few months of Pinera’s administration, causing a serious questioning as to what was an appropriate Bicentennial celebration in a country that was suffering from this disaster and that had to face costly and lengthy reconstruction. And then there were the miners, still imprisoned in the San Jose mine near Copiapo, about 700 kilometers to the north of Santiago. On the one hand, it did not seem to be the time for a costly, flamboyant series of celebratory events. On the other hand, some argued that Chileans needed to be uplifted, and the right kind of “18” would be the way to do it. What they decided to do seems to me to have worked quite well.
Four days of official holiday were declared, the 17th through the 20th, because September 18 this year fell on a Saturday. This is important because in Chile an “official” holiday carries with it certain benefits for public and private sector workers. Also the Congress passed a law, and the President signed it, requiring the large supermarket and department stores, which employ large numbers of lower middle class workers, to remain closed for three of those four days, so that “…all their workers could enjoy the Bicentennial “18” holidays with their families, at home in their communities.” You had to wonder why it wasn’t equally important for workers in medium-sized and small stores to also enjoy the holidays, but I suppose the prevailing idea was that large firms can absorb the lost business from being closed for three days, whereas smaller stores and businesses may not be able to. At any rate, prior to the three-day closing there was a run on the stores that would be closed, reminiscent of the days just after the earthquake when Chileans, panicked, stocked up on everything from toilet tissue to milk to their favorite wine. In the end, everyone seemed to survive the unusual 3-day supermarket closing, and data now seem to show that rather than losing money due to the forced 3-day closing, large supermarkets actually increased their business for the period over the prior year.
What I observed over the four-day period of the “18” this year was a moment when the country took a well-timed and much-needed collective sigh of relief. Tens of thousands of now more urban Chileans were able to escape the cities to spend the holiday in the country with family and friends in celebration of their rural roots. Much like the 4th of July celebration in the US, Chileans celebrate their national holiday with a focus on family activities, civic participation and outward expressions of national pride.
National pride, seriously eroded away over the period of great internal political, social, and economic struggle in Chile from 1970 to 1989, has been on the rebound over the past twenty years. Two traditional expressions of this national pride that are slowly returning to the positive side of public opinion are the annual military parade held on the 19th of September, and the naval parade held this year on September 20th in the Bay of Valparaiso. I tend not to spend much time watching military parades anywhere, including Chile, but this year I caught a bit of both of them on television. There were of course the normal waves of Chilean forces and equipment in the military parade in Parque O’Higgins, and a long procession of Chilean naval ships in the parade on the next day off the coast of Valparaiso, including the USS Jarrett and several other foreign warships. The President proudly reviewed the naval parade from the deck of the Esmeralda, Chile’s famous (and infamous) emblematic “tall ship” now used as a training vessel for cadets but also used as a prison for political prisoners during and shortly after the coup that placed General Pinochet in charge of Chile in 1973. The Esmeralda seems to be outliving its more disreputable role during that period and returning to its rightful position of nautical pride for Chileans as it flies the Chilean flag throughout the world.
As President Pinera saluted the passing ships, you couldn’t avoid noticing the satisfaction on the faces of the Defense Minister and his wife, who stood alongside the President not only on the Esmeralda that day but also the day before in the military parade. This is an interesting side story, for two reasons. The first is that the minister was actually an active member of the opposition, a militant in the Christian Democrat party. He had supported Pinera’s opponent, Frei, although he clearly was uncomfortable with the leftward movement of the “Concertacion” coalition. He also had served as Minister of Defense in the earlier Lagos administration (prior to Bachelet), replacing Bachelet in that position when she left the post to run successfully for President. At the outset of his term, President Pinera tried to attract leaders from the opposition parties into his government. The only one to accept was the new Minister of Defense, Jaime Ravinet. He was a logical choice, but his “defection” resulted in his separation from the Christian Democrat party. Unfortunately partisan gestures in Chilean politics seem to increasingly earn the same fate as in the U.S. The second side story of personal interest is that the Minister’s wife, Ximena, way back in both of our lives, was my secretary in the Peace Corps office in Santiago. Seeing her standing on the deck of the Esmeralda, next to the president of Chile, in this very special Bicentennial celebration reminded me of how far she, and Chile, have gone since those days we worked together in the modest Peace Corps Office on the small, tree-lined Galvarino Gallardo street in Santiago.
As I watched these two military events, a small detail caught my attention: the inclusion in each of these Bicentennial parades of civilians. Maybe this has happened in the past, I don’t know for sure. But I noted that in the military parade, the troops were followed by representatives of what I will call the “people’s armies”: not gun-toting reserves or para-military groups, but rather a street vendor proudly pushing his cart on wheels along the parade route, a street cleaner with his broom proudly marching along pushing his trash can on wheels, and a “manicero” (peanut vendor) with his typical boat-shaped wagon so common in the streets of Chile’s cities and towns. There may have been others, but those are the ones I remember. The next day this image of civic participation was reinforced when behind the naval ships which passed by in Valparaiso’s naval procession, there were more than 300 tug boats, fishing boats, Polynesian canoes, and private sail boats, a vivid expression of welcome civic inclusion. Is it just wishful thinking to believe that these are the “armies” Chile will be investing in and looking to in the future to develop Chile: the armies of simple, hardworking Chileans doing their jobs and raising healthy, educated children?
Each night of this Bicentennial week the Presidential Palace, the “Moneda”, provided the façade, the same façade so shockingly destroyed by rockets on September 11 in 1973, for a magnificent light show presented as an expression of hope and encouragement. Each night hundreds of thousands of citizens from all walks of life jammed into the squares and streets surrounding the “Moneda” to enjoy the show, and tens of thousands more congregated peacefully into parks throughout the country to cheer fireworks displays featuring the blue, red and white of the Chilean flag. By most accounts, mine included, Chileans seemed to have had a very happy four-day respite from their collective pressures and problems, and as has become a trait of this society, the next day, bright and early, they got up, sent their kids off to school, and went off to work. “Viva Chile!”
Written in Leesburg, Virginia on October 30, 2010.