Our annual arrival at Chile’s main international airport in Pudahuel, on the outskirts of Santiago, after all these years has become pretty routine. The efficient document revision in the immigration hall, purchase of two large bottles of single malt scotch in the duty free shop, the chaotic scramble for luggage, the onerous check for plant and animal material in the customs lines (Chileans are rightfully concerned that introduced pests not be released into their economically important but ecologically vulnerable fruit orchards and vineyards), and then out into the mass of expectant friends and relatives. Ximena’s uncle Miguel awaits at the edge of this crowd, having driven our car to the airport to retrieve us and our luggage for the 20 minute ride to our apartment in the relatively central, residential neighborhood of Providencia. There is something very special about the morning air in the Chilean central valley that never fails to confirm that we have finally reached our destination more than 20 hours after departing cold, cloudy Leesburg, Virginia. That all so welcoming combination of dry country air laced with diesel exhaust and whiffs of the Mapocho River can mean only one thing. Ahhh….Home again!
I am reminded how predictable life is in Chile…except for the earthquakes, of course, that they still have not figured out how to predict. Well, actually, they know that every couple of days there will be a tremor, and once or twice a month a fairly good shaking. We wonder when we will feel the first one. Miguel has warmed up some cheese empanadas for us, so we have them for lunch. Right away, though, we must get out in the bustling Santiago streets to begin the tasks required to get settled into our apartment (this time for a welcome three months) while staying connected to the outside world. First stop is the cell phone offices of Intel PCS to activate our Chilean phones. Modern offices employing an army of young, attentive, smiling technicians and salespeople work their magic to reactivate my phone that had been dormant for 9 months and change Ximena’s phone plan to a more “economical” one. “No problem” and a warm smile accompany every question we have, and we soon depart with firm assurances that our phones will start operating within the hour. Next, to the cable and internet people at VTR, to arrange for those connections we now find we cannot live without. No long wait, just some paperwork, and an appointment for the service to be connected in our apartment the following day, a Saturday. I am tempted to think that the amazingly prompt service for these essentials here in Chile is due to the fact that they have real people available in efficient offices, who deal with you face to face. So, by the end of the first day, we had everything arranged. (A note: our internet and cable connections were done as promised the next day, but it was three days, many phone calls, and the purchase of another phone before the smiling, “no problem” folks at Intel PCS were able to get me connected. I am tempted to think that the problems we encountered getting the phone connected is due to the fact that they have real people dealing with…..!)
Next, a quick trip to the Jumbo supermarket to pick up the essentials for our first day or two: a couple of bottles of Sauvignon blanc, a bottle of Artesanos de Cochiguaz pisco, some small de Pica lemons (you can see where this is leading), some fresh bead (those flat tasty hallullas), a couple of bottles of sparkling Cachantun mineral water , a chunk of Chanco cheese, a whole salami, and a couple of nice red tomatoes, the kind that actually smell like tomatoes. The Jumbo supermarket is a worthy destination in its own right due to the fantastic array of fresh and prepared foods Chile is so efficient at producing, packaging, and marketing. A stop is always required at the little raw seafood bar located right in the middle of everything, where ceviche made from fresh Chilean corvina and individual portions of raw clams, mussels, and snails are served up with lots of lemon, cilantro or parsley, and cold white wine, mostly to men waiting for their spouses to shop.
Finally back home, exhausted, I settle in for a glass of cold white wine (Correct! Another glass of cold white wine) and a chance to peruse the local newspaper to see what is going on. I have come to believe that one of the reasons I so enjoy the time I spend in Chile, away from the US, is that the political discourse here, especially recently, seems so different. Or maybe it is that I can observe the Chilean show with a bit more distance than I can in the US. Whatever, I seem to be less cynical about things here, even optimistic sometimes.
To get a good feel for the issues of the day, and to begin to catch up on some of my favorite themes (earthquake reconstruction, seafood, wines), I read completely through a copy of La Tercera which Miguel has left for me, El Mercurio which I purchased at the Jumbo, and La Segunda which I bought from a street vendor on my way back to the apartment from the Jumbo. I have always preferred to read the morning newspaper, El Mercurio, although all through the early years of my involvement with Chile my leftist friends would chastise my choice because El Mercurio is owned by one of the most conservative families in Chile and because “El Mercurio miente!!” (An accusation that the newspaper was filled with lies, which appeared on the public walls of Santiago all through the 1960s and 70s). I read El Mercurio for many reasons, one of which is NOT agreement with their editorial inclination. Miguel tries to convince me to read La Tercera, claiming it is better, but I read that one only when he gives me his. Then in the afternoon I will often read La Segunda, a more sensationalist, simpler exposure of the major events of the day that the morning papers were too early to include. I have never figured out why La Tercera (“the third”) comes out every day before La Segunda (“the Second”), but nobody else seems to be concerned about that.
So, what’s going on in Chile, in this second week of the New Year 2012?
The political scene is captured by intentions to reform the educational, electoral, and tax systems. In education the issues that attract attention are whether or not to permit a “for profit” segment of the sector, how to finance the public institutions, what to do with the municipal-managed primary and secondary schools, and how to certify the quality of private educational institutions, among other issues. What is really at play, it seems to me, is how to provide the type of education needed at all levels to take Chile to the next level of development. Education issues bring Chilean students into the streets regularly, and this past year was full of student marches, school takeovers, and strikes. Education sector reform projects abound, but for now, everyone is on vacatiion.
Chile elects its Executive and Legislative leaders through a “bi-nominal” system. This is a system which since it was adopted during the Pinochet era, has limited the expansion of political parties and frustrated the ability of smaller political entities to compete for a place at the table. The system has some positive attributes, like producing political stability as long as everyone goes along with the system. To the extent that this limits participation, most analysts agree the system is not very democratic. At first blush, it appears many, but not all, want the system changed.
Tax reform is on the table. Does Chile need to collect more taxes or does the collection have to be done in a more equitable way? This may sound very similar to what is going on in the US, but there seems to be one big difference. There is not a clamor amongst the political class, right or left, to drastically reduce taxes. Not that Chileans like to pay taxes, and they are as adept at avoiding them as anyone else, but they do seem to ascribe to the idea that there are many services society needs from its government. Of course they want an efficient and less corrupt public sector, but they seem to want a public sector.
On all these issues, the President and the opposition are in a much more civil discussion about options than is the case in the US. The governing and opposition parties in Chile appear to me to be striving to reach compromises (at least on the surface); what a difference from the US where compromise is seen as failure. In the context of this discussion, ex-president of Chile Ricardo Lagos, passing through Santiago recently as he promotes his new book “Southern Tiger: Chile’s Fight for a Peaceful and Democratic future”, publicly challenged a more conservative politician to think seriously about what kind of country Chile should be, “…one like Japan or Scandinavia, or one like the United States or Portugal that have the worst distribution of income and the worst social indicators…?” Listen up, Gringos.
Chile’s position as a new member of the group of “developed” countries, the OECD, has created an interesting shift in perspective as to how Chileans and others see Chile and measure its successes. Before entering the OECD in 2010, Chile was measured and graded as a member of the “underdeveloped” world, and its recent economic, social, and political accomplishments led to Chile being very favorably compared to the rest of that group of “poor” countries, especially their Latin American neighbors, placing near the top on most lists of important economic and social indicators. But now, Chile is more often compared to the other OECD countries, so is often at the lower end of the group. This is forcing a change in the attitude of how Chile and Chileans feel about themselves. Rather than being considered on the top of the heap, they are now more often appearing towards the bottom, but of a much more developed group of countries. This is not bad. Regularly, comparisons appear in the press, and Chileans who believe they are doing very well are forced to reconsider in some cases. At the same time, comparisons with the most developed countries also show Chileans the areas where they have really done well on a global basis, and where they have much more work to do. To this point, my first reading of issues reveals mostly good news, that the World Bank projects Chile’s economy to grow around 4% in 2012 (compare that to US and EU realities) and that the country has US$ 60 billion in reserves to confront any liquidity problems that might arise during 2012 (not bad for a GNP of $US 220 billion).
Chile’s success over the past several decades in creating an “emerging economy”, and its entry into the OECD group has resulted in the country becoming more important in global and hemispheric activities. Chile increasingly attracts a high number of important visitors to Santiago. On just the first day of our visit, the newspapers announced high-level visits by the US Secretary of the Navy who declared that “The US and Chile will work together as partners in the Pacific arena”, The Director of the US National Science Foundation who visited the astronomical installations in the north of Chile and characterized Chile as a “strategic partner” of the US, and Nobel prize winner in economics from the US, Thomas Sargent, in Chile on KPMG’s nickel to meet with President Pinera and present several public speeches on macroeconomics.
But while Chile receives, it also gives. Chileans present in high levels internationally are watched closely by the local press. Rumors are flying that past President of Chile Michelle Bachelet might be planning a run at the Secretary General of the UN position when it becomes vacant in 2017. From her position as head of the UN Women organization in New York, she is operating on The Big Stage, where her accomplishments and those of Chile over the recent past are visible and quite highly appreciated.
Chile is very dependent on its natural resources, starting with the mineral riches (copper and molybdenum, the sale of which keeps the US$ to Chilean Peso exchange rate much too low for my wishes), but also agriculture, fisheries, hydrological and forestry resources throughout the 4,300 kilometer length of the country. On this subject, the newspaper brings some bad news. A recent spate of forest fires affected more than 16,000 hectares in the area of the unique Torres del Paine National Park and several private properties throughout the Araucania region. All seem to have been caused by humans, the prior accidental but the latter possibly intentional, causing an increase in the temperature around the issues of Mapuche dissatisfaction and violence in the region. But there is also some good news in today’s paper. The “erizo rojo” (a sea urchin historically part of the Chilean diet and seafood export trade) will be repopulated in 10 bays in the 4th region. A new 24,000 hectare Coastal Alerce National Park, to be inaugurated before the end of January 2012, will attempt to protect important endangered plant and animal species like the alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides), a type of redwood, and the pudu, a small Chilean deer.
One of my main interests over the past two years, since being an unintentional witness at the epicenter of the February 27, 2010, earthquake and tsunami,(please look back at the postings in this blog in 2010) is the reconstruction of the areas affected by this terrible natural disaster. So I scour the Santiago papers for news and stories that reveal the state of play. An important data point in tracking the progress being made at this point two years out from the event is the provision of new (not temporary) homes. The target set by the Pinera administration was to build or repair 220,000 homes by 2014. At the end of 2012, around 70,000 were finished. Having now reached the level of about 4,000 homes built or repaired per month, special efforts must be made to speed up the approval and delivery of subsidies.
One project I have been watching is close to termination, and I must admit to having been quite skeptical a year ago about its viability. When the tsunami wiped out several fishing villages along the coast of central Chile in the Maule Province, Antofagasta Mining, located in northern Chile well away from the affected area, in an expression of solidarity to their brother fishermen contracted with the Office of Architects to design and build new installations in several of these villages, to help the fishermen return to their livelihood. Much to my surprise, and great pleasure, El Mercurio reported the day we arrived (How did they know I would be wondering especially about this project?) that the new community buildings designed for six fishing villages in the Maule Province most affected by the Tsunami two years ago is nearing completion. I had seen the one in Loanco nearing completion early last year and reported on it in an earlier posting on this blog, but this El Mercurio report mentioned the creation of a Fishing Village Route tourists can now enjoy (Ruta de las Caletas) . So, as soon as my reliable travelling companion Flick gets to Chile in February, we will add the Ruta de las Caletas to the various Rutas del vino and the Ruta Forestal to our list of ways to see Chile, and check them out. Fortunately for us, geographically they almost overlap. But exploring these “rutas” is not an easy task; each requires a certain amount of unique preparation and appropriate frame of mind to fully enjoy.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. El Mercurio also reported this week that US beef is on sale at the main supermarkets of Chile now, with short ribs selling for about $US 4.00 per pound, and there is a new Peruvian restaurant in Santiago attracting a lot of attention, named “Del Carajo!”
I will start tomorrow to gather more details about all these topics so I can pass them on to you. I believe I will start with “Del Carajo”, and go from there (chances are in 3 months’ time I will end up somewhere with the same name).
Posted on January 19, 2012, in Santiago, Chile