A great year for Dave’s Chile
Dave’s Chile blog had a big time in 2014; you could even say it was transformative.
At the end of 2013, and during the first three months of 2014, Dave’s Chile followed the campaign and election of the new president of Chile, Michele Bachelet. We reported that she was beginning her term with a strong wind at her back due to the impressive showing at the polls that she and her followers read as a clear mandate for her aggressive and comprehensive set of reforms. Since then she has struggled to keep her coalition together in support of her legislative packages. She began with the tax reform package followed by broad education sector legislation and labor reform. She is attempting wide sweeping reforms, most of which she promised in general terms during her campaign as means to address head-on the high degree of inequality of wealth, income and opportunity in Chile. Combating inequality has become her overriding mantra, and most Chileans support her in that.
However, her proposals are suffering in the hands of her cabinet who have had difficulties in developing coherent legislation and convincing the public of the net benefits of the proposals. As they push the reform packages through congress they are having to modify quite significantly parts of the proposals. Myriad pressure groups are boring in on her proposals. Even within her coalition, which runs the gamut from the Communists to the Christian Democrats, there are difficult differences to bridge, so while she did get her tax reform package through, it was softened considerably as a result of the pressures mostly from private enterprise associations and the right wing legislators who do their bidding. But, her tax reforms will, in fact, raise taxes on the business sector, lower taxes for most individuals, and raise more revenue to pay for her keystone education sector reform. The difficulties Bachelet is having with the reform process are not surprising; they reflect a changed, or changing, political environment in Chile. After twenty years of “transition” governments led by the center-left Concertación coalition, and the recent four years of the center-right Piñera government, Chilean society, broadly, has become anxious to participate in the political process after being denied that basic right for years. A generational change is influencing this dynamic. The pervasive reticence to challenge authority, a byproduct of the dictatorship, is waning as the generation of Chileans that lived through the dictatorship reluctantly relinquishes the public discourse to their children. This younger generation is much more apt to protest openly what they see as serious failures of public policy, especially crass inequality most notably in the educational system they see as unfair, low quality, and too expensive, and in the political system, a system still defined by electoral and legislative constraints embedded in Chile’s constitution crafted during the dictatorship. Driven by their optimistic view that they can, in fact, force change on a historically conservative society reluctant to change, they are willing to take their case to the “public plaza” of choice, “the street”. They demonstrate their discontent more openly than, for example, we in the United States where, as one New York Times commentator recently noted, “there is no coherent opposition to the oligarchic manipulation in just about every aspect of American life”. While Chileans are mobilizing and working hard to correct the most negative, some would say undemocratic, aspects of their political system, we in the US appear numb to the serious socio-economic inequities developing because of our “bought and paid for dysfunctional Congress that depends on gerrymandered congressional districts to ensure little electoral competition”.
The discussion in Chile has uncovered a nostalgic yearning for the socialistic ideals Salvador Allende embodied in the 1960s and early 1970s (although not much interest in reformulating the Unidad Popular coalition that coalesced around him and ultimately contributed to his demise), and an increase in guilt-induced desires to erase all vestiges of the Pinochet dictatorship. But if this is true, it is only part of the story. It is also true that a large segment of the population has benefited from the neo-liberal economic model devised by the dictatorship and left in large part intact since then in spite of the different political profiles of the five post-dictatorship administrations. Many are convinced that economic growth, free enterprise, and greater participation in global trade creates new opportunities and jobs, and most Chileans want the growth trend, now experiencing a slowdown, to continue in Chile. Suffice it to say that over the year this increasingly contentious environment had the president maintaining a balancing act between those who want to move faster with more drastic change, and those who want slower, gradual modifications in public policies. It will be her ability to lead disparate groups to a wide enough consensus over her reform proposals that they will endure and actually result in the medium and long term a more equitable sharing of political decision making and the country’s wealth.
Odds are that president Bachelet will get a watered down educational reform package passed in 2015, but it probably won’t end the struggle over the way education is organized, funded, and provided at all levels in Chile. As it turns out, her tax reform does not provide enough funding for the entire educational reform package she initially wanted, but it will be a start, and if she is able to breathe life back into the primary and secondary public education system she will have accomplished a lot. There will be a battle over a new labor law which will probably also pass in some form but not before revealing the deep fissures in Chilean society between labor and business. Then an important discussion must begin on how to recreate the Chilean constitution so that it provides a more representative political process, better protects and distributes the benefits of Chile’s natural resources of water, land, forests, and fisheries, and once and for all strengthens the rule of law in a way that earns the respect of all Chileans; this is not the case today. Dave’s Chile will occasionally comment throughout 2015 on how president Bachelet is doing; the comparisons between current political discourse in Chile and the US are fascinating. At times it looks like maybe Obama and Bachelet should trade places for a couple of weeks. Both might come out greatly enlightened, and both countries might really benefit. Oh well.
In a more adventurous vein, Dave’s Chile reported on the realization of a dream trip to the southern end of the Carretera Austral with three Pedreros brothers, Joaquín, Claudio, and Gonzalo, a trip made with the main objective of driving from Puerto Montt to the Village of Villa O’HIggins, a trip of about 1,200 kilometers through some of the most spectacular country on the globe. This road continues to be improved, so even now, a year after our trip, several parts are now paved whereas they were loose gravel or dirt when we drove through. As more commercial and tourist vehicles travel the road, more facilities are established, new places to eat and sleep, places to fish the ice blue waters of lakes and rivers, and natural preserves, public and private, in which to experience what pristine native forest still exists in Chile. Admittedly, we just rushed through some very special places along the way; they all require several days to enjoy fully. To appreciate the area well, the trip should be slowed down from the racing speed we maintained on our journey, and more quality time should be spent hiking in the private reserve of Pumalín Park, observing Chaitén as it recovers from the volcanic eruption, soaking in the hot springs at Puyuhuapi, camping on the shores of magnificant General Carrera Lake, boating to the marble cathedral, exploring the wooden walkways of Caleta Tortel, and of course viewing up close several of the most magnificent glaciers in southern Chile from Villa O’higgins. The large part of Patagonia being opened up by the Carretera Austral and feeder roads that go deep into the forests, alongside amazing fjords, and through mountain passes that now allow travel into and back from Argentina begs a serious development plan for the whole region. The Chilean government must move now to protect the natural environment that attracts visitors, and investors to the area, while facilitating non-destructive access into this same area by an increasing number of settlers and visitors. That is a big order, and so far, it does not appear to be on the present government’s priority list of things to do.
Of course Dave’s Chile visited Dichato again (for the third time) to monitor its recovery from the 2010 earthquake/tsunami disaster. We reported an impressive rebuilding of homes, businesses, and the beautiful in-town beach and neighboring fishing villages along the coast. We were fortunate to get a closeup look at the nascent seafood farming begun by local artisan fishermen and women, and reported on the valient efforts of one enterprising woman, Jessica, who is farming mussels in Coliumo Bay and leading an effort to expand this enterprise through a local grouping of artisan fishermen and women, Granjeros del Mar. This year Dave’s Chile will try to get back again to Dichato and we promise to report on the progress being made in socio-economic organization and community development to provide high quality services to visitors and vacationers to this lovely seaside village.
We reported on a visit to the colorful exhibit held annually in Santiago featuring Chile’s highest quality traditional artisans. The colorful weavings using natural dyes, classic pottery including the three-legged pig from Pomaire, exquisite jewelry hammered out of copper and featuring lapis lazuli stones, the naive embroideries depicting local scenes and political statements, popularized during the dictatorship, and others all produce a nostalgia for times past in a less rushed and more personable Chile.
We spent several days with an exciting Mapuche family near Nueva Imperial who are committed to an impressive program to instill in Mapuche boys and girls an understanding and deep pride for their culture and language. Onesima Riquelme, a student at Universidad Andres Bello devised an award winning project, Pichi Newen, for which she received an award in 2014 in the —- program, and subsequently was named as one of Chile’s 100 leading young leaders. Onesima, her mother, her sons, and her uncle, their leader, or Lonko, joined by friends who volunteer their time, all collaborate to bring cultural growth to young Mapuche children through the arts of dance, music, poetry, and painting. This year will be important for the sustainability of the Pichi Newen program, so Dave’s Chile will be following closely the progress of this home-grown project. An approach to “crowd funding” to obtain financial support to build facilities for workshops for the Pichi Newen activities is in the works, so Dave’s Chile readers can expect to receive in the near future a convincing pitch to invest in this very worthy project in the Araucanía region of Chile.
On Barros Luco Day, we reminded those who have ever visited Chile how delicious and wonderfully Chilean a barros luco is, and some of the history behind that sandwich. There are probably several other truly Chilean sandwiches that people remember who are familiar with Chile. One is the lomito, shaved pork on a hamburger-like bun (called pan de frica, or fricandela), with chopped tomato or mashed avocado, and often a smothering of mayonnaise. In more rural areas, the sandwich of arrollado del huaso is common, a rolled blend of pieces of beef with chunks of gristle, a bit of fat, and maybe pieces of carrot, sliced like a big sausage and served on a bun with salsa de ají, that typically Chilean red pepper sauce which is more flavor than heat. But an agressive intruder on the sandwich scene in Chile is the hot dog, vienesa, perro caliente, salchicha, or pancho (Argentine name, really, not very Chilean). The array of these convenient and not so healthy bun fillers in Chilean supermarkets is amazing, surpassed only by the myriad ways Chileans have figured out how to eat them. The Dave’s Chile detour into the theme of sandwiches, because of Barros Luco Day, has opened the door to a new series of investigations into the Chilean sandwich, which will focus next on the ubiquitous Chilean hot dog. Stay tuned for that in 2015.
We got up close to Gabriela Mistral’s award-winning poetry through the publication of an English-Spanish version of her landmark work, Desolación. Dave’s Chile attended the launching of this beautiful book at the Embassy of Chile in Washington, DC, and we had the good fortune to meet one of the translators, Liliana Baltra. We reported how informative and entertaining this book is, of course because English speakers can now enjoy Gabriela Mistral’s poetry for which she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945, but also because the introduction and the afterword sections of this book are fabulously informative. Pablo Neruda may reflect the Chilean spirit but Gabriela Mistral’s writing reveals, carefully, the somewhat somber, enigmatic Chilean heart.
The fortunate meeting up of Dave’s Chile blog with the owner and editor of the Santiago-based, on-line English language news service, “I Love Chile”, ended in a mechanical upgrade of the blog itself, now published through WordPress instead of blogspot, and an advantageous expansion of the readership to now include “I Love Chile” readers, who are mostly English speakers who live, work, or are just passing through Chile. This association with “I Love Chile” precipitated a review of the 64 postings published on Dave’s Chile starting in 2010 with the author’s experience with the earthquake and tsunami in south central Chile. We upgraded the visual aspects of the blog and made the pictures larger, knowing that some of our readers really only look at the pictures (disappointing, to be sure, but true). This review led to the creation in “I Love Chile” of a regular feature column, entitled, of course, Dave’s Chile. During 2014, we started to republish prior stories from the Dave’s Chile blog, editing them and in many cases bringing the information more up to date. In this format we presented a three part series extolling the pleasures, ins and outs of the traditional 18 de Septiembre celebration, a two part review of mussels (a favorite topic and food of this blog), and the six part travel series with a day-by-day description of driving from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins at the southern end of this new and unfinished road. The next to last posting on Dave’s Chile blog in 2014 (republished in “I Love Chile”) is part one of a Maule series, focused on Loanco, that tiny fishing village destroyed in February of 2010 and which figures regularly in this blog. As soon as we return to Chile, in late January 2015, we will be heading to Maule to complete the Maule series with updates on Chanco, Pelluhue, and Curanipe. While we hope to document and report to you how these small coastal towns have recovered from the terrible disaster that befell them five years ago in 2010.
We provided two news articles for “I Love Chile”, not published in Daves Chile blog, one describing a speech newly elected President Michelle Bachelet made at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and the other a report of a technical tour foresters from Oregon made to Chile’s forest industry. Forestry in Chile requires the attention of Dave’s Chile, not just because it is what brought the author to Chile for the first time in 1967, but also because this is one of the leading sectors in Chile’s participation in the globalized economy, bringing export revenue and jobs to the country. It is, however, a sector complicated by thorny issues of environmental impact, usurpation of traditionally indigenous people’s lands, and economic concentration of plantation forestry, and protection and wise use of the still extensive native forest. Dave’s Chile will delve into these issues in 2015.
This posting will be the last in 2014. It will not be republished in I Love Chile, for it is being written for the loyal readers of this blog who have followed along for the almost five years we have been writing. As usual, we have big plans for 2015. Surely there will be more to say about mussels, especially the “Granjeros del Mar” project in Coliumo Bay. The Pichi Newen initiative in Nueva Imperial is in an uphill battle to expand and become sustainable, so we will follow their valient effort and report how they are doing. I have been asked many times if I will write something more substantive on Chilean wine. I would love to, but I am afraid I am caught up in the “researcher’s dilemma”, that of always wanting to carry out just a bit more field “research” before putting fingers to the keyboard. Any report on Chilean wine will be a long time in coming, I am afraid, for it’s almost impossible to write when those fingers are wrapped around a bottle of 2010 Don Melchor, or even a Black box of Chilean Cabernet sauvignon. Have a happy start to the new year, 2015, and if you promise to keep reading, I’ll keep writing. Your comments on the blog or in personal communications are greatly appreciated. Thank you all for your friendship.
Posted on December 30, 2014, in Leesburg, Virginia.