2018: Loose Ends
daveschile.com always ends the year leaving loose ends, lots of loose ends. 2018 was no exception.
Loose ends result from the eclectic, sporadic nature of this blog, and because life produces events and associations that ebb and flow over time. To go back, tie up loose ends left earlier in this blog or further unwrap these abandoned thoughts is akin to reviewing old personal resolutions. So on this New Year’s day 2019, here is a collection of some loose ends rescued from prior postings on this blog, some from this past year, a few from earlier.
This search for loose ends in daveschile.com revealed the fact that 99 postings have appeared in this space over the past eight years. You are reading daveschile.com posting number 100, a significant milestone! It closes the door on 2018 and welcomes 2019 with open arms, bags packed, flights booked, the aging Sonata checked out and gassed up, and Chilean roadways with their restaurants and vineyards awaiting.
A year ago daveschile.com was tracking the very civilized democratic process of transfer from one Chilean president to the next, where for the second time in a row Sebastian Piñera was poised to replace Michelle Bachelet, just like in 2010. (The choice of the modifier “civilized” was chosen for the process in Chile because we had just experienced the presidential election in the US and wanted to make a subtle distinction.) If you have not followed the Chilean election, and want to catch up, tap this description of how we saw the challenges Piñera was facing when he took over the seat a year ago. Our report on the Piñera election left many loose ends, to be sure, so we will continue to report over the next three years of his administration. The major challenges we identified have played out so far more or less as expected. Re-energizing economic growth, that waned while Bachelet enacted tax and labor policies she felt would make Chile more equitable, has been more difficult than Piñera and his supporters pretended it would be. Still, GDP growth is estimated at a respectable 4% for 2018, with 2.7% inflation. Free university education, enacted by Bachelet for a large number of students, is proving more costly and now less popular across society than Bachelet hoped. Piñera is committed to this in some form but he has to find the appropriate funding and selection mechanisms or the initiative will flounder and debilitate higher education in the process. As well, reforms to finance acceptable levels of health care and retirement income, a high priority, is being negotiated by the President and Congress, but it, too, is not quite as simple to resolve as “the street” (mostly student-led marches) suggested when it was forced to the top of the national public policy agenda over the last few years.
The post-election realignment of political parties and forces was precipitated by the effective dissolution of the left coalition that participated in the Bachelet governenment. The far left (Frente Amplio) is generally allergic to the traditional left (Socialists, PPD, Communists) that governed with Bachelet, and vice versa. This loose coalition is made up of a myriad of parties, all led by personalities more intent on self promotion than coalition building, focused for now on medium and long term strategies to “reform Chile away from the neo-liberal system now in place”.
The right wing parties that all supported, and continue to support, Piñera are very much focused on the next presidential election. If they are able to field a winning candidate, It would be the first time in a long time that a candidate of the right is elected to succeed another president from the right; eight years of continual conservative government would be a big deal. It would signal an important maturation of the political space claimed by the right wing parties in Chile. It would also mean that Piñera has figured out that this succession in great part depends upon his easing the way now for other personalities in his coalition to rise to the top, something he has not been inclined or able to do. The idea of a conservative succession to Piñera is interesting in the context of the recent election of the new right wing (ultra?) president in Brazil, making the southern cone of South America that includes Argentina uncharacteristically conservative.
The Chilean Christian Democrats (PDC) continue to float in the political center, still important and representative of core Chilean values, but too weak as a party to turn these qualities into political power in their own right. Party leadership is aging; any resurgence of PDC strength will depend an a thin group of younger politicians, some of whom are deeply rooted in the regions and most of whom are willing to engage with the present government and its supporters in Congress to pass legislation. All organized political parties and politicians have very low public support in Chile, just like most everywhere else.
Piñera has three more years to accomplish what he was elected to do, and the majority opposition legislature is so far not in absolute resistance mode. But it is somewhat hard to tell if Piñera is going to pursue any significant plan pais, a major game changing policy thrust to help move Chile to the next level of socioeconomic development. He has not moved in that direction yet. If he does not, it will not be long before the pendulum begins to swing. His term is a short four years.
Optimistic commentators suggest that important segments of the left may be moving slowly and reluctantly away from their antiquated ideological anti-capitalist positions, and that much of the right may just as slowly and just as reluctantly moving away from their ultra conservative social positions and unquestioning allegiance to Pinochet’s coup and dictatorship. Policies from the left that address individual security issues, and solid programs from the right that are aimed at further reducing poverty and inequality, while expanding the middle class, would be indicators of this purported trend if it is real.
Every year September brings the highs of nationalistic celebration (18th) and the lows of grappling with Chile’s shameful history of dictatorship (11th). September is a month-long via crucis that Chilean society struggles through because here, too, they are forced to deal with loose ends: unfinished social reforms begun in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and deterioration of democratic institutions in the 1970s and 1980s. Every government democratically elected since 1990 (this is the seventh) has slowly and progressively worked to construct a more democratic, developed and equitable society. But the democratic process does tend to be slow, especially if it is done essentially through reform rather than replacement of the existing order, and if legitimate pressures, recriminations, and demands of diverse interest groups and victims are taken into account.
Piñera and Chile dealt with some big events during 2018. The visit of Papa Francisco to Chile and Peru uncovered very loose ends, some decades in the making. The issue of pedophilia in the Catholic Church in Chile presents one huge continuing problem, which the Pope fumbled terribly when he suggested publicly during his visit that the accusations of some of the victims were “nothing more than calumny”. Similar to what is happening on this scandal in the US, the Chilean Church is now facing multiple forced retirements, court cases, and internal struggle, in an overly sensitive environment complicated by the red hot legal issues of gender identity, same sex marriage, and abortion.
Piñera and Chile, in the meantime, are quite active on the international scene. The Chilean President did have his meeting at the Washington White House with the US President (tap for info here), coinciding with his presentation at the UN General Assembly in New York. Trump was complementary to Piñera and Chile, “Chile is a very long and beautiful country”; not a terribly controversial statement nor meeting, business as usual. The only possible loose end from that event in Washington, with some entertainment value, stems from Piñera’s decision to craft a foolish combination of the US and Chilean flags to show, as Piñera sheepishly stated, that “Chile is in the heart of America”.
Fortunately for Piñera, immediately after his visit with President Trump and the embarrassing flag stunt, the determination of the World Court came down in favor of Chile’s defense from Bolivia’s claim regarding access to the Pacific Ocean (see here), and this very welcome news blotted out any whiplash in Chile.
Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet is now in Geneva, Switzerland, appointed High Commissioner of the UN Human Rights Commission, an appointment most fair minded people believe is a very appropriate decision. Chileans are generally proud of that. She will be truly tested, though, when she gets around to using her influence in situations where some of her “friends” are involved, like Venezuela and Nicaragua.
So, we continue with the task of preparing this century posting in daveschile.com. We note that almost a third of the stories herein are related to the people and places affected by the terrible earthquake/tsunami on February 27, 2010. The very first postings on this blog were based on that event. Should daveschile.com eventually morph into a book with the same title, a suggestion made by several loyal readers of this blog (well, at least one), the first chapter would have to be “Earthquake In Chile”, featuring the struggle and perseverance of survivors in Dichato, Pelluhue, Curanipe, Chanco, Loanco and Constitución, coastal towns of the Maule and Bio Bio regions of south central Chile.
About a year ago, as soon as we arrived for our yearly visit to Chile, we visited Dichato, to note again that many positive actions and investments had been made in the town that became notorious for the level of destruction it suffered. We confirmed that many new hotels, stores, restaurants, a very attractive seawall and walkway along the beach the entire length of the Village was attracting tourists like never before. The community development projects supported by Harvard University featuring the work with affected youth led by Pilar del Canto and the sea farming initiatives of Jessica Hidalgo, while still in need of significant investment, are clear signs of real progress in the recovery of the spirit and livelihood of that beautiful coastal town. Pilar and Jessica are the real champions. Tap here to read about them and this visit to Dichato.
We also visited relatives, Joaquin and Veronica, who live in Pelluhue. They work in neighboring Chanco, and regularly enjoy a fresh seafood meal at Maria and Dago’s Las Rocas restaurant in Loanco. We spent a few days with them at the seaside home they now have right on the rocky shore of Pelluhue. I was taken aback by how close this new home is to the edge of the ocean where, precisely eight years ago, a tsunami wiped out most homes along this stretch of the road. Not wanting be so direct as to say “you’re nuts….what are you doing living so close to this unpredictable assassin sea?” I stated, rhetorically, “Just think, Joaco,…eight years have passed since the big quake…”. He responded with calm resignation “Yes, and you know, I feel we are now closer to the next big one than to the last!” The idea that what happened in 2010 could happen again less than a decade from now is truly unsettling (especially since we spent several nights in their front bedroom with a lovely closeup view of the rumbling Pacific ocean). I guess it is possible,but in the meantime, Joaquin, Veronica, and hundreds of Chileans living along this beautiful coast have magnificent views of the sea, sleep every night to the roar of its surf, and enjoy some of the tastiest and freshest seafood the Pacific Ocean has to offer. La voluntad de ser. The will to be.
Joaquin obviously has moved on, turned the page, as they say it these days. I should too, I guess. But the fear on the faces of the folks I stood with in the central plaza in Concepción in the pitch dark early morning hours February 27, 2010, while we all waited for news of the effects of the quake, are still vivid in my mind. I am still haunted by the blank looks of pain and loss directed my way as I, a fortunate one, drove reticently through their totally destroyed neighborhoods as I made my way that day back to my much more comfortable inland destination away from the worst effects of the killer tsunami.
The human spirit is amazing, a deep well of resilient optimism. Maria and Dago’s Las Rocas restaurant in Loanco was totally destroyed, fishermen all lost their boats and diving equipment, their small fishing village was destroyed. To make things worse, the sea changed its coastline at Loanco, such that the fishing boats could no longer pull out of or back up on the beach of Loanco; an alternative cove was found several kilometers up the coast, so the fishing village of Loanco lost its main commercial activity.
But Maria and Dago rebuilt Las Rocas and it flourishes all summer and on weekends with locals and tourists who enjoy the fried sea bass and hake, fish soup, and fresh sea urchins. A new facility for fishermen and their families to store equipment and operate a type of cafeteria, as well as a new coastal walkway provides some degree of protection from future storms for the fishermen and their families who continue to live there, but it seems pretty clear that another event similar to 2010, should Joaquin be right in his prediction, could in their lifetime again wipe out what has been rebuilt in Loanco, and many other coastal villages.
As we go back, and remember, the entire 2010 tragedy is a story of loose ends. The event came and went in just a couple of hours. But it left lives completely scrambled if not ended before their time, homes destroyed needing rebuilding, projects washed away to be abandoned or started again; in short, whole communities were left to gather their loved ones, their thoughts, their few belongings that remained, and continue to make their way. And they did make their way. Many of the more visual wounds from the 2010 tragedy have been healed: The twin cupolas on the church in Cauquenes have been straightened, the churches in Santa Cruz and Constitución have been given face lifts, many of the parks and plazas in the towns throughout central Chile have been refurbished and made whole. Guillermo and Javiera rebuilt and expanded their Hotel Playa el Cable on the coast south of Constitución, a destination well worth the effort to visit. And, La Virgen del Carmen has finally convinced someone that the Festival of the Candelaria in Chanco deserves a church with a roof, so rebuilding the Cathedral appears to be started.
OK, daveschile.com will try to move on from the 2010 tragedy and its loose ends. They are being finally tied up by some very courageous people. But we move just a bit up the road, and a few years in time, to 2017.
Two years ago, we reported about another tragedy, another fateful natural event that swept across the parched hills and valleys of central Chile including the Maule region: unstoppable, extremely destructive wildfires. We focused on Santa Olga, a small town on the road that links the Panamerican highway to the coastal town of Constitución. It was totally destroyed in these fires of 2017, and by the time we visited again in 2018, it was starting to recover. We reported that reconstruction was slow, and that was true. Recovery from this type of disaster is always too slow, especially for the folks waiting for their homes and schools and to be reunited with their neighbors. There was fear that fire season in 2018 would again be terrible, even though to a certain degree the public and private institutions of the forestry sector involved in fire suppression were better prepared. Luckily, the summer of 2018 was not as hot, nor as windy, as the prior year, and there were many fewer fires and much less destruction and loss. But this story surely is not over, just as the story of wild fires is not over in California. In fact, in Chile 2019 fire season is already showing itself to be more like the terrible 2017 than 2018, so we will be picking up this loose end again soon.
Now, a promise, to wrap up this centennial posting: in spite of rumors and some evidence to the contrary, daveschile.com is not tiring, nor retiring. We are aging, yes. We get up slower, eat less (photos deceive), and drink less wine (but higher quality). We write more slowly, but not shorter. We are possibly taking longer between postings than before, but this also is because we are now doing more research on each subject, “deeper dives” as the TV talking heads like to say. To this point, what follows is an early alert to some loose ends we are tempted to pursue: one is fun, one is dark, and one is truly consequential.
Wine production in Chile is going through a period of extensive and intensive re-engineering. There has been an explosion of boutique wineries throughout Chile, expanding further to the north and south, closer to the cooler coast and further into the foothills of the Andes. It’s mind boggling trying to keep up, but so much fun. We have often commented on Chilean wine in our stories, and we certainly enjoy Chilean wine as often as is legal and advisable; it just seems like the time to dig a bit deeper into the theme. We have been learning about this revolution in Chilean wine-making from a couple of young, exciting winemakers who are producing wonderful wines from grapes such as Carignan and Cinsault.
They obtain their grapes from small rain fed vineyards in the Maule region near Cauquenes, and craft their wines in a winery in Pirque, near Santiago.
Also, we have come to know a winemaker from California, who makes wine in Chile near the small town of Pichidegua in the Cachapoal Valley. These young winemakers are the faces of a whole new generation of entrepreneurs who are providing excitement to the wine industry in Chile. This, my friendly readers, is a loose end to be picked up and never let go. This is the fun one.
In the early 1960s, about the time the US Peace Corps opened its program in Chile, a group of Germans began developing a self sustaining rural community in the foothills of the Andes Mountains east of San Javier in the Maule Region. Led by a ex-nazi pedophile, Colonia Dignidad operated in horrendously abusive cult-like fashion as a country within a country. With the Pinochet coup de etat in 1973, the Colonia collaborated with the intelligence service of the dictatorship in its darkest activities of incarceration, torture, and disappearance of political prisoners. Since the return to democracy in Chile in 1990, Colonia Dignidad has evolved to be Villa Baviera in a struggling, controversial attempt to morph into a vacation/tourist attraction.
The mysterious Colonia Dignidad piqued our interest over the years, but only when a visit to Cauquenes this past year forced an overnight in San Javier, a few miles away, did we finally visit the ex-Colonia Dignidad. We shall see if this loose end is worth pursuing again this year. But from what we have learned so far, it is a possibly a very big loose end. This is the dark one.
The loosest of all loose ends in Chile is the state of indigenous people, including and principally the Mapuches. Daveschile.com brushed up against the issues related to the status and conditions of indigenous people in Chile when we met and spent some time with Onesima Riquelme and her family who live near Nueva Imperial, near the agricultural/industrial capital of the Araucania Region. This was in 2014, when she introduced us to the award winning program Pichi Newen designed to help liberate Mapuche children from their fears, embarrassment and shame caused by oppression and prejudice they are subjected to in their lives. While we have communicated with Onesima regularly since that visit in 2014, the current state of affairs in the Araucania region suggests loudly and clearly that it’s time to pick up this loose end. This is the consequential one.
Encouraged and enlightened by all the wonderful people we meet along the way and supportive comments from you fine readers, and pleased to be sending off posting number 100, we will see how many of these loose ends we can tie up, and what new ones we find along the way.
Posted in Leesburg, Virginia January 5, 2019.