The Chilean Way
October 20, 2010
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Washington Post Writers Group
WASHINGTON—The rescue of the 33 Chilean miners is more proof that doing things right is no longer the preserve of fully developed countries. It may even tell us that the ability to get things right has shifted from the developed world to what used to be called the “periphery” countries.
For the last two decades, Japan has been mired in stagnation. Europe’s socioeconomic model is undergoing a crisis of which every day brings eerie headlines. And the United States was recently the epicenter of a financial and economic earthquake whose aftershocks reverberate the world over. Symbolizing what some think (quite prematurely) is the irreversible decline of the West, the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill earlier this year was the kind of thing one would expect from the Third World.
Contrast all this with Chile’s performance in the face of the near-tragedy at the San Jose mine in the Atacama desert. It is hard to find anything that was not done right (apart from the accident itself, which was probably made worse by the company’s poor safety standards).
As Arturo Fontaine, a well-known Chilean man of letters, has written: “Down there, with almost no hope, these 33 miners spontaneously built an organization. They freely generated a method of collective decision-making and were able to control their instincts and appetites, and use their minds to the benefit of each and every one of them.”
Up on the surface, President Sebastian Pinera was doing the opposite of what protectionist nationalism would have dictated. Chile’s global antennas were immediately put to work. Corporations from different countries—Samsung of Korea, Center Rock and Cupron of the United States, for example—provided all sorts of technology that Chile put to efficient use. No anti-imperialist complex led Chileans to reject Japanese fiber-optic communications cable or a U.S.-made drill rig, or even NASA collaboration with the Chilean navy in building Phoenix 2, the rescue capsule that will soon go on a tour of the world.
Did all this international participation make the rescue any less “Chilean”? Did the citizens of that country feel ashamed that they had not designed, built and marketed the various pieces of technology? No, they felt that if they were able to muster world resources quickly and efficiently, and to rise to the occasion with all those elements, their country’s stature would be enhanced.
President Pinera put it quite aptly as soon as everybody was out of the mineshaft when he said, “We did it the Chilean Way,” a phrase that other heads of state have since repeated. Therein lies one big lesson for underdeveloped countries still paralyzed by the nationalist complex: the less inward-looking a country is, the more successful it can be—and the prouder its patriotic citizens can be of its achievements.
It is not by chance that this lesson in doing things right has come from Chile. Though it has become all too common to identify the emerging world with the likes of China or Brazil, we forget that there are smaller, less influential nations where political and economic freedom have gone much further. Chile, where Nobel Peace laureates are not in jail, as in China, and where, unlike Brazil, politics are not dysfunctional because the bureaucratic machinery of the state has gone through several reforms, is the kind of example that should be cited more often when speaking of rising nations.
There is something at once hopeful and disturbing in the fact that “doing things right” seems to be shifting to emerging nations. For all the joy with which the world has celebrated the rescue and the admiration that is being showered on Chile, we are reminded that the leading countries have lost their touch. They may not be in the irreversible decline that some predict (perhaps with a dose of wishful thinking) but there is little question that the United States, Europe and Japan are in deep need of soul-searching—of asking themselves exactly how and when they lost sight of the fact that getting it right is an attitude that needs to be renewed with each generation. Perhaps the extraordinary achievements coming out of the emerging world will help trigger that process.
Sorry, but the thought that 33 humble miners from the end of the world could help the leading nations rediscover themselves is just irresistible.
Alvaro Vargas Llosais Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His weekly column is syndicated worldwide by the Washington Post Writers Group, and his Independent Institute books include Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.
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