The Great South American Hope

Nov 04, 2002 03:00 AM EST

We're spotlighting Chile in this special issue for five reasons. First, South America in recent years has not received much attention from the U.S. press, including WORLD. We hear reports about Asia's population, Europe's history, and Africa's famines. Children know something about Australia because of The Crocodile Hunter and North America because it's home. But South America, neither success nor disaster, gets little journalistic respect.

Second, Chile is worth a particular look because it's the one major country in South America that is stable. Oil-rich Venezuela is divided between those who love its Marxist would-be dictator, Hugo Chavez, and those who hope to leave him in the dust. Inflation-poor Argentina is living through financial chaos in which some have lost their lives' savings and others their jobs. Big Brazil's Oct. 27 election handed power to leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose policies are likely to lead to increased poverty. Chileans, though, have reduced taxes and tariffs and enjoyed economic progress. Now that Chile has cut poverty from 45 percent to 21 percent, the average Chilean—in a reversal from the past—is 40 percent richer than the average Argentine.

Third, Chile has much to teach the United States. In Washington, the legislative part of President Bush's faith-based initiative remains stalled in Congress, and leading pundits wax sarcastic about compassionate conservatism. But Chilean parents now can choose whether to send their children to municipal schools or private ones by using an equivalent of vouchers, and workers do not need to rely on officials' promises because they control their own retirement accounts.

Fourth, free-trade-minded Chile is likely to become very soon the first beneficiary of the Bush administration's attempt to expand, in essence, NAFTA to South America. During the 1990s, Chile's exports grew at an annual rate of more than 9 percent, and the result is that Chileans earned a per capita average of almost $1,500 from exports last year. (The average Argentine made only $875.) U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says the Bush administration will move quickly to wrap up a trade pact with Chile. In this country we'll probably see lower prices on grapes, lumber, and salmon from Chile. Chileans will probably import from us more tractors, grain, and vegetable oil.

Fifth, particularly as the Christmas season approaches we pray that the wounds of many nations will be healed—and Chile shows what God can do in a country whose arteries were severed. Three decades ago Chile was hemorrhaging politically and culturally, but Chileans—perhaps because they saw the results of attempts to increase cross-class antagonism—have moved toward class and religious reconciliation.

Every South American country needs such reconciliation, and many leaders realize that forced redistribution schemes end up hurting rather than helping the poor. Chile over the past 25 years has been the continent's leader in developing nongovernmental ways to help the poor, although Chile's current government has slowed down progress in this area. Many Chileans are also emphasizing the need for a rule of law with protection for private property and reduction of regulatory burdens.

The burdens of the past, though, have not disappeared. Av. 11 de Septiembre (the Avenue of Sept. 11) is one of Santiago's main streets. The name does not honor U.S. dead but reminds Chileans of their tragedy in the early 1970s, when economic and cultural tension brought to a boil by demagogues led to the killing of several thousand Chileans and could have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Every year thousands of Chileans march on Sept. 11; Chile is probably one country where the 9/11 events in the United States led to less violence. Many Santiago activists who would have thrown punches that day in demonstrations and counter-demonstrations were instead entranced by television pictures of the World Trade Center attacked and destroyed.

Our timeline beginning on p. 48 will give readers a look at political and religious developments over the past 500 years in South America. Now, let's look at Chile's past and present.

By Albert H. Lee