A Smattering of Impressions from Chile

(Santiago in the morning)

I have been living in Santiago for about two months and I've learned a great deal about the country. Below are a smattering of impressions and lessons.

Chile as Catholic country. Abortion is still illegal here and divorce was too until only recently. Gay couples do not even have domestic partnership rights. But it's not as Catholic as people think. The elite are Catholic, but "the masses" are not as much. I have not yet met a Chilean under 30 years old who fervently believes in religion. Most go to church to appease their parents. The current president Bachelet is technically agnostic (read: atheist) and she's been separated three times and has three children from two men. I foresee a continued weakening of the church which is good thing inasmuch as it paves the way for more liberal policies on social issues and a more entrepreneurial, free-thinking culture.

Historical legacy. How do you feel about Pinochet? Ask an educated Chilean this question and be prepared for a range of answers. Pinochet's legacy in Chile is complicated and it is hard to find sources who can assess his pros and cons objectively. Older folks sport scars of his brutal military dictatorship. When you personally know someone killed by the dictatorship, you don't much care about economics — Pinochet is evil. Younger people, enjoying the economic success of the past few decades, tend to be more sympathetic to Pinochet, whose free-market economic policies are frequently cited as the cause of today's prosperity. Here's Tyler Cowen's solid analysis of how good Pinochet was, really, for the Chilean economy.

Santiago. It's a top-notch city. My neighborhood, Providencia, is probably my favorite of any neighborhood I've been in, ever. The metro is world-class. Drivers are sane. It has gotten a great deal more cosmopolitan in the last 10 years and as such you can find cuisine and culture from all over. Where Santiago falls short is night life, or so I'm told — to me the night life is plenty good, but there are probably a few less all-night clubs than in Buenos Aires. Santiago is just as beautiful as B.A. and of course it is much safer and less corrupt. Colombians and Mexicans I know call Santiago "boring." It is less chaotic than Mexico City and more predictable than Bogota but it is not boring.

Food. Chileans eat more bread than anyone else in the world. A local told me this and I believe it. One kilo of bread a day. It is hard to get vegetables or decent salad at a cheap restaurant. Chileans have the best mashed potatoes in the world (puré). Peruvian food is the best in the Hemisphere and there are many good Peruvian restaurants in Santiago. Tres leches might be a cliched Latin desert but it is so tasty. It is impossible to buy fresh milk in Chile which is a disaster. Traditional Chileans do not eat breakfast or dinner (other than bread and butter); they eat only a very big lunch. Avocado accompanies everything, including the delicious McPollo Italiano at McDonald's.

Not being in control. Traveling and living abroad requires ceding a lot of control in day-to-day life. Even if you want to exercise control, you can't, because of language problems or cultural barriers. I like to be in control, but I don't mind being forced to go with the flow from time-to-time, especially if it results in greater cultural insight. I'd say a good 60% of the time I do not know what I am ordering at restaurants. Thankfully I eat anything. When in doubt — which is often — I answer questions in Spanish that I do not understand with "No." When someone asks me when I do, I say escritor because it's easier to pronounce than any other word that would be appropriate.

The country is not very diverse. Yet I'm told there are low levels of trust among the people. This is counterintuitive: usually diversity means less trust, homogeneity more trust. While there's probably no safer place in South America in terms of violent crime, petty crime has been on the rise in Chile, and this may engender some of the mutual distrust.

The power of a model. A Chilean soccer trainer is now working for Real Madrid. Before no one would have believed a Chilean could be training an elite European soccer team. Now, with even just one example, they see it to be possible. This is what the country needs in the way of entrepreneurs: models. Examples. Some big exits. In America you can dream of being Steve Jobs or Larry Page or Dave Packard. There are no such entrepreneurial icons here.

Chile is far, far away. I can get to Asia faster than to Chile from San Francisco. Chile is surrounded by the Andes to the east, desert to the north, Antarctica to the south, and ocean to the west. Before air travel the country was fairly isolated (it still is). This might contribute to the country's relatively few immigrants (other than Germans in the south) and general close-mindedness to foreigners. Chileans paint a charitable picture of how isolation built national character: the people who did get here suffered and endured more than usual to arrive in Chile and they are used to working hard and overcoming obstacles.

Sometimes when I meet long-time expats I think about my post Urban Nomadicism. I recently met an American ex-pat who's been here for 15 years or so. I could feel the emptiness of someone without roots. He said he recently visited the U.S. and when he called a tech support number he got transferred to someone in India! Shocked! (By the way, here's an outstanding piece on how hard serous romance is with someone who speaks a different native language.)

The country needs better branding / marketing. Economists know about Chile's economic success, but beyond that the only thing that comes to mind to uninformed Americans I talk to is that Chile's the place with that funky, lanky geographic shape. Buenos Aires is the hipper Southern Cone capital city; Patagonia is not seen as uniquely Chilean, and it's not; the Atacama desert and Easter Island are low-profile; and other than wine there are no famous Chilean exports. (Yes there's salmon and copper and others but people don't know about them.)

Sebastian Piñera: He was elected President a couple weeks ago. It marks the end of 20 years of rule of the concertacion in Chile. Piñera is of the right-wing and made billions in the credit card and airlines industries, and yet strengthening the social safety net and accounting for the lower and middle class figured prominently in his campaign. Likewise, the left-wing candidates did not propose altering the fundamentals of Chile's numerous free trade agreements or its privatized industries. So none of the candidates would have brought major changes to Chile.

Here are two other posts of mine on Chile summarizing lessons and impressions. Here's a good Weekly Standard piece on Piñera's victory.

Exploring Patagonia

Last week my Mom and I spent several days in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. The scenery was spectacular. And there is a rush that comes from being very near the Southern tip of the world.

Within the park you can hike in and around glaciers as well as in lush green mountain areas. Here's a pic of my Mom and I (on the far left) during an all-day hike — we stopped for lunch as a small avalanche rumbled behind us. The rain poured, the wind howled, but hey, it's Patagonia.

It felt pretty similar to Alaska. Patagonia exists in both Chile and Argentina, though I'm told the Chilean side has more diversity. The National Park is a four hour flight south from Santiago, and I recommend a visit for anyone traveling within the Southern Cone.

Inequality and Perceived Social Mobility

The leading presidential candidate in Chile, Sebastian Piñera, has proposed increasing the money the government gives to poor families to pay for school tuition. Like school vouchers in the U.S.

When this issue came up in a recent lecture I attended on Chilean politics, there was audible disapproval from people in the room. A French woman said that such policies create inequality in the education market and lead to greater income inequality in society at large. A Swiss and German nodded vigorously as the French woman spoke.

Europeans tend to focus on inequality. Latin Americans, too. Inequality is one of the top issues being debated right now in the Chilean election season.

Americans, on the other hand, by and large are not very concerned with inequality. Sure, it comes up and people talk about narrowing the gap. But deep down I don't think most policy makers and pundits think it's a core problem in a society. We continue to glorify the rich to a remarkable extent.

Why the contrasting views? It comes down to differing perceptions of how possible it is to go from poor to rich. If you believe there's a high level of social mobility in a society, you're not as bothered by a gap. If you think moving up the ladder is nigh impossible, it is a very big problem indeed, because it means the poor are stuck at the bottom, oftentimes due to rotten luck at birth.

Historically, Latin America has been a place where your last name weighs heavily on your success. "Meritocracy" is not the first word that leaps to mind when thinking about the rich and successful in the region. Europe, too, has a legacy of aristocracy and old money.

The American idea however is about the self-made man; the man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and in a lifetime goes from very poor to very rich thanks to his own industriousness and imagination. There is a belief held by natives and immigrants alike in Horartio Alger stories. Social mobility in the States is not as great as people think, research suggests, but perception trumps all, right? A national narrative embedded in a culture commands a magnetic pull over everyone.

Bottom Line: How worried you are about inequality is driven in part by how much social mobility you think there is in society. Europeans and Chileans (and probably other Latin Americans) generally worry more than Americans about inequality because they do not perceive their societies as being as meritocratic and as amendable to upward social mobility.

(thanks to Pablo Gonzalez for helping brainstorm this post)


The inequality in Chile is inter-generational. 30-40 year olds are rich, 50-60 year olds are comparatively poor. This is an important distinction. See this paper (in Spanish) by economist Claudio Sapelli for more.

Also, check out Will Wilkinson's self-recommending paper titled Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality. In the summary he says, "There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich."

Things I See in Chile

I'll be living in Santiago, Chile for a little while. I'm here to learn Spanish, explore a new culture and country (as a resident more than a tourist, a longtime goal), and pursue some professional projects.

Why Chile? As Spanish-speaking countries go, if you value security, political stability, and a professional/modern business culture, your options are Spain, Costa Rica, Uruguay, or Chile. I liked Chile the best. I'll explain why later.

I've been here for two weeks so far and intend to semi-regularly post observations, lessons, and stories from Chile. I hope they will help improve my (and your) understanding of what's going on in Latin America today and offer insight on the experience of living abroad. Thanks for bearing with me through the miles and months ahead.


Six random observations / lessons so far:

1. An entrepreneurial culture? Economically speaking Chile has been a success in Latin America. At current trajectories it will be the first LatAm country to join the club of first world nations. But for the next stage it needs to rely less on natural resources and more on knowledge-based industries. The government is offering an incredible set of incentives for tech entrepreneurs to locate in Chile. Yet incentives are not enough. To spur entrepreneurship and attract knowledge workers there needs to be an entrepreneurial culture. How the heck do you develop an entrepreneurial culture?

2. The Election. The first round of presidential elections are in a couple weeks. It's striking that the issues being debated are generally high on on Maslow's Hierarchy. When people start complaining about the hours the park is open, you know a country has taken care of the basics. In other words, people are starting to debate intangible social issues since the basic functions of government work correctly. For example, the country has finally gotten around to discussing rights for homosexuals. Remarkably, it's about whether gays deserve civil union rights, not marriage. The Catholic church influences this conservative agenda, of course. (For the same reason, abortion is illegal regardless of circumstances (such as rape) and divorce only recently became legal.) The candidates are also debating how to deal with economic inequality — I will address this in a future post.

Bottom line: The Presidential election in Chile is important inasmuch as the president has a lot of power in the political system. Congress doesn't have much say on the budget, for example. However, it's not an important election in the sense that none of the candidates proposes changing the successful status quo very much.

3. No Hablan Inglés. Chileans speak little English, say both the studies and my experience to-date. Sparse is signage in English and it's basically impossible to acquire English-language print media. I almost never hear English spoken on the street. The government is apparently trying to remedy this. A population that doesn't speak English is a population disadvantaged in the global economy.

4. I'm Learning Spanish.

  • You don't go to Chile if your only goal is to learn Spanish. First, Chilean Spanish is arguably the fastest spoken on the continent. Second, Chileans use higher-than-average slang and colloquialisms. Third, they rarely pronounce the endings of their words. Some ex-pats have told me that they can barely talk with Chileans in Spanish but they have almost no problem in a place like Costa Rica or Guatemala or even Mexico.
  • Fortunately, because there's so little English spoken, I get plenty of opportunities to mess up my Spanish when speaking with locals. When I do speak English here, it is usually with other gringos learning the lingo in Santiago. I've discovered that when I talk to another American in Spanish, it's always an interesting conversation. Every sentence a challenge! To find that right word or translation! It's been funny switching to English with someone and thinking, "Gosh, this person is actually quite boring." When learning a new language, everyone speaking your target language becomes interesting.
  • I've noticed myself be more aware of my body and body language. When words are difficult to come by, body language must be used to express ideas.
  • Speaking Spanish for awhile and then switching to English feels like picking up a light bat in baseball after warming up in the on-deck circle with the heavy bat. It's so light and easy!
  • The feeling of learning a word and then later hearing it used by locals. I like this feeling.

5. We Love American Pop Culture (Even if We Don't Like America). Latin Americans harbor some of the fiercest anti-Americanism I've encountered. (I haven't noticed this one way or another in Chile; I suspect Chileans are average in this respect.) Some of it is justified: the U.S. foreign policy record in Latin America is pretty terrible, recent projects in Colombia and elsewhere notwithstanding. Yet, as ever, American pop culture continues to dominate the air waves. In the metro stations, there are always music videos from American artists singing English-language songs. Last night, Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" was playing — most of the video is her dancing provocatively in front of an American flag. The Chileans around me watched the TV in the subway station, entranced. At the restaurant I went to tonight for dinner nobody spoke a lick of English, and yet the TV was playing a "Greatest Hits from the 80s" compilation of American music videos. At the gym, American movies are always shown on the TV.

6. Chile Needs Green-Tech Entrepreneurs. Locals are obsessed with conserving energy, turning off lights, etc. I've never seen so many green-friendly lightbulbs. Apparently they've been popular in Chile for years; only recently have they infiltrated the U.S. Chile has very little natural energy itself and it hates having to import it from Argentina. If you're an energy entrepreneur, consider doing business here.


When I arrive in Santiago, I first note the sanity of the airport. There is no illegal taxi operation to speak of. You can tell a lot about a country by the sprawl of taxi touts.

My first day I spend at Plaza de Armas. It is a grand old square with stunning architecture and offers world-class people watching opportunities. The sun gently baths my back as I people-watch. People watching is not just entertainment. I learn so much. 20 minutes of sitting and observing a pack of teenagers brings the ideas of peer pressure and groupthink to life: the teen girls are constantly mirroring each other in the way the walk, flick their hand, or get excited. They are all dressed the same, too.

I find a gym near my house. ¿Habla ingles? I ask the woman working the front-desk. A momentary lapse of self-confidence in my Spanish. No. Hablame. she replies. She knows the routine. So I ask her in Gringo Spanish about the gym and prices. It is a successful conversation, and when I walk to the next gym that I had researched online I first ask the front desk lady, ¿Hola, cóma está? and the conversation proceeds apace. Day by day, by day by day.


I see couples making out everywhere. On the subway. In parks. On the street. Everywhere: lips touching. A culture where kids live with their parents until marriage pushes sexual activity out into the public. I see men in plazas yelling religious enunciations until their throats literally give out, as everyone sits around half-listening. I see every person who walks past me as a potential pick-pocketer even though most everyone in this country is sweet and hospitable. I do not see anyone taller than me, ever.