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.

20 comments on “Things I See in Chile
  • 1) Re creating an entrepreneurial culture: Consider the risk-adjusted return of simply importing entrepreneurs rather than trying to change the culture from the top down. Just do it by ethnic group–you know who they are. If history is any judge, entrepreneurial people thrive even in non-entrepreneurial places. The Israel of my parents’ youth was designed to be a socialist paradise, but that could not stop a fiercely entrepreneurial culture from (re)rising. Very quietly, Jewish and Lebanese minorities in Mexico and Brazil thrived even through great political upheavals and a crypto-aristocratic business culture. The Ottoman Empire was commercially backward but for the Armenian minority. Africa is no one’s idea of business-friendly, yet the Indian diaspora in many countries grew rich. Overseas Chinese in Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines did the same, even without the entrepreneurial environment enjoyed by their cousins in Singapore and Hong Kong. Encourage single men from these groups to immigrate to Chile and get rich, and their energy and the Chilean women will take care of the rest.

    2) Speaking of which, if Tyler Cowen does it publicly that means I don’t mind asking: Would you comment on the beauty of Chilean women, in both absolute and relative terms?

  • How are the buses compared to the trains? What is the smog there like? Do you notice the local emo culture there (called something derivative of Pokemon). Apparently it’s part of their sexual revolution and people upload videos of themselves having sex in public places on the interwebs. How is Santiago compared to Denver? similar? How do Chileans look? mostly Euro or is there a lot of Indian? Will you travel while there?

  • Hey Ben – great post + I’m looking forward to the rest in this series.

    I’m a little curious about something:

    I’m not sure how Costa Rica fits into your list of destinations as far as security – I was in Costa Rica on vacation for the summer of 2007. I spent most of my trip on the west coast by Jaco and Herradura Beach (which was great fun), as well as one day in the capital of San Jose.

    Maybe it was the neighborhood I was in, but San Jose at night is one of the sketchiest places I’ve ever been. I was in a group of 5 guys; even so, we were constantly looking over our shoulders for fear of being mugged or attacked.

  • 1) Great point. Importing entrepreneurial people and letting them "infect"
    others is a good approach.

    2) Chilean women are average beauty, I would say, in absolute terms. There
    are outliers of course but nothing remarkable. Chilean men are what's
    distinctive — I would say they are much lower than average in terms of
    physical beauty.

  • I will try to address these questions in forthcoming posts. 🙂

    Quickly though: trains are better than buses but buses aren't bad, smog is
    problematic more in the winter than summer I'm told, I haven't noticed an
    emo culture, I'll have to think about the Denver analogy, see other comment
    on this thread for notes on physical attractiveness, mostly Euro not Indian,
    and yes I will travel.

  • Very well done, Ben.

    I’m pleased you’ll be living in Chile for a while. You’ll begin to understand why Latin Americans harbor some of the fiercest anti-Americanism you’ve encountered.

    A document released by the CIA after the Hinchey amendment to the 2000 Intelligence Authorization Act in 2000 required it, titled “CIA Activities in Chile”, revealed that prior to the military coup which overthrew President Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government the CIA “…funneled millions of dollars to strengthen opposition political parties. CIA provided assistance to militant right-wing groups to undermine the President and create a tense environment.”

    “CIA sought to instigate a coup to prevent Allende from taking office after he won a plurality in the 4 September election and before…”

    As US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a 2003 interview, “…what happened with Mr. Allende, it is not a part of American history that we’re proud of.”

    “After the coup in September 1973, CIA suspended new covert action funding but continued some ongoing propaganda projects, including support for news media committed to creating a positive image for the military Junta.”

    The CIA actively supported Pinochet’s brutal regime and paid many of his officers, even as the military imprisoned 40,000 of their political enemies in the National Stadium of Chile, and thousands of Chilean leftists were dead or disappeared in the months after the coup d’état’.

    I suggest all citizens of the US should read Marine Major General Smedley Butler’s (he was twice awarded the Medal of Honor) book War Is a Racket.

    “I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico…safe for American oil interests in 1914.

    I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.

    I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903.”

    This is why I felt ashamed when a poor fisherman invited me to eat with his family on the beach in Puerto de la Libertad , El Salvador in 1974.

  • My travels haven’t taken me to Santiago, or anywhere in Chile for that matter. I already liked Chilean wines and after seeing the photo you included in this post, Chile is on my travel radar.

  • I wish you the best of luck in Chile, I’m a new reader to your blogs and have been enjoying them for a couple of weeks.

  • I’d say definitely see if you can experience some of Chile’s natural beauty while you are there. Since it spans so much of the continent’s coast, the diversity is amazing. The Atacama desert in the north is, I believe, the driest desert in the world, and the pueblos are quite peaceful and do fun things with cactus. The glaciers around Tierra del Fuego are, of course, worth visiting. For more ‘day trip’ things, there is a tiny island whose name I forget only an hour or so from central Santiago where huge numbers penguins roost, a sight to see from the shore. The geysers and general beauty of the Andes are also worth checking out.

    When I lived in Chile in 1999/2000 Pinochet was *very* much on people’s minds. Is this still the case? Do people seem to you more politically aware and driven than Americans?

  • Hi Ben im chilean, maybe my english is like your spanish JJEE
    wy dont you take more pictures of the city i liked your text, maybe people can be more interesting about the city and our country with some good shotas like the Photo you posted. Keep Writing.see you
    Lalo De Chile

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