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.

17 comments on “A Smattering of Impressions from Chile
  • Catholicism and conservative social mores are similar in most AL countries. Abortion is illegal in Colombia, Perú, Argentina, and México (except México City). There are some exceptions such as mortal danger to the mother but it’s a gray area. Ditto for gay rights. It’s mostly older people, but there’s a lot of casual discrimination.
    It puts us at a disadvantage with other industrialized countries, not so much because we’re missing a Protestant work ethic but we don’t let our people be all they can be.

    A lot of stuff is don’t-ask-don’t-tell, mostly among older generations. México’s last president, Vicente Fox, although very Catholic and “Guadalupano” (follower of the the Virgin of Guadalupe) was divorced and had four adopted kids, and he remarried while in office, to his press secretary no less. People were more worried about what he was doing on government issues that who he was doing.

    About the food and the nightlife. I did find Santiago too quiet for my taste when I was there, and I don’t even live in México City. That was a couple of years ago though, it might be better now. And yes they do eat enormous quantities of bread and not enough veggies! Peruvian food is better, although they tend to add potatoes and/or rice to everything.

  • Helpful for your cloistered U.S. readers would be comparisons to U.S. cities. Saying “more predictable than Bogota” doesn’t tell me a lot. I know, I know, you’re trying to get away from U.S.-centric, but you could say “Bogota or Miami.”

  • FARC rebels bombed the capitol in Bogota as current president Alvaro Uribe was being inaugurated in ’02. They missed, killing civilians instead. I’d argue American cities simply aren’t comparable to Bogota, Mexico City, Guatemala City, Caracas, Rio, etc.

    Ditto on Peruvian food, and bread’s better than rice!

  • How lightly Tyler Cowen dismisses Pinochet’s record as torturer, dispatcher of death squads, and international criminal.

    Obviously the legacy of brutal military dictatorships in Latin America is not unique to Chile, but to see Cowen’s deliberate blurring of the moral consequences of state-sanctioned mass murder is disturbing.

    He insinuates that the bottom-line benefits that might accrue to society under a brutal dictatorship’s successful economic policies are more important than the affirmation and defense of human rights by governments, because there may be a net gain of human happiness for the most people.

    If we admit this dubious proposition, then it inevitably follows that a regime, by eliminating opposition, may stabilize the social order enough to allow implemented economic policies to succeed and this somehow justifies anti-democratic ‘reforms’ and suppression of dissent.

    “The distributional consequences of the Chilean reforms were generally inegalitarian” is a weasel way to say that government policies increased economic inequality. Even though the middle class has grown, there is still a large underclass not sharing in the prosperity.

    I will never agree that if business-friendly despotism eventually produces an entrepreneurs’ paradise, then those unpleasant little interludes of a government-run reign of terror are to be discounted, as Tyler Cowen seems to want.

    There may be great opportunities for entrepreneurs in the business-friendly free market climate of Chile now, but it would be a crime to forget the sacrifices made by the defenders of personal freedom in the tumultuous last few decades.

  • I’ve lived in Mexico for the last five years and own a small tech company. I’ve never been to Chile, but I imagine there are a lot of similarities, particularly from an expat’s perspective.

    On the control point. What I gathered from your comment is that you have net loss of control vs living in the States. I view the control issue as to having to adapt and accept social norms and practices, which we certainly do have in the States–they’re just different. I imagine in Chile that convenience is the problem–no 24 hour super markets, lack of product selection, and unpredictable services, like when the phone or electricity will be hooked up. These are things, as individuals, that we have no ‘control’ over in the States, either. I know you used language as the example, but you still have control over your what to eat, as you did with where you chose to live. Learning new language is more difficult with age, which is something over which you don’t have control. But with time comes more experience, and with that, more informed decisions.

    On the entrepreneurial point. I agree with what you’re saying when it comes to starting to starting companies and raising capital. However, there is no lack of entrepreneurship in developing economies–there are little owner-operated startups all over the place, from cleaning services to food stands. The problem is the lack of capital and the understanding of how to raise capital to grow and develop. Fortunately for us, we have the infrastructure, culture, examples, and clearly defined and enforced property laws to protect our investments.

    Anyway, this is a topic that really interests me, and I could go on and on. Enjoyed your post!

  • I lived in Mexico the last 2 winters and I’ve been here in Chile 6 weeks. Chile is more like Europe than Mexico or the U.S.A.

    Nearly everyone is a student or working age person who is here for business or family, rather than to live in a more libertarian country. There are no U.S. retirees, as in Mexico.

    The thing that bothers me most is the national ID card – the RUT. Everyone asks me for it. I couldn’t even park my bicycle at Parque Arauco without the attendant requiring it. It bothers me are the Cruz Verde and other farmacias that require me to take a number to buy mouthwash and razor blades.

    Santiago has a pretty good network of bike paths that are better than San Diego or L.A., buy worse than Europe. I play tennis, and there are courts everywhere.

    I prefer living here to the U.S.A. or Mexico.

  • Vince Williams,
    Before I moved to Chile in the mid-90s, I had only heard the college-sophomore’s kneejerk version of Pinochet’s Chile. Once there, I learned to trust Chilean, rather than American views on the golpe and its causes and aftermath. As Ben says, Chileans have a much more nuanced view than you would suspect. And with reason, because the experience is MUCH more nuanced, as well. I’ve known people who were terrorized by Allende’s regime and under Pinochet.
    It may just be my choice of friends, but I get the impression that life under Pinochet was far preferable to life under Allende’s dictatorship..yes I used that word…even for the vast majority of dissenters. The Pinochet/Allende debate breaks down along class and political lines, for the most part. But not exclusively. I recall the older ladies and gentlemen, poor but with painful scars from the marxist nightmare, joining the crowd to throw eggs and stones at the Spanish embassy after they convinced the British to arrest the man many (old and young) call “mi general.”

  • Thanks for your unnuanced reply, boludo.

    Even if everything you say were true, I wouldn’t see the need to change a word of what I wrote.

    Tossing around the word ‘nuanced’, giving us your ‘impression’ of life under Pinochet (but not your name), and reciting one anecdote told in overheated melodramatic style do not make an argument.

  • It is hard for me to understand why many people accept the idea that legalized abortion is important for economic growth. Many of the “Catholic” norms Ben writes about in his opening were accepted by Catholics and Protestants in the 19th century, during a time when industrial production was in full swing.

    Furthermore, one could easily argue that Chile’s economic success, to say nothing of that of many countries in the Southern Hemisphere, is tied to its traditional anti-abortion stance. The western countries that embraced abortion are not reproducing themselves and have much less secure inter-generational interdependencies (is it now three workers for each retirees or two?), and depend on immigrants to take up the slack. Then there is also the argument that a future Steve Jobs is more likely to be born in Chile than in California, given the contrasting embraces of contraceptive mentalities.

    I agree with Ben. There is much one can learn (or re-learn) from Chile.

  • Most South American countries have suffered from murderous dictatorships in living memory. Pinochet wasn’t the worst of the lot, nor was he the least bad of the lot. But few other dictators have left their countries on such a sound economic footing. Argentina’s generals killed more, and did nothing to stabilize the economy after they left the scene. The economic misery which happens during and after left-wing dictatorships often kills more people than the dictators themselves.

    Chile could easily have gotten stuck with an economically illiterate thug, and be in a much worse position than it is today. In that respect, Chile was lucky to have Pinochet.

  • Excellent observations–most educational.

    **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.**

    Definitely counterintuitive. Australia seems to be the better example of homogeneity’s ability to enhance trust, reduce violence, and improve stability.

  • Haha
    I have been living here for my whole life and its veeeery interesting to read your opinions. I think that Bens article its very good.

  • Why would someone who relocates and lives there for 15 years suddenly have no roots, as you say?

    “I could feel the emptiness of someone without roots.”

    Seems a little harsh and/or like a gross misunderstanding of this person. Why is moving abroad do a different culture a negative, as compared to moving to a different city within the States for 15 years? Does that mean you lose your roots?

    The US is a strange place, there are many things in our daily lives that are absurd but that we slowly acclimatize to or for whatever reason we think it’s normal… and I think it’s only once you remove yourself from it for a while you start to really realize that. Just because you find something odd when you go back to your country of birth doesn’t mean you don’t put down some roots somewhere..

  • You should have stayed in in San FranSico. Liberals always amaze me. If you dislike the conservative values of a country further to you than the Orient. ..STAY THE HELL IN THE LIBERAL SHIT HOLE YOU CAME FROM. Why must you carry your mental disorder to a foreign country in the expectations of changing it to your way of thinking.

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