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.

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