South American Diary, Chile: More Than Miners Are Being Rescued

My South American trip is in full swing and, again and again, I've been struck by the way that Chile and Brazil, the two countries I'm visiting, have, on key issues, transcended the tired division between left and right the United States seems hopelessly mired in. Chile is led by a president from the right, Brazil by a president from the left. But both have gone beyond stereotypes and shibboleths in order to tackle hard problems. My first stop was Santiago, Chile, where I interviewed President Sebastián Piñera. Piñera is the third richest man in Chile; a former professor with a Ph.D. from Harvard; and the first right-wing president Chileans have elected in the two decades since Pinochet. So it's surprising to learn that his signature goal is the elimination of poverty. "By the end of the decade," he tells me, "we want to have closed the gap in income between rich and poor."
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Brasilia, Brazil - Olá from the capital of Brazil! (I had to drop the"h" when I flew in from Chile). My short South American trip is infull swing, and my head is spinning -- counter-clockwise, of course.

The thing that has turned my head is not the north-south dichotomy butthe way the familiar political line between left and right is blurreddown here. Again and again I've been struck with the ways that Chileand Brazil, the two countries I'm visiting on this trip, have, on keyissues, transcended the tired division between left and right theUnited States seems hopelessly mired in.

This isn't to say, of course, that the traditional political spectrumhas magically ceased to exist down here, but both countries havenarrowed the range of issues to be hashed out in the left/rightsandbox and widened the range of issues that have become part of thenational agenda -- beyond partisan gamesmanship. This is the exactopposite of what has been going on in the United States.

In the U.S., there is now hardly an issue that is exempt from thetoxic left/right battles -- not even a bill to take care of the healthof 9/11 first responders.

And in contrast to the assumption sweeping Washington that, as TomFriedman put it, "America is only able to produce 'suboptimal'responses to its biggest problems," at virtually every stop on mySouth American trip I've encountered the can-do optimism that has forcenturies been at the heart of the American dream.

It reinforced the feeling that a country's spirit has less to do withabsolute conditions on the ground than with the perception of whetherthings are getting better or worse. And in Chile and Brazil, theperception is that things are definitely getting better. Indeed, a2009 Gallup study found that Chileans and Brazilians expect that theirlives five years from now will be significantly better than their livestoday.

Chile is led by a president from the right, Brazil by a president fromthe left. But both have transcended stereotypes and shibboleths inorder to tackle hard problems.

The first stop on my trip was Santiago, Chile, where I interviewedPresident Sebastián Piñera. Piñera is a first in many ways -- mostobviously, he's the first right-wing president Chileans have electedin the two decades since Pinochet. He's a billionaire; the thirdrichest man in Chile; a former professor with a Ph.D. from Harvardwhose thesis was entitled "The Economics of Education in DevelopingCountries"; and he relaxes by, among other things, skydiving andflying helicopters.

We are only a few minutes into our interview in the blue room outsidehis office, dominated by a huge painting by the Chilean surrealistMatta, when he tells me: "By the end of this decade, we want Chile tobe the first country in South America to have eliminated poverty, tohave closed the gap in income between rich and poor, and to berecognized as a developed -- not a developing -- economy." A moment later, he adds: "Instead of just talking about poverty, we are working to defeat it. I always say, 'judge us on our results and achievements, not on our intentions.'"

To produce those results, he is putting more resources into overhauling hiscountry's education system. "Nothing is more important," he told me. "We will win the battle against poverty in the classroom."

Piñera's urgency is accentuated by the knowledge that, in keeping withChile's constitution, he can only serve one term at a time. When, ina conversation with his wife Cecilia Morel at lunch the followingday, I remark on his intensity, the First Lady laughs: "Yes, I know.I've lived with it every day for 37 years! He recharges by working.I, on the other hand, need silence and time by myself."

Piñera took office on the heels of a catastrophe. His inaugurationcame less than two weeks after the devastating February 2010earthquake and tsunami that killed over 500 Chileans, leveled orseverely damaged 4,000 schools, and left 2 million Chileans homeless.Piñera tried to put the devastation in perspective for me. "Theeconomic damage is equal to 18 percent of Chile's gross domesticproduct," he said. "In comparison, the cost of Katrina was less thanone percent of America's GDP."

Pinera responded to the crisis with what the Economist called "a frenzy of activity." He is especially proud of the fact that, as he had promised, within two months of the quake, all 1.2 million schoolchildren affected by the quake were able to resume classes. "Some of the children," he told me, "were studying in makeshift classrooms inside tents, police stations, and churches -- often in split shifts. But they were all back at school."

Seven months later, 33 miners became trapped in the San José mine -- atwist of fate that tested his leadership and became a defining momentfor his country and his presidency.

In the beginning, his advisers told him to keep his distance from thedisaster, lest he be too closely connected to what was almostcertainly going to be a tragic outcome. But Piñera disregarded theiradvice, listening instead to what, in uncharacteristic language for ahead of state, he describes as "my inner voice." And he attacked thecrisis with his signature verve. When his experts offered him threedifferent strategies for rescuing the trapped miners, he ordered themto do all three at the same time. "That," he told me, "is what Iwould do if it were my children in the mine."

The triumphant rescue has helped rebrand Chile and Piñera. When Italked with rescued Chilean miner #21 Yonni Barrios (he was the onewith the wife and mistress both holding vigil outside the mine), hesaid of the president: "I didn't vote for Piñera, but if he wererunning again I definitely would. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't bealive." I later asked Barrios what his New Year's resolution is. "Idon't make New Year's resolutions anymore. I take life one hour at atime."

Piñera's outlook is more long-range -- and unfailingly optimistic.During our talk, he repeatedly used the phrase "the sky's the limit"when talking about Chile's prospects. It's a far cry from the Obamaadministration's fervent embrace of "politics as the art of thepossible."

When I ask Piñera about President Obama, he pauses for a moment thentells me: "Life is tough -- and you have to be tougher than life tochange the world."

And Piñera is intent on changing, if not the world, at least Chile.And he's willing to cross traditional ideological boundaries to do so. If his focus on poverty makes him seem less like a conservativebusinessman-turned-politician and more like a traditional SouthAmerican social democrat, he'll tell you that's only because you arelistening with tired ears. "We've got to move beyond the idea thatthe public and private sectors are at odds," he told me. "Governmenthas to lay the groundwork for private equity to productively invest inthings like education. It's a partnership, not a battle."

Piñera has now been in office nine months and has wasted no time inletting the country -- and his own government -- know that he'sdetermined to get things done. In February, before he even tookoffice, at a press conference announcing his ministers, he gave eachof them a computer drive containing his policy goals, which he hungaround their necks.

It reminded me of the sticker Winston Churchill would place at thetop of urgent items: "ACTION THIS DAY."

To avoid conflicts of interest, Piñera required his ministers to stepdown from any positions they held in private companies (although he'sbeen criticized for taking too long to do the same). And to make surethey stayed in touch with the people, he's got each of his ministerstwittering, and has a young, energetic social media team that I metwith at the Palacio de La Moneda, where his office is.

But it's not just on economic issues that Piñera breaks the left/rightmold. In August, a regional commission gave the go-ahead for theinternational company Suez Energy to develop a coal-fueledthermoelectric power plant near a Chilean nature reserve.Environmental groups protested. Piñera intervened and scuttled the development.

And when I met with Antonio Patriota, Brazil's incoming ForeignMinister, he told me that Piñera had "surprised everyone" when, soonafter taking office, he sided with Brazil and other countries inpressuring Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, a conservative whocame to power in a military coup, to not attend a EU-LatinAmerica-Caribbean Summit. The assumption that Chile's firstright-wing leader since Pinochet would side with Lobo was turned onits head, with Piñera saying he wouldn't attend the conference if Lobowas there, since he didn't consider him the leader of "a legitimategovernment." (It's worth noting that Chile, like the U.S., has sincerecognized Lobo's government.)

From the Palacio de La Moneda I went to Bellavista, the neighborhoodwhere Pablo Neruda lived. Over 30 years ago, I had read in Neruda'sessay "Childhood and Poetry" a passionate summing up of empathy as aguiding principle both for life and for politics.

"To feel the intimacy of brothers," Neruda wrote, "is a marvelousthing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire thatfeeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whomwe do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over oursleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses -- that issomething still greater and more beautiful because it widens out theboundaries of our being, and unites all living things."

And this widening out of the boundaries of our being is what turns statecraft into soulcraft. And as Piñera has so far demonstrated, it is definitely beyond left and right.

Next: a look at Brazil and why it may be time to rebrand the promise of upward mobility the South American Dream.

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