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 in
full swing, and my head is spinning -- counter-clockwise, of course.
The thing that has turned my head is not the north-south dichotomy but
the way the familiar political line between left and right is blurred
down here. Again and again I've been struck with the ways that Chile
and Brazil, the two countries I'm visiting on this trip, have, on key
issues, transcended the tired division between left and right the
United States seems hopelessly mired in.
This isn't to say, of course, that the traditional political spectrum
has magically ceased to exist down here, but both countries have
narrowed the range of issues to be hashed out in the left/right
sandbox and widened the range of issues that have become part of the
national agenda -- beyond partisan gamesmanship. This is the exact
opposite of what has been going on in the United States.
In the U.S., there is now hardly an issue that is exempt from the
toxic left/right battles -- not even a bill to take care of the health
of 9/11 first responders.
And in contrast to the assumption sweeping Washington that, as Tom
Friedman put it, "America is only able to produce 'suboptimal'
responses to its biggest problems," at virtually every stop on my
South American trip I've encountered the can-do optimism that has for
centuries been at the heart of the American dream.
It reinforced the feeling that a country's spirit has less to do with
absolute conditions on the ground than with the perception of whether
things are getting better or worse. And in Chile and Brazil, the
perception is that things are definitely getting better. Indeed, a
2009 Gallup study found that Chileans and Brazilians expect that their
lives five years from now will be significantly better than their lives
Chile is led by a president from the right, Brazil by a president from
the left. But both have transcended stereotypes and shibboleths in
order to tackle hard problems.
The first stop on my trip was Santiago, Chile, where I interviewed
President Sebastián Piñera. Piñera is a first in many ways -- most
obviously, he's the first right-wing president Chileans have elected
in the two decades since Pinochet. He's a billionaire; the third
richest man in Chile; a former professor with a Ph.D. from Harvard
whose thesis was entitled "The Economics of Education in Developing
Countries"; and he relaxes by, among other things, skydiving and
We are only a few minutes into our interview in the blue room outside
his office, dominated by a huge painting by the Chilean surrealist
Matta, when he tells me: "By the end of this decade, we want Chile to
be the first country in South America to have eliminated poverty, to
have closed the gap in income between rich and poor, and to be
recognized 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 his
country'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 with
Chile's constitution, he can only serve one term at a time. When, in
a conversation with his wife Cecilia Morel at lunch the following
day, 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 inauguration
came less than two weeks after the devastating February 2010
earthquake and tsunami that killed over 500 Chileans, leveled or
severely damaged 4,000 schools, and left 2 million Chileans homeless.
Piñera tried to put the devastation in perspective for me. "The
economic damage is equal to 18 percent of Chile's gross domestic
product," he said. "In comparison, the cost of Katrina was less than
one 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 -- a
twist of fate that tested his leadership and became a defining moment
for his country and his presidency.
In the beginning, his advisers told him to keep his distance from the
disaster, lest he be too closely connected to what was almost
certainly going to be a tragic outcome. But Piñera disregarded their
advice, listening instead to what, in uncharacteristic language for a
head of state, he describes as "my inner voice." And he attacked the
crisis with his signature verve. When his experts offered him three
different strategies for rescuing the trapped miners, he ordered them
to do all three at the same time. "That," he told me, "is what I
would do if it were my children in the mine."
The triumphant rescue has helped rebrand Chile and Piñera. When I
talked with rescued Chilean miner #21 Yonni Barrios (he was the one
with the wife and mistress both holding vigil outside the mine), he
said of the president: "I didn't vote for Piñera, but if he were
running again I definitely would. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be
alive." I later asked Barrios what his New Year's resolution is. "I
don't make New Year's resolutions anymore. I take life one hour at a
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 Obama
administration's fervent embrace of "politics as the art of the
When I ask Piñera about President Obama, he pauses for a moment then
tells me: "Life is tough -- and you have to be tougher than life to
change 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 conservative
businessman-turned-politician and more like a traditional South
American social democrat, he'll tell you that's only because you are
listening with tired ears. "We've got to move beyond the idea that
the public and private sectors are at odds," he told me. "Government
has to lay the groundwork for private equity to productively invest in
things like education. It's a partnership, not a battle."
Piñera has now been in office nine months and has wasted no time in
letting the country -- and his own government -- know that he's
determined to get things done. In February, before he even took
office, at a press conference announcing his ministers, he gave each
of them a computer drive containing his policy goals, which he hung
around their necks.
It reminded me of the sticker Winston Churchill would place at the
top of urgent items: "ACTION THIS DAY."
To avoid conflicts of interest, Piñera required his ministers to step
down from any positions they held in private companies (although he's
been criticized for taking too long to do the same). And to make sure
they stayed in touch with the people, he's got each of his ministers
twittering, and has a young, energetic social media team that I met
with at the Palacio de La Moneda, where his office is.
But it's not just on economic issues that Piñera breaks the left/right
mold. In August, a regional commission gave the go-ahead for the
international company Suez Energy to develop a coal-fueled
thermoelectric 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 Foreign
Minister, he told me that Piñera had "surprised everyone" when, soon
after taking office, he sided with Brazil and other countries in
pressuring Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, a conservative who
came to power in a military coup, to not attend a EU-Latin
America-Caribbean Summit. The assumption that Chile's first
right-wing leader since Pinochet would side with Lobo was turned on
its head, with Piñera saying he wouldn't attend the conference if Lobo
was there, since he didn't consider him the leader of "a legitimate
government." (It's worth noting that Chile, like the U.S., has since
recognized Lobo's government.)
From the Palacio de La Moneda I went to Bellavista, the neighborhood
where Pablo Neruda lived. Over 30 years ago, I had read in Neruda's
essay "Childhood and Poetry" a passionate summing up of empathy as a
guiding principle both for life and for politics.
"To feel the intimacy of brothers," Neruda wrote, "is a marvelous
thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that
feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom
we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our
sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses -- that is
something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the
boundaries 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.