Chile seems to have a knack for averting disaster. After emerging from a potentially calamitous earthquake relatively unscathed and following the dramatic rescue of the miners, it is timely to ask: What exactly is Chile doing right?
From the moment they arrive in the sleek and spotless airport, most Americans who visit Chile are surprised and impressed by the obvious modernity and prosperity here. Defying prevailing images of Latin America, the soaring glass towers that form the skyline of Santiago are indeed a testament to the Chilean “economic miracle” and make laughable any notion that this small and orderly nation is part of the third world.
But after spending even a short time here, what may be most striking to American eyes is something underlying that economic success: the seriousness and civility of Chilean politics. The result is not a perfect government of course, but one that is competent and able to address the basic challenges of governance.
The contrast with Washington’s dysfunctional partisan circus underscores just how far we are adrift. In short, this is a serious country, something the United States has largely ceased to be. This is not to suggest that there is no political discord here. The modern history of Chile is largely defined by the extreme successes and failures of the two decades-long authoritarian rule of Augusto Pinochet.
Though 20 years have passed since his last days in power, his regime left this nation with a legacy of deep and obstinate political divisions, largely rooted in class distinctions that are harsh by American standards (most recently evidenced by last year’s student protests).
Those political divisions often play out in familiar ways. Chile has heated elections, political grandstanding and pundits squabbling on cable news, just as we do. But there is a seriousness of purpose that shapes the contours of public life here and keeps the partisan noise mostly at its edges. Both elected officials and the electorate are often willing to put aside, or at least compartmentalize, their ideological preferences when the real work of policymaking must be done.
The sober discourse of the most recent presidential election would be unrecognizable to Americans as national politics. In an essay in Forbes, Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: “This was not an election driven by issues or ideology: Both candidates promised to continue Chile’s market-friendly macroeconomic policies and its popular social welfare programs.”
This pragmatic streak is not borne of political homogeneity. Yet it frees elected officials to embrace the simple concept of doing what works.
It is what allowed Sebastian Piñera, the current president and a right-leaning billionaire, to propose increases in both tax rates and government borrowing to help finance the reconstruction effort following the earthquake and tsunami.
It is what allowed his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning single mother of three, to advocate zealously for the free-market policies set in motion by Pinochet decades earlier. She did so by continuing the policies that transformed Chile into an economic model for the rest of the continent, not by indulging in wasteful political gamesmanship.
For Chile’s leaders, breaking from ideology has not meant a betrayal of principles. It has instead provided a measure of credibility that enables them to pursue the policies nearer to their hearts.
By not subverting enormously successful economic policies on ideological grounds, Bachelet built the political (and actual) capital necessary to expand Chile’s nascent social-welfare system dramatically. Shedding clumsy ideological restraints has also allowed elected officials to speak more honestly and directly. When Piñera proposed his tax increase, he also called for “austerity until it hurts.”
The Chilean electorate, in turn, grasps that sensible policies don’t always fit neatly into rigid ideological categories. In the United States, where all policy issues have become politicized, we assign every conceivable viewpoint its place along the left-right spectrum, even when such labels are patently absurd.
No conscious American needs further evidence of the paralysis caused by vitriolic hyper-partisanship. Lately, however, this paralysis has devolved into something worse as lawmakers and those seeking office have become more brazen.
There is little doubt that the United States is more complex to govern than tiny Chile. But maybe there is something we can learn from its leaders. Serious and civil politics seems remote, but averting disaster is a skill that may come in handy.
Benjamin D. Wolf works in Santiago as a vice president of legal affairs and capital markets at Celfin Capital, a Chilean investment bank and financial services firm.