insightful in-depth reviews

17, Aug 2015

Chile: Liberty Within Order

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic


Chile today offers us a useful lesson in peaceful coexistence between laissez-faire capitalism and nanny-state socialism.

This congruence has given Chile a comprehensive health care system. And Chile’s death toll was low during recent earthquakes, thanks to strict government building laws that have been imposed by Chile’s right-wing dictators and by its Socialist leaders alike. It’s not that the two political extremes worked together. Rather, each wing, for its own reasons, implemented strong governmental control. Socialists imposed rules because they believe they know what’s best for the people, while Pinochet people imposed rules because, well, that’s what dictators do.

Four decades after the violent overthrow of Chile’s Socialist president, Salvadore Allende, ramifications of that event continue. When we landed at Chile’s capital city of Santiago, officers demanded that we pay $131 cash for each person in our family. They called it a “reciprocity” fee and told us it’s levied because the United States makes Chileans buy a visa to get into the USA. That American tax was imposed during the Allende years when the U.S. government objected to Chile being run by left-wing radicals.

Allende, a Socialist, was elected president in 1970 with only 36% of the vote in a three-man race. His administration apparently made a mess of Chile’s economy —  but that, of course, was no excuse for armed rebellion. Among other actions, Allende nationalized Chile’s copper mines, most of which were owned by U.S. companies. Therefore he encountered opposition from commercial interests in his country and the United States.

The 1973 military coup that deposed him was supported by President Nixon and the American CIA. Allende was reported as having shot himself, but it’s widely believed that he was executed.

I saw a reminder of that event at the Casa Blanca, home of its presidents. Its walls have bullet holes from the army’s attack against Allende. General August Pinochet then began a dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1990. American opinion has been divided between conservatives who say that Allende deserved to be removed and liberals who say the USA was guilty of his murder. Because of my visit, I now understand more about the Chilean people.

They have a predilection towards conservative values and obedience to authority. Much of Chile’s governing class came from Spain, home of autocratic kings and clerics and, later, Generalissimo Franco. What most people in North America don’t realize is that a substantial number of Germans are part of Chile’s population. Chile between 1850 and 1900 invited families from Germany to immigrate, offering free land, so the country was infused with immigrants who had been indoctrinated in the values of Otto Bismark, the organizer of the German Empire. Thus we see German cultural clubs and restaurants, and Viennese waltzes are almost as ubiquitous as Latin music. On the slopes of the Andes mountains I saw chalets that resemble what we associate with the German and Austrian Alps. Citizens are conservative and are proud to be self-reliant.

Regina is a middle-aged woman who sat next to me on a flight from Santiago to the southern city of Osorno. Her family has been in Chile since the 1870s and she described herself as German, not a “German-Chilean” in the hyphenated way Americans tend to identify themselves. Regina lamented that her daughter has turned away from the family’s heritage and does not read or speak the German language. Mind you, this is 140 years since the family arrived. Four generations, and only now is it losing the mother tongue.

Chile’s motto is “Liberty Within Order,” and in Osorno I saw banners proclaiming that city’s credo: “Constancy and Discipline.” The Spanish and German heritage helps explain Chile’s emphasis on law and order, and also its acceptance of dictatorial administrations like Pinochet’s. A positive result of Chileans’ obedience to authority is the cleanliness of city streets and sidewalks.

Chile has been governed recently by democratically elected Socialists who are friendly to the U.S. Michelle Bachelet — Chile’s first female president —  was a physician who extended medical and dental coverage in Chile’s public health system.

Chile’s social welfare programs co-exist within a generally privatized economy. The government runs one large bank and one large copper company.

If you are puzzled why a conservative populace would embrace socialized medicine, think back to Germany’s Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. For all his right-wing credentials, Bismarck made Germany the world’s first nation with national health insurance, social security, disability insurance and unemployment compensation.

My family experienced Chile’s health care system directly. Our son got a prompt and free office visit from a doctor, and his drug prescription was filled at minimal cost.

Chile is a giraffe of a country —  tall and skinny. If you laid Chile on top of the Northern Hemisphere, it would extend from Alaska all the way down to Mexico City. It is an extremely narrow ribbon of land, 110 miles wide and 2,610 miles long. The Andes mountains run almost the entire length of the country, separating Chile from Argentina.

I was lucky to stay in varied sections: the northern metropolis of Santiago, and also the main southern city of Osorno and the far-southern port city of Puerto Montt. (That’s not a misspelling by the way; it doesn’t refer to a mountain, or mont. Rather it’s in honor of a 19th-century Chilean president named Manuel Montt.)

Traveling by car through the southern parts of the country, you come upon lakes, snow-capped mountains surrounded by volcanic ash, and villas that resemble those found in the Bavarian Alps.

Valparaiso and Vina del Mar are charming beach towns on the Pacific coast, about 70 miles west of the nation’s capital, Santiago. Valparaiso has cobblestoned alleys and steep steps leading from the beach up to the center of town, which contains Latin America’s oldest stock exchange and newspaper. It is the birthplace of poet Pablo Neruda and former presidents Allende and Pinochet.

In contrast, the beach at Valparaiso is rocky and is patronized mainly by locals while that at Vina del Mar is sandy and is flanked by modern hotels and casinos. Vina del Mar brings to mind a North American equivalent: Miami Beach, except here in Chile the language is Spanish. Oops! I guess there isn’t that much difference after all.

Few foreign visitors travel to Osorno even though it is the second-largest in the country. Osorno is a clean and safe modern city in the southern part of Chile as you begin to approach Patagonia and the Antarctic.

Very little English is used in Chile. Tourists should have at least one person in the group who speaks Spanish. Clearly, the nation does not cater to tourists. But this has one positive aspect: You feel as if you are seeing a country that’s authentic and is not putting on shows to impress outsiders.

My last day in Chile I lay on the beach at Vina del Mar, sunning myself in summer heat while people back home in the United States shivered. This is my most pleasant memory of Chile.

* * *

Letter to the Editor:

Steve Cohen’s explanation of Chile’s mixed political system is exemplary. I envy my German wife’s and son’s health coverage. Too much of our public health debate is mindless wrangling, belying our foolish boasts about being the greatest nation on earth. Bismarck’s insistence on universal values such as social security and health insurance was pioneering of universal significance, to be emulated by all thoughtful regimes ever since.

Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany