Around the World in 80 Days, Day 58: Chile – South America’s Most Stable Democracy?

At this moment, I am on a flight following the spine of the Andes northward from Santiago, Chile to Lima, Peru.  Running some 4,300 miles, the Andes are the longest continuous mountain range in the world.  Looking out on the endless snowcapped peaks, I am reminded of the 90s film, Alive.  It is the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed somewhere in these mountains in 1972.  It’s South America’s version of the Donner Party.  Pausing to look at the passenger in the seat next to me, I can only be thankful that he is happily eating a sandwich and not eating me.  Let us hope that this is a sign of things to come.

How does one assess Chile, this peculiar country once dominated by the Incas; that the Spanish subdued and colonized; that Sir Francis Drake bombarded and pillaged; this long, narrow, mountainous country of active volcanoes that gained its independence in 1840, suffered the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and is now a (tentative) model for other South American democracies?  Chile defies simple categories.  Its history is remarkably like that of, say, its neighbor, Argentina—a former colony, civil war, military dictatorship, a penchant for governmental corruption and brutality, Milton Friedman economic reforms, and an ambition to join the great democracies of the world.  But where Argentina remains trapped by the gravitational force of its history, Chile seems to have reached escape velocity, leaving the dark atmospheric pressure of the past while maintaining a trajectory for better things.

Yesterday, I misjudged the square-footage of the hotel elevator and stepped into a huddle of women speaking an easy Spanish.  Apparently returning from an afternoon of shopping, their hands were full of the day’s spoils.  Holding my arms up and turning awkwardly to face the door, I was met with an oversized bag from Banana Republic.  I smirked at the irony.  A derogatory term for Latin American governments, to this group of affluent women, it was territory to be conquered, plundered.

All over South America you see it.  Ostentatious displays of American commercial enterprise dominate the fashionable parts of cities like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and even Buenos Aires.  Nike, Starbucks, Calvin Klein, Apple—they are all there, and to own their products is to be hip and cool.  American businesses have accomplished worldwide what the CIA and the United States Armed Forces and diplomacy and trillions in US tax dollars could not in a half-century: advance the American Way of life.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Santiago, Chile.

Over the last three decades, democracy in South America has flourished.  Writing for The Brookings Institute, Daniel Zovatto describes South America’s democracies:

“Latin America is a paradox: it is the only region in the world that combines democratic regimes in almost all countries with large sectors of their populations living below the poverty line (27.9 percent for 2013, according to ECLAC), the most uneven economic distribution in the world, high levels of corruption and the highest homicide rate in the world.  Nowhere else in the world is democracy shaped by such an unusual combination of factors.  It is a fact that our democracies exhibit important deficits and symptoms of fragility.  The main unresolved issues are institutional problems that affect governability and the rule of law, independence and interconnection between state powers, hyper-presidentialism and re-election, corruption, constraints to freedom of expression, poor performance of electoral and political systems, lack of gender equality, and citizen insecurity, all factors that undermine its functioning.”

That statement is true of South America generally, but Chile is an outlier to the rest of this troubled continent.  It isn’t a banana republic.

The geography of some countries makes them virtually ungovernable.  Authorities in Brazil cannot, for example, effectively control what happens in the mysterious Amazon.  Russia’s enormity has been a historic problem.  Japan’s lack of space and natural resources have led its leaders to expansionist disaster.  Poland’s proximity to hostile, militaristic nations has made for a tragic history.  And Belgium’s absence of natural defensive barriers on its eastern border has made it a doormat for invaders.  Geography is the most underrated factor in the development of nations.

As nations go, Chile’s geography, though beautiful and interesting, is awful.  2,653 miles long while only an average of 110 miles wide, the country is chiefly uninhabitable mountains.  Worse still, it is actively volcanic and thus prone to epic earthquake disasters.  Yes, geographically speaking, if Chile were a square on a Monopoly board, it would be the slums of Baltic Avenue, and the United States would inhabit the exclusive districts of Boardwalk and Park Place. (Make a mental note.  We will return to this theme as the trip continues.)

Mitigating this potentially insurmountable obstacle to national greatness is the fact that Santiago, in central Chile, is home to one-third of Chile’s 18 million people.  That makes governance as well as social and economic development possible for such an elongated state.  Remarkably, Chile has largely managed to overcome these difficulties, and it has become Latin America’s most stable democracy.  The secret to Chile’s success is found in a free market economy that relied on the development of industry where most of Latin America remained agricultural.  That has given birth to a thriving middle class.  Furthermore, since the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990, successive Chilean presidents have shown a willingness to devolve federal powers in favor of the local governments, expand civil liberties, and demonstrate greater transparency.

What about faith?  Chile, like the rest of Latin America, is overwhelmingly Catholic.  But only 13 percent of Chilean Catholics attend mass regularly.  Evangelical Christianity, however, has grown rapidly in recent decades.  Writing for Reuters, Lisa Yulkowski estimates that evangelicals now number 15 percent of Chile’s population.  Growth among the poor has been spectacular.  Yulkowski says:

“One change that could spark even greater growth among evangelicals is the fact that the movement has gained acceptance among Chile’s middle class.  ‘It used to be looked down upon for a middle or upper class person to say they were evangelical,’ said Francisco Ruiz, a 60-year-old former Catholic priest.  ‘It’s no longer embarrassing and business people are starting to take notice and hire evangelicals because of their reliability.’  Ruiz, who is still a practicing Catholic, said he didn’t think the more traditional Catholic Church was prepared for how this could reshape the religious landscape in Chile.”

But if the Protestant ethic gave rise to capitalism and prosperity as Max Weber famously observed, prosperity often gives rise to a fatally irreligious spirit, and that, too, is at work in Chile.  Socialists, communists, and anarchists are finding universities fertile for their ideologies. (Sound familiar?)  Home-grown terror groups are burning churches, destroying infrastructure, and attacking opponents.  So great are these problems, that some suggest Chile’s image of stability is only a veneer.  But with a rapidly growing church, there is much reason for optimism in the face of these threats.

Chile star rating: 5.5/10