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Chile’s Tradition Helped Mining Rescue

Chile's successful mining rescue reflects its tradition of strong leadership, commitment to mining and sense of nationalism.


As the last of the 33 miners and three rescue workers were winched out of the depths of the Atacama desert, the world watched in awe as the small Andean nation committed itself to rescue the beleaguered men.

Although mining accidents are commonplace throughout the globe, few countries are capable or willing to rescue the trapped workers. Coal mining accidents occur frequently in China and Russia, with little chances of escape. However, the events in Chile are the reflection of several long traditions that shaped the country during the last 200 years.


The first tradition is one of strong leadership. A narrow strip of land, 4,300 kilometers long, Chileans always knew that a strong leader was the only way that to impose order on such far-flung distances. The country's motto sums it up nicely, "Por la razon o por la fuerza"-By reason or by force. This is one of the reasons why strong aristocratic technocrats always fared so well in Chile. One of the first such leaders was Diego Portales, a well-bred and well-educated autocrat who ruled the country following the Civil War of the early 1830s. After its independence from Spain, Chile, like many of the other Latin American countries, was divided across liberal and conservative lines, and it eventually exploded into a bloody struggle. Although never formally elected, Portales emerged as a stabilizing force that was able to pacify the country through the imposition of martial law and a strong authoritarian hand. He was eventually assassinated by a renegade Colonel, but he emerged as a martyr and a guiding light for the political class. Colonial leaders, like Bernardo O'Higgins and Jose Miguel Carrera, may have helped secure the country's independence, but Portales will always be credited with framing the nation's identity. His efforts delineated the country's boundaries, took stock of the nation's population and helped develop the state's infrastructure. Chile's strong leadership allowed the small nation to overcome enormous obstacles, defeat much larger opponents and carve out an important place in the global economy. Therefore, the fact that the country's current president, a self-made billionaire, educated at Harvard and hailing from the political right, was on the spot to see the last person raised out of the small borehole is a testament to a long line of traditions that commenced almost two centuries ago.


The rescue of the miners also reflected a second tradition, the country's commitment to mining. The Andes are what defines Chile. Its borders are delineated by the continental divide that constitutes the windward side of the mountain range. Although the lush valleys of central Chile provide much of the country's agricultural production, its economy has always been based on mining. Pedro de Valdivia's initial military expedition into Chile was to search for the rumoured Marga Marga gold mines outside Valpariso. His force of 1,000 men, comprised mostly of Peruvian Indians, trekked across the Atacama in search of wealth and glory. Although the rumours did not fully pan out, mining would always play an important role in the country's development. Led by Englishmen John T. North and a group of other foreign investors, the Chilean government was coerced to take on Peru and Bolivia in 1879 in a dangerous gambit to conquer the lucrative nitrate fields that were just beyond the country's borders. The gamble paid off, and Chile successfully defeated its two northern neighbours-but with very high losses. Mining would also play an important role in the country's political development. Coal miners in the southern part of the country began to organize and take on the oligarchical economic interests led by the Cousinos and Goyenecheas clans at the turn of the century. These organizations began to form the nucleus of the giant mining union, CUT, that today dominates the copper mining industry. Therefore, mining and mining interests always played a central role in Chilean society.


The third, and last, tradition highlighted by the rescue operation is the country's deep sense of nationalism. Although bouts of nationalism often surface during football matches, the vivid emotions displayed by the country's leaders and the sense of unity that swept the nation is something that is often missing in the developing world. There is a sense of civic pride and duty that keeps corruption low in Chile and bolsters the country's civil institutions. It is a characteristic that is sometimes seen in parts of northern Europe, North America or Singapore, but it is often missing throughout Latin America. Chileans obey the law not because they are afraid, but because they know that it is the only way for the society to function in an orderly manner. Therefore, the rescue of the miners may appear to have been a stroke of good luck, but it was really the culmination of two centuries of powerful traditions that shaped modern Chile.

Walter Molano is head of research at BCP Securities.



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