Good can come from bad. The Chilean mining disaster which left 33 men trapped underground for seventy days may be a case in point.
For the first time in its history, Chile was the focus of the attention of the whole world – which had hitherto only had a vague impression of a place that alternated between military dictators and Marxists – and, when the world saw the real Chile, it liked what it saw.
First, there was the courage of the miners themselves. In particular, one cannot begin to imagine the mental toughness required to survive those first 17 days of their ordeal when they had no idea that anyone was coming to rescue them. Yet these men were strong enough not only to survive, but to show considerable dignity and good humour as they were rescued.
Second, there was the well-organised rescue effort that brought them out ahead of schedule. The whole nation was united behind it. The articulate new President of Chile and his hard-working Minister of Mines were seen to be leading from the front, and they gave the world a new image of South American statesmen, as caring and competent technocrats, nothing like the stereotypical strongmen and demagogues of the past.
In fact, Chile has long had a great deal going for it. It has one of the best developed market economies in South America and its democracy seems relatively stable. This year’s peaceful transition from a left-wing government to a right-wing administration after a free election would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.
Chile’s tourist industry is growing in international prominence and the reputation of the country’s wines is improving. The country’s maritime tradition, mineral exports, and diverse immigration has always meant that its international contacts have been better than most.
We have been saying for some time that Latin America has the potential to become one of the faster growing regions of the world over the next decade – so long as it can retain political stability and sensible economic policies, and ideally also do something to limit population growth. Mexico and Venezuela show how political stability cannot be taken for granted, but the Chile that rescued those miners showed what a confident and enterprising free country can do and ought to be the symbol of what the whole continent could become.