Chile comes in from the cold

The Hindu

October 19, 2010

To Chileans abroad, it is a familiar routine. You introduce yourself as hailing from that long sliver of land at the end of the world, once mockingly described by Henry Kissinger as “a dagger pointing straight at the heart of Antarctica.” The response often is: “Where is Chile, exactly?”

Mexico is known for its vibrant popular music and impressive pre-Columbian Aztec civilisation; Brazil for its carnival, samba and multiethnic bricolage; Peru for Macchu Picchu and Cuzco, and Argentina for the tango, the gaucho and Buenos Aires. Chile's diffuse image, despite all the country it has going for it, seemed forever associated with General Augusto Pinochet.

That is, until October 13-14, when the rescue of 33 miners in the San José mine galvanised the world. In a time of war, recession, terrorism, pandemics, floods and earthquakes, this was the ultimate story of hope. The miners' endurance and fortitude are an example to all. The miner's lot is a harsh one. These men, from Florencio Avalos (the first one to come out) to Luis Urzúa (the last to do so) proved their mettle and ability to cope with the 69-day ordeal. Praise should also go to Greg Hall, the American mining engineer who figured out how to bore through 500 metres of volcanic rock to reach them, in the bowels of the earth underneath the Atacama desert.

Without teamwork they would not have survived. For 17 days, they shared scraps of food, parsed out in minimal daily rations. The international mining community, from Calgary to Calama, pitched in with their best men and women, tools and know-how. NASA stepped up to the plate, helping the Chilean Navy to build the rescue capsule, “Phoenix 2”. Australians, Americans, Canadians, Russians and South Africans were all there.

It even managed to bring Chile and Bolivia closer. One of the 33 miners, Carlos Mamani, the fourth to come up, is Bolivian. He had only been working at San José for 24 hours. Bolivian President Evo Morales paid a visit to greet him and told him Bolivia would provide him with a house. The miner responded to say that what he really wanted was a house in Chile.

Yet, this is also a story of the indispensable role of government in today's world. The potential tragedy was abetted by the irresponsible behaviour of San Esteban, the company that owns San José. With a history of safety violations, it pushed the limits in cost-cutting, though the high price of copper and gold would have been bringing in hefty profits. The mandatory exit shaft for any such emergencies was absent. And, after it was discovered that the miners were still alive, San Esteban announced it would stop their salaries, since the mine was no longer in production — impeccable management-speak logic.

Without the active role of government, the operation, this “brilliant example of human excellence” as Peggy Noonan put it in The Wall Street Journal, would not have happened. It was a collective endeavour, but in the end somebody has to take charge. After the mine fell in, Minister of Mining Laurence Golborne spent 50 of the next 70 days in Campamento Esperanza, the make-shift tent-city that came up. At one point it had a population of 3,000. His open, accessible style helped establish rapport with the miners' families. His logistics management and attention to detail (he is a former chief executive officer of a large Latin American retail company) ensured that everything went according to plan — from the sunglasses the miners wore when they came out to the suits prepared for their 15-minute, spiralling capsule journey.

Health Minister Jaime Mañalich played a critical role, camping out there. He supervised the monitoring of each miner's health. Issues such as the diabetic condition of one of them, José Ojeda, and their diet, were managed with microscopic care. This is why they emerged in good shape. One of them, Edison Peña, even kept up his jogging, clocking three to six miles a day in the underground corridors. He has been invited to the New York Marathon.

From Katrina to the Gulf oil spill, from the Pakistan floods to the chemical spill in Hungary, governmental response to emergencies has often been found wanting. It was thus only half in jest that Michael Moore told CNN's Larry King: “Next time there's an oil spill in the Gulf, let's call the Chilean government.”

And this takes us to the role of leadership. Though I did not vote for him, after his election last January I wrote that if President Sebastian Piñera was able to set aside his wealth-acquiring instincts and deployed his managerial-organisational talents for Chile's benefit, he could make a real difference. Having finally sold his stake in LAN-Chile and in the TV channel Chilevisión, he has proceeded to do just that.

The happy outcome of San José was not pre-ordained. The government could have taken a “hands-off” attitude, leaving the matter to the company. Yet, against the advice of some, Mr. Piñera took the bull by the horns. He cut short a visit to Colombia and flew directly to San José. From thereon, his government's No. 1 priority was finding the miners. After 17 days, it happened. And then, the task was to get them out.

In contrast to the Gulf oil spill, expectations were kept under control. Although Chile is a major mining country (the leading exporter of copper; about half of its nearly $70 billion in exports comes from mining), overseas help was enlisted. Whatever the engineers and rescue specialists requested was provided, no matter how expensive: the total cost of the rescue is around $20 million. If something had gone wrong, the political fallout would have been devastating. But Mr. Piñera's concern was to get them out, period. That is how the project jelled, as its components fell into place.

The minute-by-minute planning, control and execution, on the one hand, and maximum transparency, on the other, that marked the operation, should become a mandatory case study in business and public management schools. The counterpart to the crowd and media control on-site (1,500 journalists from 300 media outlets were kept several hundred metres from the spot the miners were to emerge from) was the live TV feed from the mine-bottom provided in real-time across the world. This technological feat (that took viewership to an estimated one billion: BBC World had 6.8 million, and the three main U.S. news cable channels of Fox, CNN and MSNBC reached 11 million) was the result of a presidential choice. Several of Mr. Piñera's collaborators (including Ministers Mr. Golborne and Mr. Mañalich) opposed it, on the ground that, if something went wrong, there was no going back. Yet, as a former TV station owner, Mr. Piñera knew only too well the difference between live and pre-recorded programming. He seemed certain that things would work out.

For 20 years, Chile has been one of the great, if largely unheralded, success stories. With an average annual growth rate of five per cent, it has had the best economic performance for any country outside Asia, and the fourth best anywhere. It has cut its poverty rate from 39 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent today. In early 2010, it became the first South American country to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Mr. Piñera has promised that by 2018, Chile would be a developed nation with a per capita income of $20,000 (it is now at $15,000 in purchasing power parity terms). Some people attribute Chile's success to its natural resources, others to its educational standards. The real reason is different. Over the two decades, Chile has developed a culture of doing things well, of designing and applying imaginative and effective public policies, and of getting things done.

Mr. Piñera, the first centre-right leader to rule Chile in 20 years, was elected on a platform of continuity and change. He promised to pursue many of the policies of the Concertación, the centre-left coalition that ruled Chile from 1990 to 2010, but more effectively and efficiently. Whether that happens remains to be seen. But for now, he has shown that he means what he says when he proclaims he can get things done, and do them well. The 33 miners whose lives were saved know as much.

Jorge Heine, a Chilean, holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, is Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario. His book (with Andrew F. Cooper), Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by U.N. University Press.

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