Santiago de Chile part II: Passionate People, Pragmatic Politics

This is part 2 of a 2 part series documenting my epic Spring Break in Santiago de Chile.

Santiago is structurally a fantastic city, as I have previously noted; however, just as the body’s vitality is dependent on blood flowing through its veins,  a city is dependent on its people to breathe life into its streets and buildings. The constant interactions and exchanges of a city’s inhabitants define and redefine a city’s identity.

Nowhere is this truer than in Latin America, where people are passionate and social bonds are intimate. Whenever I met a man I was warmly embraced, and failing to kiss a woman on her cheek upon meeting her would be considered discourteous. While Millenials throughout Europe and North America bounce and sweat to Electronic Dance Music, young Santiaguinos (the local term for residents of Santiago) populate Salsa bars, sensually dancing with friends and strangers alike. Advanced salsa partners seem to blur into a single entity, twisting and hip shaking in perfect harmony; it really is one of the most beautiful representations of human intimacy to witness first-hand, and the perfect physical manifestation of the passion of the Latin American people. I attempted to Salsa on my final evening in Santiago with the rest of my GBHP Sophomore class, and despite stepping on more than a few toes and living up to my reputation as a “gringo” (the affectionate Chilean term for foreigners), I eventually picked up the basic steps and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I will be taking classes in New York!!

The live band at the Salsa club in which we danced.

The youths of Chile may be passionate, but our visits to the Universidad de San Alberto Hurtado also revealed another side of their character: their political activeness. In May 2011 students began occupying schools across the country in a protest against the privatized education system implemented under the regime of Augusto Pinochet, the right-wing dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990. Despite visiting Chile almost 2 years after the student protests began, it was evident that their had been no loss in the movement’s momentum: a large banner proclaiming “we fight for a new society” greeted our entrance to the University, groups of students spent their lunch hour discussing the inequality that still plagues Chile’s society, and political activists were informing other students about a rally that was being held that evening.

“We fight for a new society… Welcome to the University”

It is clear that Chile’s political turmoil over the past 40 years still shapes much of the political conversation today, while the legacy of the policies implemented under the socialist Salvador Allende and his successor, Pinochet, who seized power in a coup d’etat, still clearly define Chile’s society. Post-Pinochet political leaders in Chile have been characterized by their pragmatic policies, attempting to address the poverty and inequality left the dictator’s regime without doing anything to threaten the country’s economic growth. The most interesting observation I picked up on was in relation to the death of Hugo Chavez. Expecting most Chilean’s to share the American view of Chavez as a socialist dictator who misled his people in an attempt to hold onto power, I was shocked to hear from a number of students and a professor that they thought of Chavez as a great Latin American leader who was passionate about helping his people, and the key instigator in bringing about closer economic and political ties between the Latin American nations. Even the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, is quoted as saying that Chile had lost a great friend in Chavez. Our Chilean Professor (whose name escapes me but whose sideburns will not be easily forgotten) informed us that many politicians still dream of uniting the continent and alleviating the injustices inflicted on their people. It struck me that if Chavez had been born 50 years ago he may today be considered in a similar vain to Che Guevara, as a freedom fighter.

The final thing I’d like to note about the people of Chile is how they view their position in the world. As a former colony in the southern hemisphere, and as a country that is still developing, Chile occupies a very different position on the world stage than the UK or the US, my two main countries of reference. One difference I noticed was a small but definite inferiority complex Chileans possess when talking about their country’s achievements on a world scale. Numerous professors and businessmen referred to Chile’s economy as small, and one professor pointed out that Chile’s GDP is only equivalent to that of the state of Wisconsin (a fact I checked up because I didn’t believe it to be true). “GDP growth of 6% may sound impressive,” he said, “but it is easy to grow at that rate when you start from a low base.” These facts may be true, but when I was in Dubai the Emiratis spoke as though their economy was on par with the UK, and even implied that in many ways their was superior. I can’t help but feel that this deference to some of the bigger players on the world stage will constrict Chile’s opportunities of ever becoming an economy such as South Korea’s or Singapore’s.

The people of Chile are amongst the friendliest, warmest and most passionate people I have ever met. Despite their turbulent past they are proud of their achievements, and extremely proud to be Chilean. If the people are the lifeblood of a city, then Santiago’s heart rate is pounding.

Until next time!

Ross Garlick


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