We in Ireland (or rather the Republic of Ireland) have a lazy, solipsistic tendency to think we are the greatest little country in the world (and not just to do business in). I have spent most of the past fortnight in another small country on the far side of the world which, I would contend, can lay far better claim to that title.
Chile is a long thin snake of a country squeezed between the Andes mountains and the Pacific ocean and running from the Atacama desert (the driest place on earth) in the north, through the Mediterranean climes and cool rain forest of the centre, to the sub-Antarctic tundra of Tierra del Fuego in the south. It contains the oldest inhabited site in the Americas (12,500 years); the finest wine in the Southern hemisphere; breathtaking mountain and lake scenery that surpass anything in the Alps or the Rockies, and sophisticated seaside resorts that are on a par with many in the Mediterranean.
Chile is a modern social democracy with a socialist single mother as president that has an enviable record of economic expansion in recent years, boosted by record prices for its key export, copper. It continues to have many problems – it remains a deeply unequal society, with more than 600,000 of its 17 million people living in extreme poverty; its education system is unfair and under-funded; it is periodically torn apart by earthquakes (the last one in 2010 killed over 500 people and caused US$30 billion in damage) – and the plumbing is dreadful. But it is a country that pulses with youth, pride and energy.
Chile has suffered to get to its present state of political and economic well-being. On 11 September 1973 (a date Chileans remember for different reasons to the rest of the world) the government of the radically socialist – but passionately constitutionalist – president, Salvador Allende, was violently overthrown by a CIA-backed military junta led by army chief General Augusto Pinochet (Allende died, probably by suicide, as the air force bombed his presidential palace). During the brutal 17 year military dictatorship that followed, an estimated 3,000 people were killed or violently ‘disappeared’ and over 200,000 fled into exile, including a small group to Ireland, where they did not receive a particularly warm welcome (I was secretary of the Chile Solidarity Committee in Dublin at the time).
However Chile has reason to be grateful to Ireland for another reason. The principal ‘liberator’ of Chile from Spanish rule during the Latin American wars of independence between 1810 and 1818 was Bernardo O’Higgins, the illegimate son of the Sligo-born Spanish Viceroy of Peru. The British were also strong supporters of the Chilean independence struggle (for their own imperial reasons) and there are as many statues in towns throughout the country to Admiral Thomas Cochrane, the Scottish royal navy officer who founded the Chilean navy (and the Brazilian and Greek navies – he was Patrick O’Brian’s model for the swashbuckling Jack Aubrey in his series of seafaring novels) as there are to O’Higgins. In Valparaiso, the wonderfully picturesque and ramshackle main port, the monument in the main square commemorates two Irishmen (O’Higgins and naval officer George O’Brien), one Scotsman (Cochrane) and one Englishman (naval officer Robert Simpson). General Juan McKenna from Monaghan was also prominent on the Chilean side, notably as founder of its army’s engineer corps.
The Catholic religion in Chile remains important, although (as in Ireland) its iron grip on many aspects of social and personal life has loosened in recent years. Divorce was only legalised in 2004. It remains one of the very few countries in the world where abortion is illegal in all circumstances and where the right to life of the unborn is enshrined in the Constitution.
In the extraordinarily beautiful southern lake and volcano region around Puerto Varas live the descendants of German settlers whose diligence and industry have turned this area into something close to a rural Arcadia. Our local guide related how their ancestors came to lands which had been vacated by Huilliche Indians fleeing the marauding, slave seizing Spanish conquistadores. The envoy sent by the Chilean government in the 1850s to Germany to recruit them was told to bring back Catholics – instead he returned with Lutherans. Undeterred, the government sent in the Jesuits to educate their children. As a result, the great majority of their descendants are now Catholic, although some of their lovely churches are national monuments.
The next time we are tempted to boast about Ireland being the greatest little country in the world, we should think of Chile. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda – winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 – once asked a Soviet cosmonaut whether he had seen Chile while he was out in space. The cosmonaut said he did remember seeing some ‘yellow mountain ranges in South America.’ We don’t even have serious mountains to show to people in the stratosphere, even if there is a Canadian astronaut out there with a fondness for us!
We should think not only about Chile but also about other small, internationally ignored South American countries like Uruguay and Bolivia, where huge numbers of poorer people are being provided with jobs, housing and education for the first time under left-wing governments. Our version of free enterprise plus austerity is not the only model for early 21st century democracies. We need to be less full of ourselves in the little island of Ireland (and the insignificant province of Northern Ireland) and learn more about the small countries of Latin America that are doing great things to improve the lives of their people.
PS This is very much a sympathetic tourist’s eye view. If any Chilean (or other) reader thinks I’ve got anything badly wrong in this blog, I would welcome a correction.