The thing that has turned my head is not the north-south dichotomy but the way the familiar political line between left and right is blurred down here. Again and again I've been struck with the ways that Chile and Brazil, the two countries I'm visiting on this trip, have, on key issues, transcended the tired division between left and right the United States seems hopelessly mired in.
This isn't to say, of course, that the traditional political spectrum has magically ceased to exist down here, but both countries have narrowed the range of issues to be hashed out in the left/right sandbox and widened the range of issues that have become part of the national agenda -- beyond partisan gamesmanship. This is the exact opposite of what has been going on in the United States.
In the U.S., there is now hardly an issue that is exempt from the toxic left/right battles -- not even a bill to take care of the health of 9/11 first responders.
And in contrast to the assumption sweeping Washington that, as Tom Friedman put it, "America is only able to produce 'suboptimal' responses to its biggest problems," at virtually every stop on my South American trip I've encountered the can-do optimism that has for centuries been at the heart of the American dream.
It reinforced the feeling that a country's spirit has less to do with absolute conditions on the ground than with the perception of whether things are getting better or worse. And in Chile and Brazil, the perception is that things are definitely getting better. Indeed, a 2009 Gallup study found that Chileans and Brazilians expect that their lives five years from now will be significantly better than their lives today.
Chile is led by a president from the right, Brazil by a president from the left. But both have transcended stereotypes and shibboleths in order to tackle hard problems.
The first stop on my trip was Santiago, Chile, where I interviewed President Sebastián Piñera. Piñera is a first in many ways -- most obviously, he's the first right-wing president Chileans have elected in the two decades since Pinochet. He's a billionaire; the third richest man in Chile; a former professor with a Ph.D. from Harvard whose thesis was entitled "The Economics of Education in Developing Countries"; and he relaxes by, among other things, skydiving and flying helicopters.
We are only a few minutes into our interview in the blue room outside his office, dominated by a huge painting by the Chilean surrealist Matta, when he tells me: "By the end of this decade, we want Chile to be the first country in South America to have eliminated poverty, to have closed the gap in income between rich and poor, and to be recognized as a developed -- not a developing -- economy." A moment later, he adds: "Instead of just talking about poverty, we are working to defeat it. I always say, 'judge us on our results and achievements, not on our intentions.'"
To produce those results, he is putting more resources into overhauling his country's education system. "Nothing is more important," he told me. "We will win the battle against poverty in the classroom."
Piñera's urgency is accentuated by the knowledge that, in keeping with Chile's constitution, he can only serve one term at a time. When, in a conversation with his wife Cecilia Morel at lunch the following day, I remark on his intensity, the First Lady laughs: "Yes, I know. I've lived with it every day for 37 years! He recharges by working. I, on the other hand, need silence and time by myself."
Piñera took office on the heels of a catastrophe. His inauguration came less than two weeks after the devastating February 2010 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 500 Chileans, leveled or severely damaged 4,000 schools, and left 2 million Chileans homeless. Piñera tried to put the devastation in perspective for me. "The economic damage is equal to 18 percent of Chile's gross domestic product," he said. "In comparison, the cost of Katrina was less than one percent of America's GDP."
Pinera responded to the crisis with what the Economist called "a frenzy of activity." He is especially proud of the fact that, as he had promised, within two months of the quake, all 1.2 million schoolchildren affected by the quake were able to resume classes. "Some of the children," he told me, "were studying in makeshift classrooms inside tents, police stations, and churches -- often in split shifts. But they were all back at school."
Seven months later, 33 miners became trapped in the San José mine -- a twist of fate that tested his leadership and became a defining moment for his country and his presidency.
In the beginning, his advisers told him to keep his distance from the disaster, lest he be too closely connected to what was almost certainly going to be a tragic outcome. But Piñera disregarded their advice, listening instead to what, in uncharacteristic language for a head of state, he describes as "my inner voice." And he attacked the crisis with his signature verve. When his experts offered him three different strategies for rescuing the trapped miners, he ordered them to do all three at the same time. "That," he told me, "is what I would do if it were my children in the mine."
The triumphant rescue has helped rebrand Chile and Piñera. When I talked with rescued Chilean miner #21 Yonni Barrios (he was the one with the wife and mistress both holding vigil outside the mine), he said of the president: "I didn't vote for Piñera, but if he were running again I definitely would. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be alive." I later asked Barrios what his New Year's resolution is. "I don't make New Year's resolutions anymore. I take life one hour at a time."
Piñera's outlook is more long-range -- and unfailingly optimistic. During our talk, he repeatedly used the phrase "the sky's the limit" when talking about Chile's prospects. It's a far cry from the Obama administration's fervent embrace of "politics as the art of the possible."
When I ask Piñera about President Obama, he pauses for a moment then tells me: "Life is tough -- and you have to be tougher than life to change the world."
And Piñera is intent on changing, if not the world, at least Chile. And he's willing to cross traditional ideological boundaries to do so. If his focus on poverty makes him seem less like a conservative businessman-turned-politician and more like a traditional South American social democrat, he'll tell you that's only because you are listening with tired ears. "We've got to move beyond the idea that the public and private sectors are at odds," he told me. "Government has to lay the groundwork for private equity to productively invest in things like education. It's a partnership, not a battle."
Piñera has now been in office nine months and has wasted no time in letting the country -- and his own government -- know that he's determined to get things done. In February, before he even took office, at a press conference announcing his ministers, he gave each of them a computer drive containing his policy goals, which he hung around their necks.
It reminded me of the sticker Winston Churchill would place at the top of urgent items: "ACTION THIS DAY."
To avoid conflicts of interest, Piñera required his ministers to step down from any positions they held in private companies (although he's been criticized for taking too long to do the same). And to make sure they stayed in touch with the people, he's got each of his ministers twittering, and has a young, energetic social media team that I met with at the Palacio de La Moneda, where his office is.
But it's not just on economic issues that Piñera breaks the left/right mold. In August, a regional commission gave the go-ahead for the international company Suez Energy to develop a coal-fueled thermoelectric power plant near a Chilean nature reserve. Environmental groups protested. Piñera intervened and scuttled the development.
And when I met with Antonio Patriota, Brazil's incoming Foreign Minister, he told me that Piñera had "surprised everyone" when, soon after taking office, he sided with Brazil and other countries in pressuring Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, a conservative who came to power in a military coup, to not attend a EU-Latin America-Caribbean Summit. The assumption that Chile's first right-wing leader since Pinochet would side with Lobo was turned on its head, with Piñera saying he wouldn't attend the conference if Lobo was there, since he didn't consider him the leader of "a legitimate government." (It's worth noting that Chile, like the U.S., has since recognized Lobo's government.)
From the Palacio de La Moneda I went to Bellavista, the neighborhood where Pablo Neruda lived. Over 30 years ago, I had read in Neruda's essay "Childhood and Poetry" a passionate summing up of empathy as a guiding principle both for life and for politics.
"To feel the intimacy of brothers," Neruda wrote, "is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses -- that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things."
And this widening out of the boundaries of our being is what turns statecraft into soulcraft. And as Piñera has so far demonstrated, it is definitely beyond left and right.
Next: a look at Brazil and why it may be time to rebrand the promise of upward mobility the South American Dream.
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