Chileans remember September 11

Posted: Sep 04, 2002 12:00 AM
SANTIAGO, CHILE -- Avenida 11 de Septiembre (The Avenue of Sept. 11) is one of the main streets here. But it's not for this reason that Chile is likely to become one of the main beneficiaries of the new "fast-track" trade bill that President Bush signed into law last month. Avenida 11 de Septiembre does not honor U.S. dead but reminds Chileans of the events of 1973. In Washington during that year, President Nixon was barricading himself mentally as Watergate investigations deepened. But 5,000 miles to the south, in this ribbon-shaped country almost as long as the United States is wide, Chilean President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11 was barricading himself physically against attack by the Chilean army. By the end of the day, Allende lay dead, a suicide according to the doctor who was first to see the body. Coup supporters imprisoned thousands of his partisans, and many died, often at the hands of local vigilantes. Now, Sept. 11 in Chile is a day of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, and Santiago may be the one place where terrorism's success in New York and at the Pentagon last year led to less violence. Many Chilean militants who might have thrown punches in street protests were instead entranced by the television accounts from New York and Washington. Both Sept. 11s are still in the Chilean consciousness. Older people often say the military saved Chile from a communist plan to kill thousands of conservatives and impose a Castro-style dictatorship. Young children call the United States "the land of the towers." But both young and old are part of a forward-looking, vibrant culture of 15 million people and an economy ready for entrepreneurial advances and increased trade with the United States. Argentina and other South American countries have fallen prey to soak-the-rich demagoguery that ends up hurting the poor. Chileans, perhaps because they saw 30 years ago the results of Allende's attempt to increase cross-class antagonism, have reduced taxes and tariffs. The result: an economic boom that has cut poverty from 45 percent to 21 percent and made the average Chilean 40 percent richer than the average Argentine. Santiago is now a bustling city of 5 million that displays a strong U.S. influence. McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC offer fast food, store windows display leftover U.S. products like "Wisconsin 1999 Rose Bowl" sweatshirts, and Chileans say "OK" to other Chileans. Some among the university elite decry Americanization, but many poor Chileans who walk the pavement selling newspapers, Coca-Cola, bottled water, candy, strawberries, bananas, bubble gum and even mushrooms want their country to become a land of opportunity like the land of the towers. The statistics reflect Chilean attitudes. During the 1990s, Chile's exports grew at an annual rate of more than 9 percent, and the result is that Chileans earned a per capita average of $1,466 from exports last year -- the average Argentine made only $ 875. Chile has probably made the most progress of any South American country in creating a rule of law with protection for private property and reduction of regulatory burdens. Seeing Chile as the most progressive (in the true sense of the word) country in South America, the Bush administration has been negotiating a bilateral trade pact with it -- but the knowledge that members of Congress representing special interests would wheel and deal for protectionist policies made any agreement difficult. The new trade law, though, gives TeamBush the authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress can accept or reject, but not alter. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick now says the administration will move quickly to wrap up a pact with Chile. In this country, we'll probably see lower prices on grapes, lumber and salmon from Chile. Chileans will probably import from us more tractors, grain and vegetable oil. Meanwhile, the United States can learn much about compassionate conservatism from Chile. Poor Chilean parents now can choose whether to send their children to municipal schools or private ones, by using an equivalent of vouchers. Workers control their own retirement accounts. The Chilean memory of both Sept. 11s, I hope, will fade as winding roads in both Chile and the United States lead us toward liberty.