Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Rescued Relations

Did the Chilean mine rescue just end a 130-year feud?

RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images

It would be hard to imagine an odder couple than Sebastián Piñera and Evo Morales. Piñera, after all, is Chile's billionaire president and unabashed free market advocate. Morales, in contrast, is one of the main champions (along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez) of Latin America's "21st-century socialism." He is the first indigenous president of Bolivia (a country with a majority indigenous population) and remains head of the coca growers union from which he built his grassroots political base. Personalities aside, Chile and Bolivia haven't had diplomatic ties for more than a century, ever since Chile captured its neighbor's only coastline in the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific. These two presidents were not exactly set up to be friends.

Yet as Chile brought 33 trapped miners to the surface to international fanfare Wednesday, Oct. 13, there it was for the world to see: the odd image of the two presidents sharing the podium in the desert sun. Piñera and Morales may be at polar ends of the political and ideological spectrum, but their personal bond has been strengthened as a result of the extraordinarily compelling and riveting human-interest story. And in politics, sometimes that is enough.

It would be hard to imagine an odder couple than Sebastián Piñera and Evo Morales. Piñera, after all, is Chile’s billionaire president and unabashed free market advocate. Morales, in contrast, is one of the main champions (along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez) of Latin America’s "21st-century socialism." He is the first indigenous president of Bolivia (a country with a majority indigenous population) and remains head of the coca growers union from which he built his grassroots political base. Personalities aside, Chile and Bolivia haven’t had diplomatic ties for more than a century, ever since Chile captured its neighbor’s only coastline in the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific. These two presidents were not exactly set up to be friends.

Yet as Chile brought 33 trapped miners to the surface to international fanfare Wednesday, Oct. 13, there it was for the world to see: the odd image of the two presidents sharing the podium in the desert sun. Piñera and Morales may be at polar ends of the political and ideological spectrum, but their personal bond has been strengthened as a result of the extraordinarily compelling and riveting human-interest story. And in politics, sometimes that is enough.

Bolivian Carlos Mamani, the only non-Chilean trapped for 69 days in the San Jose Mine, deserves credit for bringing the two South American leaders even closer together Wednesday. It was Mamani’s rescue that prompted Morales’s jaunt to Chile, where he stood alongside Piñera at the mine. Morales, who has a knack for sensing political winners, gushed about Piñera and Chile. (Meanwhile, he is doing his best to lure Mamani from Chile back to the far less prosperous Bolivia; no luck yet.)

To be sure, the historically tense relationship between Chile and Bolivia had thawed in recent years. In January 2006, Morales invited the then-current Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos, to attend his inauguration — a symbolically significant gesture because the two countries did not have official relations. A couple of months later, incoming Chilean President Michelle Bachelet invited Morales to her own inauguration. Before those instances, the last time the president of either country had participated in the other’s inauguration was more than half a century earlier.

Of course, both Lagos and Bachelet are Socialists, one could argue, much closer to Morales’s ideological side. Piñera, who leads the first conservative government in the two decades since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year military rule, is decidedly not. So it was particularly noteworthy that in March, at Piñera’s inauguration, Morales not only attended but in fact played fútbol on the same team as his Chilean counterpart, in a "spirit of fraternity." For the past seven months, relations between the countries, which are pursuing dramatically divergent economic and political models, have been measured and pragmatic.

It was during the Bachelet government when a framework was fashioned between Chile and Bolivia to more effectively manage the previously rocky bilateral relationship. In July 2006, the Bachelet and Morales administrations hammered out a comprehensive 13-point agenda that covered a range of questions, including border integration, security and defense cooperation, water-resource management and energy, and even science and technology. To date, that accord has at least kept relations on track.

That’s not to say that the underlying mistrust between the two countries has disappeared. Moments of shared exuberance like the miners’ rescue may be uplifting, but they do not resolve the historic dispute and give Bolivia its long-desired access to the Pacific Ocean. For that, a lot of hard diplomatic work remains. Such moments do, however, inject a measure of goodwill and sweeten the bilateral dynamics. The miners’ rescue could well make cooperation on shared development and economic projects more productive.

Curiously, something similar has been happening lately between Colombia and Venezuela. Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos, and Venezuela’s Chávez, are pursuing a practical course that seeks to defuse tensions and bring economic benefits to both countries. Santos and Chávez are diametrically opposed in nearly all respects. Santos is a scion of one of Colombia’s wealthiest families while Chávez, a military officer of humble origins, has for the past dozen years been relentlessly railing against what he calls the "squalid oligarchy." And though Santos doesn’t trust Chávez’s relationship with Colombian insurgents who operate in Venezuelan territory — and though Chávez doesn’t trust the intentions of Colombia’s U.S.-backed military — the leaders of the neighboring countries are working out a modus vivendi to handle their differences more prudently. They are talking about energy, trade, and a security commission to monitor the countries’ chaotic border.

The good feelings between Colombia and Venezuela — and for that matter between Chile and Bolivia — may prove ephemeral. There are many reasons, not least domestic politics in each country, why some current expressions of pragmatism could be derailed. Leaders will never cease to find it tempting to appeal to nationalist sentiments. But these cases also illustrate the sometimes salutary effects produced by common borders, frequently accompanied by commercial ties, intense migratory flows, and deep societal connections.

Piñera and Morales will never be soul mates. The differences between them in background and belief are profound. Although neighbors, they are of entirely different worlds. But in their concern to enhance the well-being of their citizens in ways they consider best, they have discovered the power of shared interests, which can often transcend ideology or nationalism. And of course there is the potent human dimension — which, under some exceptional circumstances, can easily trump everything else.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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