Monday, June 22, 2009

Tertulia #1: Manuel Valdés – The Economy and Racism

Last Wednesday night, we had our first tertulia. A tertulia is where we meet with an important guest speaker to learn about different aspects of Chile’s history, culture, and politics. Valdés was an agricultural secretary under General Augusto Pinochet. His background involved law. His hour-long talk led us through a brief history of Chile’s economic growth and modernization dating back to the colonial years up through the 1973 coup. His ability to summarize events was quite impressive. Unfortunately, there were many important aspects that he left out, such as the individual costs and the human rights violations that occurred during Pinochet.

Nonetheless, Valdés laid out a clear pro-market message to Chile’s economic situation. The roots of Chile’s economic prosperity can be traced back to mining, such as salt mining and copper mining in the north. The demand for these resources has always provided Chile’s economy with a solid backbone. However, during the mid 20th century, inflation and land inequality became a growing problem. Chile tried to modernize using the import-substitution method. This method was ineffective, which has been shown throughout history. Opening up to trade provides countless advantages, although it can exacerbate inequalities and isolate people and companies that don’t have the skills to compete. Additionally, expropriating huge lands held by relative few people to thousands of people ended up destroying the productivity of the land. Food shortages became serious problems throughout Allende’s reign.

While Valdés’ simple market explanation seemed to make sense, he didn’t go into detail about the human rights violations that resulted from General Pinochet’s coup and reign. It’s unfortunate that Valdés left out an important part of Chile’s history. His perspective is just one of many that has its strengths and weaknesses.

In addition to Valdés, another guest was present, Miguel Rogers, a good friend of Antonio’s father. He also showed another side of Chile that we haven’t seen: racism. While talking during dinner, he made a very controversial statement about how “Chile was lucky that it didn’t have blacks.” Part of his statement could be explained by the fact that Chile avoided the consequences and dilemma of slavery that many other countries in the Americas experienced. However, his statement echoes a sentiment that I’ve come across here. Racism towards blacks is fairly prevalent in Chile. Part of this could stem from the lack of Africans throughout Chile’s history. Instead, Chile faced internal problems with its treatment of indigenous groups.

Yanina, my host mother, told me about that she received a call in May asking her to host another student that was having problems with her family. The other student was Jamaican. Yanina already committed to hosting me, but she offered to talk to the other host family since she’s a social worker. She found that the family was quite bigoted and unable to accept the differences of the Jamaican student. Basically, they treated the girl like an outsider, not part of the family. After telling me the story, Yanina made an important point. People may not realize they are racist until they have to actually deal with interacting with others of another race. The other host family didn’t realize hosting a Jamaican girl would be problematic, but the situation exposed their racism.

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