Chile's Investment Deepening Ties to U.S.

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, June 20, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- In recent years, a newfound -- and welcome -- autonomy in Latin America has been too often accompanied by the belief that the United States has little to offer the region anymore. As Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, an Argentine professor of foreign relations, noted in a newspaper column titled "Goodbye Washington," "there is an unusual proliferation of initiatives conceived without U.S. participation."

Not in Chile, however. The economic dynamo of South America is seeking to deepen its ties with the United States, already a free trade partner. The latest sign of this growing engagement will take place next week in Sacramento, Calif., when Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launch a new partnership between Chile and the U.S.' most populous state.

The pact is part of Chile's long-term strategy to tap into what Mariano Fernandez, Chile's ambassador to the United States, calls the continued U.S. "international hegemony" in higher education. California's universities -- already at the forefront in biotechnology and alternative energy sources such as solar -- are particularly attractive for Chile as it seeks the key for its next leap forward.

Chile is pushing hard to build "human capacity" with a $6 billion dollar investment in higher education, by far the largest in Latin America, according to Jeffrey Puryear, education expert at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

In the 1960s, a similar academic training program, largely funded by the U.S. government and U.S private foundations, proved to be a sound long-term investment for Chile. Students who graduated from California universities helped modernize Chilean agriculture and substantially contributed to the country's economic success of today.

Chile now has the cash on hand to fund the academic program itself, thanks to high commodity prices. Its exports rose 60 percent in the last two years, buoyed by high prices for copper. Unlike most other Latin American countries experiencing similar windfalls, Chile is investing for the long term and seeking to diversify into a knowledge-based economy.

Yet the country wants even more from its academic initiatives. Officials are pledging to reach out beyond urban centers and to do away with the traditional requirement that students be proficient in English, the kind of filters that used to keep such programs out of reach for all but the elite. The hope is that expanding educational opportunities to those less privileged will help spread around the current economic prosperity.

Pamela Diaz-Romero, director of a Ford Foundation program in Chile and Peru for disadvantaged but talented students, questions how far the official rhetoric is from the reality, particularly in a society where cultural prejudice has long equated privilege with talent. Still, Diaz-Romero adds, the sheer volume of scholarships generated by Chile's significant new investment should help reach students normally left out.

In many respects, Chile may be on its way to addressing three significant challenges that nearly all Latin American countries face: overcoming a dependence on revenue from raw materials, the lack of alternative sources for energy, and persistent inequality. Taking Chile's lead, the other countries in the region would do well to set aside their concerns about subjugating their will to the United States and instead craft their own engagements with their northern neighbor.

And if Chile's case is still not convincing enough, perhaps Asia and its dizzying growth will be. For years, Asian countries have been sending their best and brightest to U.S. universities with the hope that they will become innovators when they return home. Last year, according to the Institute of International Education, Asia sent more than five times as many students to U.S. universities as did Latin America.

The United States also has much to gain from these exchanges. In a presentation here last week, Alejandro Foxley, Chile's foreign minister, referred to U.S. academic institutions as a "considerable soft power" the United States could use to generate new trust and increase areas of shared interests in inter-American relations. What's more, he said, this time the United States won't have to cover every bill. Thanks to current favorable economic conditions, he added, "almost all countries in the region have money they could spend this way."

With U.S. foreign policy priorities focused elsewhere, Washington's recent initiatives in the region have been far from ambitious, due to a lack of significant funding behind them. With Latin America providing more funds and the U.S. its know-how, one important inroad to mutually beneficial north-south relations is in our midst.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

© 2008 The Washington Post Company