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Chile's mine rescue caps record of successes

Friday, October 15, 2010; A20

CHILEAN MINERS' rescue from a 69-day ordeal was an enthralling story in many of its aspects, from the drama of men trapped underground to the anxiety of their waiting families to the precarious but ultimately successful rescue operation. But we also found it inspiring for what it said about Chile, and the rewards it has reaped from a 20-year record as Latin America's most-free country.

Brazil and Venezuela get much of the attention that has been directed at South America in recent years -- the former for its supposed emergence as a global economic giant and the latter for its alleged commitment to "21st-century socialism." It's not often enough recognized that Chile, which has embraced free markets and free trade to a far greater extent than has Brazil, has grown twice as fast over the past two decades and become far richer and more competitive in world markets.

Chile also has done a far better job attacking its poverty than Venezuela and other nations that claim that as their first priority: It has halved its poverty rate twice since 1987 and now counts less than 20 percent of its population as poor, compared with nearly 40 percent in Venezuela and 31 percent in Brazil. Politically, its democracy has produced pragmatic and effective governments and a robust free press.

All that helps explain why the rescue of 33 miners trapped more than 2,000 feet below ground in the middle of a desert could succeed. The government of President Sebastián Piñera, a successful entrepreneur, quickly committed itself to the politically risky goal of saving the trapped men. Thanks to Chile's openness to the world and embrace of entrepreneurship, it was able to effectively deploy cutting-edge technologies. There were special cellphones from Korea, flexible fiber-optic cable from Germany and advice from NASA on the construction of a rescue capsule. Perhaps most significant, a private mining company with Japanese and British investors paid for the U.S.-manufactured drilling rig and drill bits that managed to penetrate through rock in record time.

The world was riveted by the extraction of the miners on Wednesday in large part because more than 750 journalists traveled to the site from around the globe, taking advantage of Chile's media freedom. Most of those who watched were no doubt focused on the emerging miners. But let's hope they learned a little as well about an emerging Latin American success story.

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