After the miners' ordeal, Chile must forge a new identity

By Paula Escobar Chavarría
Sunday, October 17, 2010

SANTIAGO, CHILE -- Red pen on white paper, stuck in a plastic bag, the six words went round the world.

"Estamos bien en el refugio los 33." "The 33 of us are okay in the refuge."

It was Aug. 22, the 17th day of the saga of the miners, and until then Chile and the world did not know if the men trapped 2,000 feet underground were alive or dead. And in this moment, we knew they lived.

Their message -- perfect in its concise, narrative elegance -- spoke volumes for what it did not say. It did not say, help us, get us out of here, we're dying. Their attitude was quite the opposite. We're fine, all of us, they said. Keep on trying to get us out. Keep doing your job, because we're still doing ours.

It was something Chile needed to hear.

The dramatic story of our miners overlapped, coincidentally, with Chile's bicentennial celebration. I had the good fortune to serve until last year on Chile's Bicentennial Commission, a diverse group that debated the spirit and values that the nation's 200th birthday party should reflect. When Chile reached its centennial 100 years ago, its citizens were looking across the Atlantic, trying to be more European. This time, as the occasion approached, we'd been speaking of how to become a fully developed country by 2020, the first in Latin America to achieve that status, a model for the region.

But suddenly, with a potential tragedy unfolding deep within our land, we Chileans began to doubt. Should we even celebrate the bicentennial if we have 33 compatriots underground, without knowing their fate? How can we claim to join the top tier of nations if we allow private companies to subject their workers to the risks these men faced? Can society remain quiet before such injustice for those who are born without privilege?

With their message, the miners themselves gave us the beginnings of an answer. Their steely strength, that ability to avoid complaints or pleas and to reveal dignity and confidence in the face of hardship, that has been the greatest emotional lesson to emerge from this affair. Where utter despair was legitimate and understandable, we saw calm, logic, strategy, perseverance.

For the bicentennial celebration, no one could have imagined a better symbol than the 33.

Forget Europe. Now we just wanted to be Chileans. Better Chileans.

In a mining country such as ours, the accident on Aug. 5 at the San Jose mine near Copiapo was symbolic of our national condition. These were ordinary laborers, hard-working men who lacked much formal education, strong men hardened by the northern sun, by a life underground and the physical and mental stress their work required. Mining is known as Chile's "salary," accounting for much of our gross domestic product. This mine, owned by two Chilean entrepreneurs, offered better pay than most but was rumored to be riskier for the workers.

We all know what happened after the thundering mine collapse knocked them down and buried the 33; the actions and reactions have already achieved mythic status. The foreman, Luis Urzua, taking control, rationing canned tuna and milk. The relatives, coming to get news of their loved ones and deciding not to leave until they learned what was happening, themselves enduring the sun, then the cold, then the wind. President Sebastian Piñera, insisting that the miners were alive when others assured him it was impossible; then, on the same day his father-in-law died, holding triumphant the message from the miners.

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