Last week, an estimated billion people around the world watched nervously as rescuers in northern Chile saved the lives of 33 trapped miners. “Los 33,” as they are now known in Chile, were buried 700 feet below ground for an unprecedented 69 days following the collapse of their mine on Aug. 5. They survived alone for 17 days before the outside world made contact. In a complex operation, they were finally pulled out last Tuesday at midnight, one by one. Their unique ordeal became the subject of intense international media scrutiny, and it played out like a real-time reality TV show.
One may cringe at such media overexposure, but it really was a refreshingly happy ending, against all odds. The live video feeds that transmitted the cheers at each emergence proved our collective desire to witness joy. Before the miners were actually found, their possible survival seemed a naïve illusion. I was back home in Santiago, Chile, the day the miners were first found alive. I remember how the good news spread, as exhilarated people called and texted their friends — I was skiing, with no cell phone reception, and still quickly heard about it. I heard rumors of restaurants and offices erupting into spontaneous cheer upon finding out. Even then, with the miners’ ultimate rescue still uncertain, and at least months away, an entire country had been given something to hope for.
And in 2010, Chile indeed needed something to hope for. A devastating earthquake struck back in February, killing hundreds, crippling billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. We inaugurated a new President, Sebastián Piñera, just weeks after the catastrophe; his plans and dreams for the next four years had been toppled along with the country. Though the country faced reconstruction with energy and great showings of solidarity, it seemed (and still seems) a momentous task. A sad irony of history had made 2010 our bicentennial as a nation — but after such a disaster, was it even proper to celebrate? Chile, the economic and political success story of Latin America, had its hopes for development dashed.
The successful rescue operation, carefully planned by President Piñera’s government and aided by international advisors and machinery, got the job done faster than even optimistic estimates. In Santiago, as my friends back home tell me, people began honking car horns in joy, and thousands gathered in downtown plazas. For a center-right government hoping to balance a reputation for managerial efficiency while appearing compassionate, it was a solid achievement. It is crucial to ask, though, how much of a difference the rescue of 33 men will make to a country of 17 million. After all the hype has died down, will there be any lasting impact?
Chile, admittedly, does not often capture the world’s imagination. With no Inca or Aztec ruins, tango, carnivals or pristine beaches, it does not bring to mind any iconic image, except perhaps the Pinochet dictatorship, mentioned in practically every foreign news article about the country prior to the mining accident. Now a window has opened. Millions of people abroad will have a concrete and more positive image of Chile in mind. And brand power matters in the world economy. New investors will hopefully picture an efficient, perseverant country.
Internally, the rescue may help alleviate, just a bit, the massive class barriers of Chilean society. Chile is very much two or three countries in one, split by considerable wealth disparities. Northeastern Santiago, where I’m from, is practically a bubble within a city. But now there are 33 new national heroes, with humble origins written on their faces. Their ordeal has created nationwide solidarity, across all classes.
The euphoria will eventually pass, and the miners may return to a semblance of their normal lives. Media coverage, possible movie deals and travelling as celebrities will make it difficult for a while, though. I hope they don’t get overwhelmed. It is worth wondering why the rest of the world cared so much. Sadly, optimists too often find their dreams shattered. At the worst moments of the mining accident, tragedy seemed certain. The fact that it wasn’t proved that optimism does sometimes win.
Diego Salvatierra is a sophomore in Pierson College from Santiago, Chile.