The Washington Diplomat / January 2011
By Larry Luxner
In late September, Chilean Ambassador Arturo Fermandois eulogized one of his predecessors, Orlando Letelier, on the 34th anniversary of his assassination by agents of the late dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
The annual ceremony — held at the very spot on Washington’s Sheridan Circle where a car bomb took Letelier’s life and that of his assistant, political activist Ronni Moffitt — has become somewhat of a ritual for Chilean ambassadors. What made this year’s observance unusual is the fact that Fermandois represents Chile’s first center-right government in 20 years.
“Part of my speech was explaining what that assassination meant to my generation,” said Fermandois, a guitar-playing lawyer-turned-diplomat who was only 14 on Sept. 21, 1976, when the car Letelier and Moffitt were riding in was blown to bits.
“Young people are not involved in politics, and our families didn’t belong to the left. I should have been more aware.”
That’s why the moment took on even more significance, said Chile’s new ambassador, who assumed his new post in June. “It was my great honor to demonstrate that our new coalition believes in human rights as much as the previous one. What happened was very shameful, and of course we reject violence.”
Chile has certainly come a long way since the bad old days of Pinochet, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1973 — when he overthrew Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende — to 1990, when he transferred power to a democratically elected president. Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean army until 1998 and died in 2006 at the age of 91.
Under his watch, up to 80,000 people were arrested, as many as 30,000 tortured, and between 1,200 and 3,200 killed.
Fast-forward to 2010. Chile today is considered Latin America’s best-governed country, thanks to an array of reforms passed during the past two decades that repealed the last vestiges of military rule. Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index rated Chile 25 out of 180 countries surveyed, making it the highest-ranking performer in Latin America.
“Guarantees of free speech are generally respected, and the media operate without constraint,” according to Freedom House’s latest report. “The print media is dominated by two right-leaning companies, but the television market is considered highly diverse. A freedom of information law enacted in 2008 was praised by civil society groups. There are no government restrictions on the Internet.”
On the economic front, things are looking up, too — though Chile wasn’t an especially poor country to begin with. Despite his abuse of human rights, Pinochet is widely credited for rejecting socialism and putting Chile firmly on the path to a free market economy.
“We have tripled per-capita income during the last 20 years, from $5,000 a year to $14,000,” said Fermandois, a Harvard Law School professor who was named to his current post by billionaire President Sebastián Piñera. “We’ve been able to reduce poverty from 36 percent of the population to 13 percent, and extreme poverty from 12 percent to 3 percent. We are very proud of our achievements.”
Chile’s proudest achievement — and the one which made the country literally an overnight sensation — was its dramatic October rescue of 33 miners who had been trapped for 69 days in a mine shaft nearly half a mile below the Earth’s surface. The rescue came eight months after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake devastated the country’s Maule region, resulting in some 520 deaths, damaging 370,000 homes, and causing an estimated $5 billion in total losses.
It was an inspiring emotional turnaround that that riveted not only Chileans, but the entire world. To celebrate the miners’ rescue, Fermandois presided over two nights of singing, dancing and drinking at the Chilean Embassy in Washington, where a billboard-size television screen in the embassy's front yard broadcast the rescue live to hundreds of onlookers along Massachusetts Avenue (also see “Chile’s Risky Rescue” in the Oct. 19, 2010, lifestyle column of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
“We thought attention would die down, but even more people came the second night,” he said, estimating that as many as 400 Chileans, Americans and other well-wishers showed up. “We didn’t invite anyone. It was a pretty spontaneous party, from State Department officials to hundreds of regular people passing by on Massachusetts Avenue.”
Among those who partied with Fermandois: Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, a coal miner from Pennsylvania.
“Trumka gave me a hug and said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, those are my brothers.’ That was one of the most touching moments of the night,” Fermandois told The Diplomat.“We prepared a 300-page book for people to write messages to the miners, and it was filled up in a couple of hours, every page. There was a line of people waiting to sign the book.”
While Chilean embassies around the world hosted similar parties that night, Fermandois said the Washington event was particularly symbolic because, he said, “we were involved in the rescue” in a very direct way.
“The drill that eventually reached the miners was sent from Pennsylvania,” he said, noting that two companies were involved: Schramm Inc. and Center Rock Inc. “I was called by the foreign minister and the minister of mining and asked to have that machinery sent to Chile. We were able to get it to Chile with the help of an American company that did it for free.”
Fermandois said the 13-ton contraption was trucked from Pennsylvania to Florida, then flown from Miami to Santiago, where a Chilean Air Force plane was waiting to take it to the mine.
As a result, he said, “we thought we’d be rescuing the miners by Christmas, but as it turned out we reached them two months before that.”
The euphoria created in the wake of the 33 miners’ rescue from their underground prison also helped to boost Piñera’s approval rating from around 50 percent to 63 percent.
“Of course this impacted the popularity of his entire government, not only the president but his staff, his ministers, everybody. Even the opposition praised him because everybody was involved,” said Fermandois, hinting that the implications of the mine rescue are far-reaching.
“I believe this is not going to be just a transitory feeling,” he added. “After this incredible miracle of history, everybody now believes we can overcome poverty, reform education and become a developed country in a few years — if we do things right.”
Yet by December, that boost had clearly worn off, according to a poll conducted by Adimark GfK that showed Piñera’s approval rating falling back to around 50 percent.
“Now the impact and enthusiasm of the successful rescue has passed, the population has moderated its evaluation of his and his government’s management,” said the agency. “The president and government have returned to approval levels similar to those seen before the rescue.”
Nevertheless, says Fermandois, his president is up to the challenge. “Mr. Piñera is an extremely open-minded person. He’s not ideologically constrained, and he’s flexible in understanding others’ positions.”
Piñera took the reins from his moderate socialist predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, who in January takes up her next posting as undersecretary-general for UN Women, the newly created umbrella group for women’s issues at the United Nations.
Back in Chile, the government’s biggest challenge is improving education.
“Although we’ve reduced poverty, there’s still a poverty that’s very difficult to penetrate. And even though we’ve tripled government spending on education, we are not achieving the results we should,” said Fermandois.
For example, proficiency in English among secondary school students is only 5 percent. The Piñera government hopes to double that between now and 2014.
“Right now, anybody with money sends their kids either to private schools or to the Instituto Nacional, a prestigious public school in Santiago. Our goal is to take that example and build 50 of those schools during the next four years,” explained the ambassador.
“We also want to remove 5 percent of the worst teachers yearly. I have a pending meeting with Michelle Rhee on this subject,” he said, referring to the outgoing chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. “Our minister of education, Joaquín Lavín, was only 1 percent away from getting the presidency in 2000 when he was defeated by Ricardo Lagos, so he’s very well known and very well respected.”
One issue not in dispute, says Fermandois, is Chile’s decision in 2003 to sign a free trade agreement with the United States.
“In Chile, there’s no two opinions on the FTA. It’s been a very successful agreement, a win-win business for both countries,” the ambassador told The Diplomat. “We are two countries that believe in the same pillars for economic development: democracy, an open economy and respect for human rights.”
Fermandois, who taught at Harvard and the Law School of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, served as an advisor to the negotiating team for the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during his legal career. An electric guitarist, he’s also interested in forming a band of diplomats while in Washington.
From 2004 to 2008, thanks to the FTA, Chile’s exports to the United States rose by 119 percent, while U.S. exports to Chile jumped by 159 percent. The United States currently enjoys a $1 billion trade surplus with Chile, with bilateral trade now exceeding $13 billion.
“One of my challenges here as an ambassador is going beyond free trade. We are satisfied with the FTA and extremely happy with the results, but we need to move the bilateral agenda to more sophisticated goals,” Fermandois explained. “We’re working on clean energy, climate change, education and science and technology. These are the issues we’re putting more priority on these days.”
Fermandois made a point, however, of not criticizing other Latin American nations, even though Chile’s government stands in stark contrast to prominent leftist governments such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, which Chile doesn’t even recognize diplomatically — the result of a 19th-century war in which Bolivia lost its entire Pacific coast to Chile. And it doesn’t look like relations will be restored anytime soon, despite the recent warm words exchanged between the capitalist Piñera and his ideological opposite, Evo Morales. Bolivia’s populist president was on hand to the dramatic rescue of the 33 miners, one of whom was Bolivian.
“We don’t have diplomatic relations, and no, it’s not on the agenda,” said Fermandois. “President Lagos offered them relations about 10 years ago, and Bolivia didn’t want it. We have a pending lawsuit by Peru regarding our international maritime border, but this doesn’t impede us from working closely with Peru on other things; it’s the same with Bolivia.”
On another controversial front, Fermandois shied away from a question on whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez poses a threat to regional stability, as U.S. officials have consistently warned.
“Of course, there are different models in Latin America, and some countries do not believe as deeply as we do in the open-economy model, which is the best way to reduce poverty and give opportunities to people,” he said. “We respect other models and try to persuade them that real democracy — and a society founded on personal freedoms — is the best way to develop a country.”