C for contrast, C for contradiction, C for Chile. After a week in Argentina, and listening to endless economist woes of volatility and general laments on the government, Chile was a refreshing turn toward business optimism. A country located in the shadow of Brazil’s claim to fame among emerging markets, Chile stands out for its unique geography (shaped like a chilli pepper, it is only 109 miles wide but 2700 miles long) and its relatively recent prosperity.
On the one hand, Chile emerged from dictatorial shadows and has managed to steady its macroeconomic variables, leading to development of business, foreign investments, low unemployment, yada yada yada. On the other hand, there is the other side to Chile that we witnessed visiting a poblacion (low-income housing) community with the University of Chile students. A dichotomy of sorts, it led us to wonder why a country with labor shortage that is also admittedly not producing the right skill sets from universities would also cap foreign workers to 15%. Despite the counter-intuitive nature of that decision, it seems like there is a growing awareness of Chile’s capabilities in the global enterpreneurial market. The various government organizations, banks, universities, and incubators we visited seemed to be telling the story of growth and confidence about the future.
A highlight of the trip to Santiago was a visit with Ricardo Lagos, former president, and one who spoke out against the Pinochet regime in the public media. A 74-year old man now, Lagos still manages to completely hold our attention. On the edge of our seats for over an hour, we listen as Lagos expertly maneuvers our attention with his voice modulation and storytelling. A master politician, yet humble at the same time, coffee with Lagos will remain in our memories for years to come.
The companies we visited ranged from airlines to copper mining, energy to retail and healthcare. We learned about the paucity of water, and worries about future energy sources. We learned to appreciate the Chileans’ hospitality (coffee and cookies at almost every meeting!). We learned to guard our purses on the subway. We learned cultural nuances that no Wikipedia on the planet could teach us.
What else did we do? Visited a football game (witnessed an exciting 3 goals), went to the Pablo Neruda museum, visited Valparaiso (with its wall murals) and Vina del Mar over the weekend, and survived 12 hour days with delayed lunches (no collapses due to starvation, but we all felt it).
At the end, we were tired and ready to go home. There was so much we had learned and were still processing.
Now when I close my eyes and think of Chile, I see the Andes…oh the haunting Andes, regal and exquisite, defining the borders of the country, and claiming it as her own.
Ciao Chile, so long and thanks for all the fish.