Bet you wish you were a Chilean, eh? All that euphoria, all that punching the air as those men who’ve been trapped underground for sixty-nine days came to the surface like so many Lazaruses. A miracle of engineering, a miracle of life.
Mind you, it mightn’t all be dazzling sunshine. After you’d finished hugging everyone you could get your arms around, you might ask yourself “If the company had taken proper safety measures, would I have been stuck half a mile below the surface in the first place?” You might even voice your thought. And even if your friends and relatives urged you to forget the past, to think only of the joyous present, you might find another question coming to the surface of your mind: “Did San Esteban, the mining company, pay my salary while I was trapped down there?” A hard question, which if voiced might dampen the delight a bit. San Esteban says it can’t afford to pay wages for men who didn’t do any work for weeks on end, even if they were entombed half-a-mile down. In fact the company didn’t even play a part in the men’s rescue.
But if you were one of the general Chilean population, you’d be in great form today, right? You’d be caught up in the national delight, happy to have the eyes of the world see your country’s brilliant engineering feat, see weeks of patient drilling pay off...Well yes. A great achievement in a great country. The Chilean economy has done well over the past couple of decades. It has a minimum wage. Until recently its growth rate was impressive. In 2003 it ranked third in South America, behind Argentina and Uruguay.
That’s the good news. Less good is that Chile just about tops the table for the size of its rich-poor gap. While the managers of big corporations collect top salaries by international standards, Chilean workers might be lucky to get $300 a month – that's about £200. If you’re unskilled, you’d have to settle for the minimum wage - $160 or £100 a month. Even policemen, teachers and judges are grossly underpaid. As to education, your children can get it cheap or even free, but that’s at state-run schools. The private schools cost a packet and are affordable only by the middle and upper classes. If you can’t get a job, you’ll find yourself living in a slum or in pathetic public housing on the edge of a city, where you won’t offend the sight of the better-off.
But hey – don’t complain and be glad you’re alive. You could get identified as a trouble-maker or worse still, a Marxist, and you know what happened to Chile’s most famous Marxist, Salvador Allende. He was elected president in 1970, the Americans didn’t like the cut of his jib, and before you could say ‘US-backed coup’, the military had taken over and Allende was found dead. Still want to be a Chilean?
Footnote. I hear on the wind that my dear and highly-intelligent friend Noel Doran, editor of the Venerable Organ, has finally got round to publishing that letter from Fr Joe McVeigh. It took a couple of weeks to appear because the VO’s letter-putting-in man was away on holidays or sprained his ankle or something like that. I hope Joe is suitably grateful. If he’d been a Chilean miner he’d have been kept in darkness with even less space available for a lot longer.