Chile should tout economic success

By the end of this year, Chile is likely to become the first South American country to join the exclusive club of the world’s 30 richest countries. Yet, amazingly, you don’t see Chileans jumping for joy, nor presenting themselves to their neighbors as a model nation.

According to officials from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based institution that groups the world’s wealthiest democracies, Chile may be officially accepted as a full member at its Dec. 18 meeting.

The OECD is waiting for the Chilean Congress to pass three pending measures to fully adhere to the organization’s tax information exchange and corporate governance standards. Chilean officials hope the pending measures will be passed by December.

Chile has been pretty coy about its economic achievements. Unlike any other Latin American country, Chile’s economy has grown steadily for the past two decades, and it leads Latin America in virtually all competitiveness rankings. More importantly, Chile has reduced its poverty rate from 39 percent of the population in 1990 to 13 percent nowadays.

Yet, unlike Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who goes around the world claiming that his country’s oil-driven growth is a “revolutionary model,” Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet has abstained from political evangelism abroad. When I last interviewed her in 2007, she sounded almost apologetic about her country’s achievements.

A former Chilean president once told me privately that Chile doesn’t brag about its success because it fears that its bigger neighbors would resent that.

Will that change now? Last week, as President Barack Obama met with Bachelet at the White House and said that Chile is “an example for all of us,” I asked that question to Juan Gabriel Valdes, director of the Chilean Image Foundation. The public-private institution was created in April by the Bachelet government, and is aimed at improving Chile’s image abroad.

Asked why Chile hasn’t done a good job selling itself to the rest of the world — it ranked 38th of 50 countries surveyed in a recent Anholt Country Brand Index, a world poll on countries’ image abroad — Valdes said it may have to do with Chile’s national character.

Chile is surrounded by mountains, water, ice and a desert, which may have contributed to its insular nature, he said.

“It’s a country where people tend to be somewhat modest. … It’s not a country that finds it easy to brag about its achievements around the planet,” Valdes said. “But having said that, there is a growing awareness in Chile today that, in order to sell our products and to have more clout in international institutions, we need to go out and tell Chile’s story more efficiently.”

As to why Chile ranked so low in the Anholt survey, Valdes said it’s because few people know about his country in other parts of the world. While many people in other regions know Argentina because of soccer star Diego Maradona, or Brazil because of its samba music, Chile is more difficult to identify, he said.

Asked what has been Chile’s secret to grow and reduce poverty, Valdes said it was largely political: the country’s ability to create a national consensus to pursue a market economy, democracy and social policies. Political stability and economic certainty attracted investments, and that helped the country grow.

More recently, Chile also pursued counter-cyclical economic policies, “saving in the years of fat cows to be able to survive in the years of lean cows,” he said.

Additionally, Chile’s governments have carried out many initiatives in a bipartisan way. The Chilean Image Foundation, like many other public-private institutions, has people from rival political parties on its board, he said.

My opinion: Chile’s likely upcoming acceptance into the OECD would be a good occasion for Chile not only to improve its image abroad, but also to raise its foreign policy profile.

With few exceptions — such as Bachelet’s recent unfortunate decision to inaugurate a book fair in Cuba, a dictatorship where thousands of books are banned — Chile has been a pretty consistent defender of democracy and human rights internationally over the past two decades.

Let’s hope that when it officially becomes a member of the industrialized world, Chile will speak out on these issues with greater self-confidence, and more assertively.

The rest of Latin America would greatly benefit from it.