Chile is abuzz. President Obama landed at Santiago’s airport at 1:20 pm (local time) and will stay in the country for 24 hours. Every U.S. President since George H. W. Bush has been to Chile, but this is the first strictly bilateral visit in almost 20 years.
The last 13 months have been challenging for the country, with a series of events that placed Chile under the spotlight of international media, forcing a candid scrutiny of national strengths and weaknesses. A mega earthquake and tsunami, a transition of power from the center-left to the center-right, the tragedy of the trapped miners and their subsequent victorious rescue, and the celebration of the nation’s 200 years of independence have all made this an eventful period of time and a test of resilience that somehow redefines national identity. In this context, the visit of the U.S. President serves as a culmination after an intense year of soul-searching.
International news often praise Chile for institutional strength and economic success. But Chileans are not self-congratulatory. The country made a sustained effort to be included in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and now uses this yardstick to measure itself. Chile is a small open economy vulnerable to the swings of the global economy and self-aware of its light weight in international politics. For this very same reason, the visit of the U.S. President is sincerely appreciated, as it signals the respect Chile has earned from the international community and reinforces the ever-improving bilateral relations. If in the past Chile went north to ask for aid, or the U.S. went south trying to intervene in domestic politics to maintain the Cold War status quo. Now both countries talk of cooperation, common values and regional challenges.
Chile understands the power of symbols. President Obama chose Santiago to deliver a substantial speech at 4:20 pm (local time) addressed to all Latin Americans, as he did in Cairo for the Middle East and in Ghana for sub-Saharan Africa. Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress, characterized by a generous package of aid for development. But these times are very different. The strained fiscal situation of the U.S. does not leave much room for generosity, at the same time that the share of trade with Latin America is declining in favor of Asia.
So this time the dialogue is more symmetrical. The challenge for President Obama is to convince some skeptical leaders that the interest and goodwill of his administration is sincere and will be followed by action. Fortunately, he enjoys unmatched rhetorical powers and a popularity that remains unscathed after two years.
But a fuss is not the same as expectation. Today, every word will be listened to attentively, although no one expects big policy announcement. What does Chile really look forward to? Probably, forging an alliance of mutual trust and cooperation that is based on shared values to address challenges that, by their global nature, no country can solve alone. Both countries believe in the same brand of democracy and open markets as the best path to prosperity.
But Chile needs to increase transfers of knowledge and technology to enter the knowledge economy, moving its export sector from primary goods to value-added products. What does the U.S. look forward to? Probably to promote Chile to the status of regional leader with a more assertive foreign policy that uses its prestige to invite other countries to follow the same path of progress and facilitates cooperation to tackle regional challenges.
When President Obama landed in Santiago today, Chileans knew that the main message will not be an announcement but the visit itself. A 24-hour detour to faraway Santiago is worth a thousand of words.
*Maximiliano Raide and Pablo González are guest bloggers to AQ Online. Both are co-founders of Jóvenes Líderes Latinoamérica. Maximiliano lives in Santiago, Chile, and Pablo lives in Washington DC.