Sunday, January 03, 2016

Interview of our resident Chilean, Ramon

Ramon is a big part of this blog, as a reader, a commenter, and as a contributor of ideas. It's quite incredible how many common interests (geopolitics, toy cars, stamps, etc.) he and I have, and yet we have never met. I've never interviewed him, until today.

1. Of the countries I have visited, Chile is by far my favorite. It has diverse geography, temperate climate in the middle, nice people, very little crime, and great food and wine. Did I miss anything? What would you tell people to convince them to visit your country?

I love to hear that, and is good to know a foreigner (and a well travelled foreigner at that) thinks so, because as I imagine happens with the nationals of every country, Chileans don't value Chile as much as you do. And myself, I'd rather go live in London, Berlin or maybe Tokyo every day! I'm not that sure we are that nice as a people, either. We tend to be more introverted than the rest of Latam, although I think we can be very warm after crossing that first barrier.

I think you've covered most of our attractions, number one being the diversity of sceneries. In very few places you can find from the driest desert in the North to Ice Fields in the South, and so many things in between. Also, Santiago is between the beaches of Viña and the ski slopes of the Andes. And of course you must include Easter Island, which seems to be super attractive for most people. I can't really see why. The island is tiny and Moai are ugly (but I've never been there anyway, so...).

I could add that there is also many examples of beautiful architecture at easy reach within Santiago. Cafés and fun places keep multiplying (there didn't use to be that many). Parks too. And the Metro system works really well, and keeps expanding. 

2. Copper is an important Chilean export. What are some other goods and services that drive the economy?

Sadly, copper is still too important for us. My problem isn't the silly nationalist feelings of wishing to have industries that would make us proud abroad (it is kinda sad to have never had a real car industry, though... But it didn't make sense). But that as soon as copper prices go down, the whole economy gets seriously affected. And if ever there is a good-enough replacement for copper, or we run out of it, with go down the toilet, just like when the Germans invented artificial nitrate back in the 20's. 

But I'm optimistic. The service industries have grown a lot in the last couple decades. Our retail companies, for instance, have even successfully opened branches in countries like Perú, Colombia, Argentina and even Brazil. Banks are trying to do the same. And primary activities have also diversified. Mining of gold and lithium have good perspectives, and salmon, wine, paper pulp and the like are important too. Chile is also trying hard to produce more and better food for export, and that seems to be doing well too.

And of course, tourism! Some 10 years ago, I was surprised to see tourists in Santiago. Now you see many in places like Plaza de Armas or Providencia. I love to help them find their way when I see them cluelessly staring at their maps.

3. Compared with other Latin American countries, Chilean politics (and people) seem very civil and drama-free. I believe it is because of the influence of British immigrants. Is my theory crazy? 

Hmmm, yes, I think your theory is a bit crazy. Chileans like to call ourselves "the English of South America", but I think that is a great exaggeration. I don't have an explanation for our stability. But some ideas: First, our population is very mixed racially. Most of us are mestizos, that minimizes the racial tensions seen in places like Bolivia, for instance. Then it might be that Chile was historically a poor country, unlike, for instance, gold-filled Perú or the Argentina of the late XIX century. I think that might have installed in us some kind of work ethic that foments working harder and obeying authority. This relative poor reality might have also kept regional leaders from trying to control the country in silly civil wars, that plagued the rest of Latin America. What would have been the point? There wasn't all that to gain anymore.

I'm afraid I might be writing too much, but also: Our national identity was forged very early before, during and after independence. We are very isolated from the rest of the world, which must have also made us avoid having many wars against our neighbours. There have only been two, and the first one against Bolivia and Perú (in 1836) is said to have galvanized the ideal of Chile as a nation among the nationals of the young republic, reducing internal strife.

4. What is the current political and economic relationship between China and Chile? Is there more to the story than just China consuming South America’s natural resources and agricultural products?

You know we are a very open economy, so the other side of the ecuation is also very true. We are consuming an increasing amount of Chinese goods, from cars to cheap toys and every little goodie you can imagine. I imagine Chile can work as somewhat of a test country for Chinese companies to experiment their exporting methods. I guess I'm thinking of cars mostly here. But it can extend to other industries.

Also, China has had good relations with Chile for a long time. Allende (yuck) established relations with them around 1971, I think; and I don't think they were ever broken. They went to grow very friendly with the Pinochet government too, there was even a big trip of Chilean officials to China in 1978 or 79, that was covered by Don Francisco's Sabado Gigante, back in the day (and back then that program was HUGE in Chile).

But culturally, I don't see any deeper relationship. I can only think of how some Chilean girls like Chinese "dramas", but those come from many different countries, and the star is not China, but Korea. K-Pop is popular among them too, but I've never heard of Chinese musicians, for example.

By the way, there are many Chinese food restaurants in Santiago! But they are not really a new phenomenon and I don't think they are a part of some plan from China, in any case. 

5. In the U.S., the top international headlines involve ISIS, the refugee crisis in Europe, and climate change. What are some typical international headlines in Chile?

I haven't been paying much attention to Chilean news as of late, but international news in Chile get very little coverage, sadly. TV talks very little about international events even as they go to absurd extremes trying to fill 1 hour and a half of news every night, with irrelevant local stuff. But most issues are the same that you mention. ISIS more than anything else, also the changes in Argentina after Macri got elected, whatever thing the Pope does, a little Trump sometimes (Sorry!), and US shootings when the bigger ones happen (sorry again!).

6. Is the Catholic Church all-powerful in Chile? Is there a growing Protestant/Evangelical population there?

Not anymore. People are increasingly dissapointed by the Catholic Church, because of them not really investigating pedophilia cases, covering them instead of punishing those responsible. Prominent catholics publicly show their disgust with how the Church manages things. I think that while the Church used to have great power, and that most people are still Catholic, people here don't take religion all that seriously. Most Catholic just care about their religion when marrying, funerals or baptizing their kids, the important life events. But day to day, most don't care. Very few go to Church, for instance. I love that. I'm an Atheist, and I think the best believers are those that don't care much about their religion.

And yes, Protestants have been on the rise for a couple decades. I don't know why. We call them all "evangélicos", by the way, all of them the same. I have no idea which churches among them are more important, for instance. They do a hard work evangelizing people, especially in poor neighbourhoods. Evangélicos are often associated with the lower classes, and poor neighbourhoods, while old families and rich people and places are still proudly Catholic (which I think is the reverse stereotype from what you have in the US). 

I'm afraid of this rise in protestantism because as I said, Catholics tend to be so just because their families have always been Catholic, and most don't really care much. But protestants, recently converted, really care about their religions and about preaching, bothering everybody on squares, streets and as of late, even inside the Metro trains! I recently had almost every passenger go against me when I demanded one of those preachers to cut the religious music he was loudly playing inside the train, which of course is something not allowed.

7. You are very patriotic and love your country. What aspects of your country are you most proud of? What are some of Chile’s challenges/problems?

I don't think I'm that patriotic really, or better, I understand there is an important difference between loving the concept of your country, your symbols and heritage, and actually believing your country is by definition right and better than everyone else. I'm on the first camp. I understand loving Chile just as you love a family member. There is no reason for it, and loving them doesn't mean you even agree with them or like how they behave. But they are family.

SO, having explained that, I actually like what other countries think is gray and boring of Chileans. How we might be less loud or extroverted than other countries, more discreet. I really really like that! I think we are in a really good place as a society, between being too informal and loud, and being way too cold. I can't understand how, for instance, I think most Americans or Europeans try to avoid close contact with others, most strikingly, greeting females with a handshake! I mean, that is soooo weird to me. 

I think it is also good that, as incomes have raised and society has become more free, Chileans feel more successful and proud of being themselves. We used to feel less than, especially, Argentine people. But now we feel richer, they come to buy things here now instead of the other way around, many come to our beaches (and to get our girls, sadly), and so we can stand in a more equal relationship to foreigners. On top or that, now that our football team won Copa América for the first time, beating Argentina in the final.. we are on the top of the world.

The biggest problems? I think income inequality, and how the desire of the many for a more equal distribution of wealth might end up with the implementation of economic policies than reduce growth and increase poverty. I'm worried that equality is increasingly seen as the top priority, when in my opinion, the key is grow first, and equal opportunity, not equality understood as equal results. Chile should see how to redistribute wealth carefully, without "killing the golden goose", and still focusing more on ending with extreme poverty (which we have been very successful in doing for decades).

8. You are obsessed with die cast cars. What kind of cars do you collect? How many do you have? Is it easy to find them for sale in Chile?

I collect everything real. I really dislike the grotesque fantasy Hot Wheels-like nonsense. But as long as it is a decent, realistic replica of a real car, I want it. I have many scales from Matchbox-size to 1:18; in decreasing quantities as price increases with size, but the core by far are the small ones. I'm close to having 3.000 of this so-called 1:64 scale models, which I've collected since before I can remember (See more further below). And by the way, I open most of them. I only keep them in their packaging if they are old.

Ironically, while I hate the "Hot Wheels style" of diecast car, this brand also makes so many good models as of late, that its become the most prevalent in my small scale collection, with 26%, followed by Matchbox at 21%. My long time favourite, Majorette, is third at 13%, after years of very few interesting new models (but they've come back with the best models at this basic price point, by far!). Even Tomica is close to Majorette now, at no. 4. Then come Norev, Maisto, Johnny Lightning, Realtoy, Siku, and Welly (among the most important). Strangely, I have zero Guisval models, from the best known brands is my biggest absentee. 
Yes, it is easy to find diecast in Chile, and has been for years. Matchbox was big from the 70's or earlier, then came Majorette and later in the 90's Hot Wheels. Now Hot Wheels is the easiest to find by far, followed by Majorette. They are unusually strong in Chile, and they are cheaper here ($990, the same as HW and MB) than in France, or the rest of Europe! Other scales are also popular, 1:24 and pullback models are well represented by Maisto and Welly, using the spot that Bburago hold in the late 80's and early to mid 90's. 

I'm also lucky that in Santiago there is one big hobby and toy store with many other brands. Newstand collections have also come out with interesting stuff, since the great "Taxis del Mundo" collection in detailed 1/43 models came out, 10 years ago. Nowadays collections are made up of lesser stuff, pullback toy models from Maisto and Welly, but I imagine they keep the flame of the hobby alive and spreading. And from time to time, good models reappear, like the collection of buses that featured a Valparaíso trolleybus, or the 1/43 collection with some models of Brazilian and Colombian cars from series that came out earlier in those countries.

9. Is there a culture of car enthusiasts in Chile? If so, what kinds of cars are they interested in?

There is, and it's great because there were not many clubs and the like in the past, but with Facebook I think they are flourishing. Their interest mix the usual with the typically Chilean. From VW Beetles and Classic cars; to our beloved Citronetas and "Fitos", as Fiat 600 are afectionally nicknamed. 600's keep being raced, as they've been for ages. But enthusiasm is happily very diversified. You've seen my pictures from some old car gatherings, you can find pretty much everything, from American Muscle Cars to the little Isettas (also an strong club those owners), Peugeot 404, various Citroën and 80's Japanese cars. Even the old Suzuki Carry and other "pan de molde" vans and Daewoos have their lovers.

10. Why do you love cars?

No idea. I've literally (well, almost literally) always loved them. I can't remember a beginning to it. One theory (that also explains my love for diecast models) is that my family and I did a trip to Iquique by car, 1.840 km in our red Peugeot 305. I was around 2 1/2 by the time, and there was a promo that gave out Majorettes for a certain amount of petrol purchased on Copec gas stations. So I got the collection and then duplicates and more.

I think that for me, cars are beautiful, over anything else. For me the most important attribute is beauty, I'm a very "visual" person. And cars are so pretty, and they are so captivating when moving! Because I know nothing about mechanics, and, I'm ashamed to say it, I'm quite scared of driving. I did a couple courses and had no trouble to get my license. 

Teachers said I drove fine, but I'm just ultra tense and nervous while doing it. I'm so afraid! 
I think it is in great part because it is difficult for me to trust my instincts, and let things "flow". I always think things a lot when doing anything important, I don't act by instinct. I think the same thing explains why I was always bad at sports and dancing (although seeing no point or fun on either might also bear great responsibility). So I can't relax while driving, and end up so stressed that I have done it only 2 or 3 times since getting my license, and never alone. I'm even getting tense thinking about it right now :(

I hope this was interesting! 




Ed Kim said...

That's awesome. Nice to know you a little better, Ramon!

Charles Lee said...

Really enjoyed reading it Ramon. Very interesting analysis of why Chilean culture and work ethics differ from other Latin American countries. Countries with fewer natural resources tend to have more human resources. Having said that, it seems to me (from my limited interactions with Chileans and other Latin Americans) that Chileans have cooler heads. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, why do you think that is?

Lukas said...

Good interview, thanks!

Ripituc said...

I'm really happy Jim asked me for this interview! And I'm glad you liked reading it. @CharlesLee: I agree with your impressions and I think it is for many things, the historically limited resources, the instruction from our early days of a nation on the values of discipline and order, and who knows, maybe even the colder climate when compared to maybe Colombia and Brasil. Another extremely unscientific hypothesis I have regarding comparing Chileans with Argentina specifically (and partially Brasil too) is that they received lots of Italian immigrants. And you know how Italians tend to be! So it's natural that Chileans might have "cooler heads" and also be less proud, flamboyant or passionate than some of our neighbours.