Why can’t we be compadres?

My grandpa says this is the best country in the world.  In spite of the politics, the poverty and the seismic and volcanic disruptions, Chile’s excellent climate, its natural beauty, its diverse landscapes and its bountiful food production make the country a wonderful place to live.  He also says that it’s the country of the compadres.  In generations past, I’m told, the compadre was a good friend, perhaps a relative.  A compadre was also something of a godfather figure who looked out for his own and could be counted on to help one get into a good position.  Today, the compadre can be thought of as a well-placed buddy or a good connection.  But in either case, what remains true is that compadres look out for compadres.

In practical terms what this means is that elites on the political scene are difficult to distinguish from elites in the economic world and that interests in both arenas often run parallel.  Consequently, legislation at the political level that runs counter to the interests of the empresarios (entrepreneurs/business owners) is often a great challenge to push through.  The other meaning is that if you’re not a compadre or if you don’t know one, it may be tough to make it. In fact, it’s a general sentiment among average Chileans that this is far from the land of opportunity, and that unless you have a certain last name or a fortunate connection (which some call a pituto), you aren’t likely to do very well.

a group of men in suits sit and stand around a long dining table

The compadres of generations past (see if you can pick out my grandpa)

In a country of 16.6 million people spread over 4300 km from north to south, it’s a small elite who hold the wealth of the nation, in addition to foreign companies that have been allowed access through trade agreements and large scale privatization.  This distribution was made evident during the recent humanitarian effort to raise money for the victims of the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that battered much of central and southern Chile.  A telethon was organized days after the disaster, which brought in incredible donations from certain companies and certain families.  The donations were so large as to take the average Chilean aback and revealed in no uncertain way the true sources of wealth in the country.

But beyond the peso, in Chile trust is the currency highly valued and not easily come by.  And this plays into the culture of the compadre, such that merit may simply not be enough to get you that sought-after job.  What has many in the country frustrated is that at the same time, education continues to be a high priority and more and more are being prepared at the highest levels (and at very high personal cost), with an apparent void of opportunities, especially merit-based ones.

However, it is not merely merit-based opportunities that appear to be lacking, but also important information about the shortfalls in Chile’s labour market to inform all those would-be universitarios in whose interest it might be to know what sectors of the economy are in need of qualified people (like this — Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s under-appreciated and perhaps little known labour market information bank).  Let the market allocate people to where there is a need, some may say, and this seems to be the theory behind the excess of post-secondary institutions in Santiago, Chile’s capital and bastion of progress.  The institutions seem to say, the market will find a place for our graduates, so let’s pump out as many as are willing to pay.  And make no mistake, there is a market for higher education: enter Santiago’s 40 universities, the majority of which are private, not to mention the professional institutes and training centres.

But what lies on the other side — a flood of graduates of varying quality in a given field and an unknown job market — is what provokes the disquiet which invariably comes up in conversation with people from the lower and middle classes in any part of the country I’ve visited.  Without a compadre (and badly needed reforms), an education may not carry the expected value and so when speaking with an outsider-Chileno like me, I find that many people have uncles, nieces, cousins or children who have lost the chance to leave or have left Chile in search of greater education and the opportunities that may follow, much as my own parents did in 1981.


April 2010
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