Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis
There’s a short audio clip played almost on a daily basis on Skai radio’s political satire program, Ellinofrenia. It’s of Prime Minister George Papandreou saying: “Viva Chile, viva Grecia.” Presumably, it was recorded when Papandreou, then head of the opposition, visited Vina del Mar in Chile last March for a meeting of Socialist leaders. The clip is played randomly during the irreverent show. Its effect is to make Papandreou seem a dreamy globetrotter with an appetite to pursue international contacts rather than solve Greece’s problems. But since the rescue of the 33 miners from the San Jose gold and copper mine last week, those four words have taken on a new life and their abstractness has been replaced by an urgent relevance.
Watching Luis Urzua, the last miner to be winched to safety, sing the Chilean anthem as he stood next to President Sebastian Pinera and the team of rescuers in the early hours of Thursday morning, the parallels between Chile and Greece seemed as crisp and clear as the night air in the Atacama Desert. The Chilean anthem has a line, which seems prescient in the case of the miners who spent 70 days in an underground shelter fearing for their lives: “Either the tomb will be of the free / Or the refuge against oppression.” In this respect, it is very similar to Greece’s national anthem, Dionysios Solomos’s “Hymn to Liberty,” which is also dedicated to the ideal of freedom and contains the lines: “From the graves of our slain / Shall thy valor prevail.”
Freedom is such a highly valued concept in Greece and Chile because they wear the scars of oppression — from outside forces but also from within: Both countries have experienced damaging military dictatorships in their recent histories. But even in 2010, there are still struggles for freedom in Chile and Greece. In the Latin American country, despite the economic prosperity and political stability it has enjoyed over the past two decades, some of its people still feel the tug of history’s shackles. Despite the fact that Chile produces more than a quarter of the world’s copper and that prices for the metal are at a two-year high, bringing the country almost 4 billion euros a month in export revenues, some miners are still not truly free from the exploitation of firms taking deadly risks for profits.
In Greece, freedom has been compromised in different ways. As a result of its irresponsibility in the past, Greece’s economic sovereignty is largely in the hands of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund rather than the country’s elected government. While the foreign overseers plot a course for economic recovery, Greece is trying to free itself of the stale ideologies, practices and hangups of the past that held it captive.
It’s in this effort to save itself that the rescue of the Chilean miners provides Greece with food for thought. Speaking of the mesmerizing effort to pull the miners to safety, Chilean writer Isabel Allende said it had been an “odyssey of solidarity,” just as Prime Minister George Papandreou had said Greece was embarking on a “new odyssey” when he announced in April that Athens was turning to its eurozone partners and the IMF for financial assistance. Solidarity, however, has been in short supply in Greece, as opposition parties, unions and even aloof members of government continue to play the same tired roles to which the Greek people have become accustomed over the last three decade. Even at this most crucial hour, there is only the flimsiest of consensus on the gravity of the situation and what needs to be done. For instance, the country’s two main parties, New Democracy and PASOK, have been able to agree on few strands of economic policy, such as the opening of closed professions and the overhaul of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), which is losing 1 billion euros a year. It is hardly as if they have become brothers in arms.
One of the greatest lessons of the San Jose rescue is that when suspicion and anger — as the miners were justified in feeling after being sent into a patently unsafe mine — and scepticism and doubt — as Chile’s government and the rescuers would have felt in launching a seemingly futile rescue mission — are set aside, wonderful things can happen. “It is proof that when men unite in favor of life, when they offer their knowledge and effort to the service of life, life responds with more life,” wrote Chilean novelist Hernan Rivera Letelier in Spanish daily El Pais. But for life, or at least a life worth living, to have a chance of existing, people have to put their faith in each other. “You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy,” said shift foreman Urzua in his first post-rescue interview.
In Greece, the truth is a rare commodity at the moment. From deficit figures that keep changing to the cagey talk of ministers and the unfeasible promises of opposition politicians, nobody speaks honestly. The failure of our democracy was evident last week right in front of its greatest symbol, the Acropolis. Culture Ministry contract workers protested the non-renewal of their contracts in the hope that this government, like others before it, would cave in and ignore the law limiting such agreements to two years. The government, on the other hand, dodged a face-to-face meeting with the protesters because it had not paid some of them for 20 months.
The rescue is also evidence that for society to function, all its agents need to work together. State mining company, Codelco, led the effort to save the 33 miners, who had been working for a private firm, but it relied on help from other countries and private-sector funding. It was on the basis of this sound structure that the emotional support network for the miners, made up of families, friends, doctors and psychologists was built. “What we have recovered here… is our self-confidence as a nation, and sense of community, of Roman ‘communitas,’ of some well-being which depends on others: our neighbors, our friends, our most efficient [political] representatives,” explained Chilean writer Jaime Collyer. In Greece, the individualism that came with the economic prosperity of recent decades stands as one of the biggest obstacles to progress. Those who for so many years have evaded tax, landed themselves comfortable public sector jobs, enjoyed the privileges of closed professions, lived off state subsidies or simply disregarded the laws of their state are not going to trade this bliss of isolation for the give-and-take of a functioning community very easily. The decision this week of many bar and restaurant owners to flout the recent ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces because they feel it harms their business is evidence of how deeply mired Greece is in the “me first, me only” way of thinking.
The successful rescue of the miners, though, is a reminder of the reward of overcoming fear, selfishness and lack of vision. “We aren’t the same as we were before the collapse on August 5,” said Pinera. “Today, Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world.” Unlike the burst of media interest in the Chilean miners’ plight, Greece has been the subject of prolonged media exposure this year. There were roughly 60 journalists for each miner at the San Jose mine and at times Athens has felt a bit like that with the international media probing every aspect of Greece’s misfortune. It has been uncomfortable but, as Chile has shown, there is no bigger news in the world than a catastrophe being turned into a triumph. “For the moment, Chile has received a reputational windfall,” wrote Mary Dejevsky in UK newspaper The Independent. “It has a chance to join countries such as Canada and Finland that genuinely do punch above their weight internationally by virtue of the benevolent impression they create on visitors, their quiet diplomacy and the competence with which they seem to run themselves.” A trickle of positive comments about Greece’s economic reforms has already begun but it can’t compare to the cathartic effect that a deluge of praise would have if the country completes the metamorphosis from pariah to shining example.
Chile experienced a moment of salvation when the miners were lifted safely from the depths of the Atacama Desert. “It started as a tragedy but ended as a blessing,” said Pinera. As a result, the South American country can now look to the future with more hope and its spirits lifted: Viva Chile. For Greece, redemption still seems to be at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It’s now clear that grabbing a lifeline will not be enough — the country needs togetherness and belief to haul itself into the light. Only then will it be in a position to turn to the world and shout: “Viva Grecia.”
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 22, 2010.