The Meaning of the Mine

Transfixed as we all were by the picture-perfect rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, something Michael Moore said last night on the otherwise ludicrous Larry King show stuck in my head. Moore – sometimes disagreeable, always entertaining – said: “Next time there’s a gush of oil in the Gulf, we should call the Chilean government!”

That quote stuck in my head, and it gave me the most plausible answer to the question I had been asking myself the past 36 hours: why has this story captivated the entire planet?

This is not a simple question, and there is no right answer.

One could argue that the lives of 33 people, all with varied life stories, facing an unprecedented quandary, saved from the brink of death by a heroic effort of an entire nation – well, that merits the “man-bites-dog” treatment. Hollywood doesn’t write shit like that.

Perhaps the fact that it took place in Chile, a country that does not regularly figure in world news, lent it a touch of the exotic.

One could cynically think it’s the result of a well-polished public relations effort on the part of the Chilean government.

Or perhaps it simply was a slow news week.

But none of these answers is entirely satisfying. There is something else there, and I believe Michael Moore tapped into it.

The rescue of the miners has rekindled our dying faith in government.

For the past few years – hell, for the past few decades – the common thread among many of the world’s events has been a failure of government. Whether it’s the BP oil spill, the financial crisis, the Japanese slump, the Iraq war, the Greek riots, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, or the strikes in France or Spain – there is always someone at the helm that carries part, or most, of the blame.

All of these events are linked to failed policies. Regardless of the nature of the problem, you can always point to someone who did not do their job, to a group that was asleep at the wheel, or to a party that promoted bone-headed policies.

Venezuelans, in particular, do not need reminding of this.

Our rapacious government has the unnerving capacity of turning everything to touches into feces. From the tragedy of Vargas to the Viaduct, from the electricity crisis to the rotting food containers, from the surging inflation to the overwhelming crime rates – can you answer quickly: is there anything the Venezuelan government does right?


The irony here is that we all want government to work. Disagreements between socialists and libertarians, tea-party activists and liberal hippies  – they all center on the scope of government actions. Yet none but the most radical anarchists or the kookiest commune-dwellers really want government to disappear.

We just want it to work efficiently and accurately. All we desire is a job well done.

Throughout mankind’s history, the promise of government has had its ebbs and flows. In recent times, the New Deal showed how collective action could lift individuals and entire nations out of dire straits. Yet the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the big-government eras of the 50s and 60s seemed to change that.

Proclamations by world leaders that “government is the problem” and that “the era of big government is over” only reinforced what we were watching on the news every day. We would see politicians screw things up, abuse their power, or otherwise show contempt for human dignity, and we would be forgiven for wanting government power to be diminished even more. “Que se vayan todos,” right?

But the yearning for a collective safety net was undimmed. The cynicism in our view of politics was not unrelated to our shrinking belief in our ability as a society to pull together and accomplish things none of us could individually.

Deep inside, we wanted to believe in government. This yearning has found an unlikely hero in Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s President.

Mr. Piñera has been called the “master of ceremonies” of the whole operation, and that is not an unfair assessment. He was there greeting most of the miners as they came up, his billionaire’s teeth shining brightly in the desert night, his manicured wife consoling the humble relatives. The saga was riveting, but let’s not kid ourselves: there was more than a touch of the fake there.

And yet he has to be forgiven for this. Piñera is a politician, and he sensed early on his Presidency could be at stake in the San José Mine. The whole rescue was staged in a very polished way so he could reap the political dividends of the rescue. Once an investor, always an investor.

Can we really hold this against him? After all, a political animal will seek publicity like bees seek nectar. He is as guilty as the dog that bites you when you poke it.

In spite of the off-putting theater, there was a certain elation in seeing a politician relishing in his element. When he was elected early this year, Mr. Piñera promised efficiency in government. The businessman traits he brought to the table – risk-taking, confidence, ebullience – were representative of the longings of Chile’s newly-empowered middle classes. They are the reason people voted for him.

These personality traits were on full display at the mine, and that, not the showmanship, is what I take away from his performance.

He got them out ahead of schedule. The operation was swift and flawless. He called upon everyone willing to help and undoubtedly took major risks, both technical and political. No grumbling over theater can take away those basic facts.

It has paid off brilliantly, not only for him, but for his mining minister Laurence Golborne, a political unknown who is now the most popular man in the nation.

But more importantly, it has been a boon for Chile. The operation has left a lasting impression that this is an accomplished, prosperous, united nation.

In simply doing his job and doing it very, very well, Mr. Piñera mounted what Hugo Chávez can only dream about: a worldwide, two-day “cadena.” No amount of petro-dollars can buy that kind of publicity.

So Michael Moore is right: the fact that government has been able to solve a problem, and do it brilliantly, is newsworthy. That’s “man-bites-dog.” If the world’s media is progressive, is it any wonder they are treating this as some kind of wet dream?

To me, the mine signifies the resurrection of faith in government. The irony is that it took a right-wing President to do it.