Development is a state of mind

“In this country, GDP per capita could hit $20,000 per year, and people would still think like backwards Latin American assholes.”

The words from my Chilean friend shocked me.

We were in the middle of a sophisticated, expensive meal in one of Santiago’s many hip new eateries, a Peruvian-fusion joint in the city’s poshest district. The conversations in the tables around me would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. They all touched, in one way or another, on Chile’s remarkable transformation – people were discussing their latest car, the latest merger or acquisition, their recent summer skiing tryst at Whistler, or the beach house they had just bought.

The entire milieu gave me hope that perhaps, thirty years from now, I could be having a similar conversation in a prosperous, normal, post-Chávez Caracas. And here came my friend, bringing us all back to Earth with his bummer.

But did he have a point? What is development, exactly?

When I tell my Venezuelan panas about my move from the US back to Chile, I unanimously receive heaps of admiration. The general tone of the comments is along the lines of “Chile is doing really well, right?…”, “it’s amazing that Chile is going to be the first country in Latin America to develop…”, and “those Chileans know what they’re doing.”

That’s true to some extent. But it’s also wildly off base. If this move has taught me anything, it’s that development is much more than GDP per capita, growth rates, shiny infrastructure, and export statistics.

Development is a state of mind, one that the IMF has trouble quantifying.

I first visited Chile in 1998. Back then, the country was coming off a period of China-like growth rates, and yet the memories of poverty and dictatorship were still fresh. Everyone was still in awe of what had been accomplished, and the future held much promise. They were all drunk on heightened expectations, and the vertiginous change helped one overlook the obvious flaws in the system. Everything was so recent – you couldn’t expect things to change overnight, could you?

Chile has continued in its path to development in recent years, but the same nagging problems persist. The general sense of possibility has been replaced by one of doubt. While the country’s GDP is likely to continue growing, the question remains: will it be enough?

I thought about this recently when learning of the latest scandal involving Chile’s uber-empowered, unaccountable elite class.

Cencosud is one of the nation’s largest retailers. Its owner is one of Chile’s richest men, and as many powerful men before him, he likes to build big things. He is currently putting the finishing touches on Latin America’s tallest skyscraper.

As it happens, Cencosud also forces its workers to labor under some unusual – some will say cruel – conditions.

A Chilean TV show recently uncovered a shocking truth. Night workers at Cencosud’s Santa Isabel supermarkets are routinely locked up inside the supermarket in order to prevent theft. They were even locked inside and unable to get out during last year’s massive earthquake, and they were in danger of drowning when the tsunami hit their store. They were only let out when looters came to visit the supermarket. One of the managers drowned trying to get another group out.

The company’s response? It vows it follows the laws fully. Even Chile’s right-wing Labor Minister – if there can be such a thing – is shocked.

Of course, all developed nations go through scandals like this one. No country is perfect, and one of the things that distinguishes good societies from bad ones is not the absence of scandals, but the ability to self-correct. So it’s still possible that this will not fall by the wayside, that the people responsible will be held accountable.

But when you realize the government’s front-runner for the 2014 Presidential Election, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, is a former manager of Cencosud, the cynic in you gets worked up.

Regardless, the fact that these things still happen – that companies think they can still get away with this fundo mentality – is a sign of how far society has to go.

When we first moved to Chile in 2003, one of the things you would read in the paper coming from the mouths of the mojoneada elite class was that Chile really shouldn’t compare itself to Latin America anymore, but to small, developed, natural-resource intensive countries such as Denmark and New Zealand.

And while their hubris was admirable, I kept thinking how out-of-place the beggars or the jugglers in the street corners would look in the streets of Auckland or Copenhagen.

So yes, you can walk into a Starbucks and pay with your credit card, but good luck finding exactly what you want. The schools for your children are good and expensive, but your daughters’ school planners come shockingly packed with advertising for sweets and TV shows. People think nothing of jetting off to Cancún for the long weekend, but customer service everywhere is the pits.

This massive reality check makes me think that even if we get everything right in Venezuela, even if we were to magically fix our politics and our economics, we will still be dealing with the same human capital. The many cultural traits that hold us back, the generations of Venezuelans raised in a malnourished, under-developed, disenfranchised environment – well, they (us?) and their (our?) way of thinking will still be there.

This will not go away no matter how much we grow, no matter how high the price of oil.

The change in mindset required for economic and social development to really grab hold – well, that takes generations to accomplish. The most we can aspire to in our lifetimes is to lay the groundwork.