Miners Saga Boosts Chilean Pride

The world celebrated the stunning and record-setting rescue of mine workers in Chile. The 33 men had been trapped underground for more than two months. The rescue effort has not only generated attention, but also a great deal of national pride. Host Michel Martin speaks with Chilean-American journalist Jose Manuel Simian about the enormous impact the mining accident and rescue efforts have had on Chile's international esteem. Simian practiced mining law in Chile and he is the son and grandson of Chilean miners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. In a few minutes, we are going to ask why Latinos in the U.S. are living longer - significantly longer, on average - than other Americans.

But first, we want to talk about that amazing rescue. Of course, most people know by now that all 33 miners who have been trapped underground are out. The small escape tube or tunnel has been capped and locked, and Chileans are rejoicing.

They're rejoicing in part because, as the country's President Sebastian Pinera says, Chile may no longer be known primarily as the setting for General Augusto Pinochet's violent military coup in 1973. Here's President Pinera today on ABC News.

President SEBASTIAN PINERA (Chile): The miners, they gave us a lesson, a lesson of unity, of work in partnership, of faith, of hope. So it has been a day that we will never, never forget.

MARTIN: But what will Chileans remember? To talk more about this, we invited Jose Manuel Simian. He's a producer with NY1 Noticias, the Spanish-language television station. He was raised in Chile, and his father and grandfather were both miners. We're delighted to talk to you once again. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. JOSE MANUEL SIMIAN (Producer, NY1 Noticias): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So Jose Manuel, I understand that you actually have some mixed feelings about this, and I want to get to that in a moment. But I do want to ask what it's been like to watch this drama unfold.

Mr. SIMIAN: Well, first, I wanted to say my father and grandfather were not actually miners. They worked in the mining industry, which is a big difference. But I had a mining background. I went to mines early on.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you for that. And so tell me what it's been like to watch this unfold.

Mr. SIMIAN: Well, it's been very emotional, of course. The first - when we first heard about the accident, it was terrible. But then when they found they were alive and we saw those miners down there in their shelter and singing the national anthem - if you're Chilean, it's really hard not to be moved by that.

And it's also a great story of endurance and hard work and faith.

MARTIN: And - but what else is it a story of? I understand that you actually have some mixed feelings, which I understand might not be popular with everyone, but I do want to ask what they are.

Mr. SIMIAN: Well, you know, there's this feeling of national euphoria now, and Chile is a country obsessed with this national identity and how the world sees us.

And many people are turning this into, you know, we Chileans are better than everybody else. We could do this. This was impossible. And I see that as this -a very dangerous road.

MARTIN: Really? What's so terrible about having a moment of euphoria, where you feel a sense of national pride at a remarkable achievement? It is, as I understand it, this is the - it is a singular accomplishment. No one can think of another situation in which that many people survived that long, that far underground. Why shouldn't people take pride in that?

Mr. SIMIAN: No, of course, of course. But there's a rush to feel that this is something we all achieved, and there's this big, Hollywood-like narrative of the perfect rescue which clouds and obscures the underlying stories: Why were those miners there working under dangerous conditions in the first place?

There's also this feeling that, you know, everybody cares about these poor miners. We're such a solidarity country. But Chile's not a very egalitarian country. It has a very bad distribution of its wealth, and there's very stagnant social classes.

And many people who claim to be moved and really concerned about these miners never really cared about poor people or spend a lot of time and energy showing that they're different from people like these miners. So I see a big hypocrisy there.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, having said that, though, do you think there will be now a move to investigate why the mine collapsed to begin with? Is there a mechanism for doing that? For example, is there any regulatory oversight? Is there any entity with the authority to investigate this accident and to see that it doesn't happen again?

Mr. SIMIAN: Yes. There's going to be a revamping of the technical agency that belongs to the Defense of the Ministry of Mines to review all the security procedures.

This mine had been fined previously for safety infractions, but there was probably going to be bills in Congress calling for improved security measures.

And there's going to be suits. Some legal suits have already been filed, but there's going to be new suits coming, and the government has - President Pinera has promised that he will investigate this and hold everybody responsible to the last consequences.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you, though, finally, in the minute we have left, about something that President Pinera talked about and that other people have talked about, the fact that this is a country that experienced a very - you know, a brutal dictatorship, a lot of sort of social convulsion.

Is there - you know, people often look at sporting events, you know, like World Cup or Olympics as an occasion for national pride in a way that is unifying and sometimes healthy. And I wonder if you feel that there - this might be one of those occasions in which the sort of the sense of national unity does have a beneficial effect?

Mr. SIMIAN: Yes, I think that will happen. There will be an incredible boost of national self-confidence, which is great. There's probably going to be an economic boost. This is, of course, going to help the actions of President Pinera. He's already had a 10-point boost in his approval. And that is all really good, of course.

MARTIN: Well, we'll follow up on this, and I hope you will, too. And keep us posted on how feel events are developing on both sides of the story. So thank you for that.

Mr. SIMIAN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Jose Manuel Simian is a producer with NY1 Noticias. It's a Spanish-language news station in New York City. And, of course, he's Chilean, and as he mentioned, his family has a background in the mining industry. Thanks so much for joining us from New York.

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