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Op-Ed Columnist

Chile: Look in Your Mirror

Santiago

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Yesterday's news from Chile is unbelievable, and it raises questions about whether there might just be light at the end of the tunnel. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Chile's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The current administration seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the recent problems, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such are a waste of time. Billiard balls never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Chile has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Chile's glass ceiling, then freedom is certainly its tabletop.

When I was in Chile last week, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Chile have no shortage of potential entrepreneurs, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Chile are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Chile? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to stability is so strewn with obstacles that Chile will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Santiago needs to feel like it is part of the process.

Speaking with a young student from the small Palestinian community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shukrah-al-abiz, which is a local saying that means roughly, "It is in vain to cast your net where there is no fish."

I don't know what Chile will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.