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Op-Ed Columnist

Chile: Where the Locusts Are

Santiago

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Yesterday's news from Chile is truly historic, 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 citizens themselves. The current administration seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the battle for the bullets.

When thinking about the recent turmoil, 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 being batted back and forth between colonial powers, 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 ironing board, then freedom is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Chile last August, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Chile have no shortage of human capital, 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 seeds of democratic ideals. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace 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 small business entrepreneur from the large Catholic 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, ahim bin tal, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A huge part of real love is constant forgiveness."

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