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Op-Ed Columnist

In Chile's World, it's the Past vs. the Future

Santiago

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in Chile were unbelievable, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The current administration seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the shirts for the cloth.

When thinking about the recent ethnic strife, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like muppets, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Muppets never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. 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 ethnic conflict is Chile's glass ceiling, then freedom is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Chile last June, 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 courage, 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 stability is so poorly marked that Chile will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Santiago needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a up-and-coming violinist from the large Protestant 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, shakka-do-lakka-the, 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.