• 02 . 07 . 11
  • Chile is more than just mountains, condors and woollen clothes. It also does a nice line in repressive dictators and inept presidents. And the finest coffee establishments around – even for non-coffee drinkers.

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Chile Con Carne, Cafe Con Piernas

I could name two Chileans before I came here, General Pinochet and Salvador Allende. I had little idea what they had actually managed to do, but Franco, the guide on our walking tour around Santiago this morning filled me in. Between the two of them, they cost Chile about 20 years of progress.

Coming to power in 1970, Salvador Allende managed the impressive feat of taking a stable capitalist democracy and utterly destroying it before he died. His introduction of radical socialism overnight (literally, overnight) caused so much chaos that the economy crumbled. A large part of that was undoubtedly due to the severing of ties by the US after Allende infuriated Nixon by cosying up to Nixon’s nemesis Fidel Castro.

The very real tragedies aside, you have to accept that there is a particular skill in destroying an entire country, deserving almost of a perverse kind of admiration. It takes pronounced, prolonged effort, wilful ignorance and a catastrophic series of bad calls to get an entire population to the point where they have to queue in line for hours for bread. And yet, Allende managed this in just 3 short years. His is a shining example of an epic, tragic, glorious brand of mismanagement, the David Brent, the Michael Scott of presidents. For any Republicans out there, this is what happens when you introduce radical socialism to a country. The tepid right-of-centre tinkering by Obama doesn’t even come close.

The best thing you could say of Allende is that at least he was elected, and his brand of radicalism didn’t extend to killing. The second best thing you could say about him was that he wasn’t General Pinochet.

General Pinochet led the coup that overthrew and killed Allende in 1973. Pinochet fixed the economy by bringing in leading economists from Chicago, but at the extreme cost of intellectualism, art and culture. Apparently he didn’t assign much value to them. In a pattern familiar to tin-pot dictators all over the world, he disappeared anyone who disagreed with his policies, and set about culling the artists, musicians, playwrights, poets, writers, journalists and philosophers. No dissent was tolerated. He was later found to have bugged huge portions of Santiago to record people’s private conversations in their homes. And, yes, he was still in power in 1984. During his tenure, he was propped up by Margaret Thatcher who in return got access to airspace during the Falklands conflict. Being stridently anti-communist, he naturally got support from the US too.

Remarkably, Allende has become something of a sympathetic figure and is known, apparently without irony, as the People’s President. Then again, I’d look like a reasonable leader if the next guy was responsible for the deaths of thousands and the torture of 30,000 more. I don’t have a niece who’s a famous author I suppose (though I do have a cousin who’s a footballer). Still controversial, Allende’s statue outside the parliament building is regularly hugged by those who consider him a victim, and spat upon by those who curse his mismanagement of the country. At least he gets a statue. There are no statues to Pinochet.

Aside from the history lesson, we saw a large part of the city in a walk that lasted about 4 hours, taking in the commercial, entertainment and student districts each of which have a distinct character. The influence of waves of migrants are evidenced by French architecture, German food and beer and Italian tailoring. It’s not all alpaca woollen beanies and ponchos, though they certainly are around, and who could blame them? The maximum today was 6°c. Pro-tip: When arriving into Chile at night, make sure you’re wearing more than just a T-shirt; its English moniker is certainly apt. Today was the first time I’ve seen my breath in quite a while.

On the plus side, it was an unusually clear day and we were able to see the snow-capped Andes mountains in the distance, a comparatively rare sight despite the city being ringed by peaks. The blue of Chile’s flag is said to represent the sky “except in Santiago”, where smog and haze usually turns things grey and obscures the mountains even though they are only a few kilometres away.

Chilean cuisine is as cosmopolitan and varied as Santiago’s people. On the one hand, you have beautiful Cazuela soups, which are rich, nutritious and healthy. Corn is used in lots of meals, as is rice. On the other hand, you have what can only be described as a tower of cholesterol. Take one plate full of fries and put a layer of chorizo on top. Put a layer of beef on top of that and then, because too much is never enough, put half a loaf of melted cheese on toast on top of that. Garnish with two quartered eggs and serve with a defibrillator on standby. You’ll obviously want to polish that off with a hot-dog, fully loaded. Like Brazil, they seem to be in love with meat. It’s kind of like the nation’s Jamie, Delia or Nigella went to Denny’s and then taught the whole country how to do it.

Strange as the food is, the cafe culture is stranger. Starbucks might have the monopoly around the world, but you’re nowhere in Chile unless you serve Coffee With Legs. It’s not particularly easy to make coffee interesting, especially when it’s as bad as Chilean coffee. How then do you sell a disgusting brown stew to already stressed business people who really could do without the caffeine? Why, the same way you sell everything; by having sexy women in mini skirts pour your coffee and flirt with you. This had been an enduring and profitable enterprise since the 1960s, until a disruptive newcomer entered the business a few years ago. In a feat of marketing genius so obvious you wonder why it took 30 years – then again, see above – this new enterprise entices customers by having sexy women in bikinis pour your coffee and flirt with you. Clearly this is an arms (and legs) race that can only end in one place. How then does this new enterprise stop competitors from one-upping them (so to speak)? With the inevitable Happy Minute. Not to be confused with a Happy Meal, though possibly equally satisfying, Happy Minutes are announced at random throughout the day by the manager. At the sounding of the bell, the customers are locked in and the lovely ladies… dispense with the formalities. On tables. Tinted glass prevents prying eyes and children are not allowed on the premises, and with thumping house music and disco lights, these places are more like nightclubs than your typical Caffe Nero. You might expect that men would sit inside all day drinking cup after cup of coffee in the hopes of seeing the promised land. You would be right.