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world wide wednesdays :: way down south

seriously, how does this happen?
looking at a map of the southern most part of the southwestern hemisphere, one could be forgiven for asking "how the hell did that happen?" i mean, not about just anything, but when looking at the land mass comprised of chile and argentina, it's hard not to ask "did this really need to be two separate countries?" national borders along a single parcel of land are always arbitrary, but the division of these two countries seems particularly off. sure, there's a range of mountains that divides them, but a range of mountains separates the west coast of canada and the united states from the rest of their respective countries. russia is carved up by the ural mountains and a couple of smaller mountain ranges, including one that effectively isolates the extreme eastern edge of the country from anything. so while mountains might make a reasonable border, there's no law that says that you have to split the country whenever there's a few peaks in the way. and it does seem a little strange when you look at the size difference.

so this week for world wide wednesdays, we're going to look at these two and pose the obvious question: are chile and argentina really so different that they just had to be two separate nations? or are they just trying to fool us?

buenos aires, argentina
on the surface, the two countries do seem to have a lot in common, aside from occupying the same land mass:

  • both are former spanish colonies and as a result, both are spanish-speaking
  • both were partially conquered by the incas 
  • both gained independence from spain at around the same time: chile declared independence in 1810, but did not achieve a decisive victory over the spanish until 1818, whereas argentina seceded as part of the united provinces of the rio plata in 1816 [but didn't exist as "argentina" until the early 1860s, following an extended period of civil war]. 
  • both score "very high" on the human development index- the two highest in south america [only one other latin american country is rated as very high- cuba]
  • both are heavily urbanized, with around 90% of the population of each country residing in an urban zone
  • both are signatories to the 1989 indigenous and tribal peoples convention- the only binding international law relating to indigenous persons [side note :: only 22 countries have ratified the convention, including spain, the netherlands, and nepal, but not including canada, the united states, australia, new zealand, or russia.]
  • both are at or nearing the tipping point of becoming an aging population, with declining birth rates and medical advances extending life expectancy. 
  • both had brutal right wing dictatorships [backed by the united states and their allies], argentina in the 1970s and chile from 1973-90

argentine patagonia
with that list, the two seem more similar than parts of, say, canada, where there is more than one language and which was created piecemeal, with only four of the ten provinces and three territories included in the original country. the snowy peaks of the andes don't seem like they should be a barrier to unification. but no one talks about unifying the two countries, and it doesn't seem like anyone really ever has. and i do mean ever.

argentina seems to have been the first to host a human population, with some artifacts dating back to the paleolithic [and, incidentally, causing all manner of problems for the prevailing theory on the timeline for the settling of the americas], but the area was sparsely populated and different groups had little to do with one another.

chile, on the other hand, was settled later, but by about 600bce, had a group entrenched in the southern part of the country called the mapuche who were a pretty fearsome lot. how fearsome? they stopped the incas progress in its tracks and, indeed, repelled the spanish. only after their population suffered a sharp and massive decline [historian ward churchill estimates it feel from roughly half a million to twenty-five thousand] were the spanish able to start incorporating their territories. in fact, the mapuche continue to be fearsome opponents, serving as a voice of conservation of chilean forests and forcing american giant home depot to revise its import policies in order to ensure that the natural ecosystems and the industry itself were protected. mapuche activists have also been prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws in recent years.

chilean patagonia
while both were colonised by spain, their relationship with europe and its effect on their population long term was very different. chile remained wild and inhospitable, a destination for only the most hardened [and possibly desperate] european immigrants. argentina, on the other hand, experienced massive waves of european immigrants following independence until after world war i. indeed, argentina flourished as few others did in post-colonial times, becoming one of the largest economies in the world, with wealth and a standard of living that rivaled the united states.

the vast majority of the populations of both chile and argentina are of european extraction and are racially caucasian, but in chile, there was a much greater tendency for immigrants to mingle with the indigenous locals, meaning that the vast majority of the population has a mix of european and amerindian genetics. there are some estimates that chile is about equally split between european and indigenous heritage, but it's rarely one or the other. in argentina, while there are certainly amerindian ethnic groups, the waves of european immigrants from spain, italy, russia, wales and other places overwhelmed the indigenous population. certainly, there are people with significant amerindian heritage, but argentinians are more likely to look like europeans. chileans often have the dark hair and eyes, broad, flat cheekbones, and high foreheads typical of amerindians, whereas it's not odd to find argentinians who are fair with light colouring. [side note :: the transnational divide is weaker in the southern extremity of both countries, where the mapuche have been less concerned with enforcing the border and even further to the south, which was largely unexplored and unsettled. in fact, argentina and chile have had ongoing disputes over the exact placement of the southern border, and over their roles in the management of adjacent antarctica. ownership of patagonia and the tierra del fuego has been contentious for over a hundred years and numerous treaties have only been able to maintain a tense stalemate.]

here's a quick look at what i mean. here are three well-known chileans:

singer victor jara [murdered by the pinochet regime]
author isabelle allende- fair, but look at the bone structure
footballer alexis sanchez. you're welcome.
now, let's look at a selection of well-known argentinians:

pope francis
footballer lionel messi
actor rodrigo guirao diaz
and of course, eva peron
yes, i've chosen people who make my point, but if you search for famous people from both countries, there is a clear overall distinction.

chile also has a much more threatening geography, being located on the pacific "ring of fire" that can bring catastrophic earthquakes to japan and california. in fact, the largest magnitude earthquake in recorded history, a literally earth-shattering 9.5 on the richter scale, struck valdivia chile in 1960. [side note :: chile can thank its centralized population for the fact that the valdivia quake doesn't come close to being the most deadly in history- valdivia was not a major centre- but it still caused a billion dollars in damage.]

argentina feels earthquakes, some of them serious, but they are sheltered from the worst the ring of fire has to offer.

argentine grasslands
in the years since their liberation from dictatorship, chile and argentina have taken very different paths. chile, perhaps expectedly of a country threatened by natural disasters, capped by an arid desert and increasingly vulnerable to the needs of an older population, has been a model of conservative fiscal management. with keynesian prudence, they banked a portion of the money they made from the commodities boom that saw their mining industry post record profits. their embrace of free-market economics and floating currency made them an appealing trade partner for the united states among others, which has allowed more money to flow into the country, although it has created significant environmental concerns. there are some signs that chile may be on the verge of clamping down on some corporate benefits, with increasing demands to raise businesses taxes and put the money into strengthening the nation's welfare programs [particularly pensions], but by and large, chile has flourished by imitating the american capitalist model.

chilean coast
argentina, on the other hand, has been something of an economic disaster area. since 1930, they have declined significantly from their world class status and have been subject to a roller coaster ride of boom and bust finances. governments have repeatedly intervened to manipulate the country's currency, both before and after it was pegged to the u.s. dollar to try to establish a modicum of stability. bank runs, currency devaluation and loan defaults have scared off a lot of international investors. most damning, argentina is perceived as corrupt. chile, by comparison, rates very highly in terms of transparency and good government. while it is certainly possible to respect argentina's willingness to stand up to creditors, the government has done little to improve the plight of most citizens. poverty is a huge problem in argentina, with up to 60% of the population living below the poverty line. chile, in contrast, has maintained a relatively high standard of living, albeit through emphasizing individual responsibility and limiting government support.

santiago, chile
the heads-versus-tails story of flourishing chile and floundering argentina is both a cautionary tale on the importance of medium-to-long term financial planning and a reminder that the united states and its corporate interests continue to exert a massive influence on both countries. chile has been rewarded for its championing of the free market with lucrative trade deals and significant investment, while argentina has been punished for asserting sovereignty over its resources and economy. international finance has achieved with a more subtle hand what repressive government was once tasked with achieving.

the final verdict? the world's third longest shared border, a common language and similar histories before modern times does not a single nation make. chile and argentina exhibit significant differences that date back to pre-colonial times and leave them distinct in terms of genetics and political culture and their proximity belies a geological schism that goes beyond what's experienced in north america. so yes, while it might look a little strange to have a narrow strip of land form a separate country along the spine of a much larger neighbour, it is sensible and even required.

you can see the spirit of competition between the two nations on display this weekend as chile and argentina face off in the final of the cope america. chile is the host, while argentina are the heavy favourites to win.

and they're both so beautiful, here's just a couple more photos: 

wildlife in the mountains, chile
tierra del fuego, argentina


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