Chilean Humanist, Tomas Hirsch, gave a talk this morning at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik to members of the Spanish faculty, local humanists and members of the general public.  The theme that Hirsch was invited to develop was the process of development taking place in Latin America and especially the situation in Chile.

In his brief descriptions of progressive Latin American countries, he touched on the examples of Argentina, Bolivia (whose president came from a social movement and reached political power that way), Uruguay, Venezuela (whose president came from the military and brought a revolution down to the grass roots), Ecuador (whose president is a highly educated economist from a top US University) and Brazil.

The former Chilean Presidential candidate noted how the western media tend to portray all of these examples as part of the same phenomenon, whereas the reality is that each scenario is very different.

Hirsch noted a few elements that have helped these progressive movements to survive.  In first place, the USA has been too busy with their wars of foreign intervention to pay any attention to what’s happening in South America.  Whereas in the last century the USA overthrew any government that did not follow their line, this century it’s more difficult for them because their attention is elsewhere.  In addition, the motor of the South American economy has been the mining industry and the growth of Chinese industry requires an endless supply of raw materials, many of which are available in South America.

During the talk, Hirsch explained that the motor of history is the tension between generations.  This humanist conception postulates that the current generation in power always resists the generation coming through who have a different formation and different ideas about how things should be done.   Over the last 20 to 30 years this mechanism has stalled and instead of struggling to change things, young people have been assimilated into the system and taken on all the values of the system without changing anything.

Hirsch described how the younger generations in Chile are now starting to wake up because the economic system has grown so disgusting that students and their families are unable to pay for their education.  The University system has been totally privatised and the public universities in any case charge students the same amount as the private universities, around 600 euros per month.  Students know that they will end up in debt for 20 years and leave university with an education which is unfit for the modern world.

Hirsch drew parallels between Iceland and Chile: two countries very far away and relatively small and two countries where the outside world has a very mistaken vision of the reality of the situation.  In the case of Iceland, the world thinks about a people who created a revolution that brought down a government, jailed the bankers and changed its constitution.  With Chile the image is of a country that is highly economically developed.

The reality of the situation is that Iceland had some interesting experiences but a revolution has not taken place and only a few cosmetic changes have.  And in Chile, the country does indeed have extraordinary macroeconomic figures, but this hides the fact that Chile is in the bottom 12 countries in terms of the gap between rich and poor.  Only countries such as Burkina Faso, Uganda, Haiti and others have worse statistics.

In the questions and answers section, Hirsch was asked to comment about the social democratic system developed in Scandinavia since the end of the 2nd World War, and although he was complimentary of the system in place, agreeing that it is a more competitive economy precisely because the system is more egalitarian, he was quick to denounce other political parties around the world who have adopted the name “social democracy” as a disguise to hide their real neo-conservative goals.  “The Social Democrats have paved the way for some of the worst excesses of privatisation and exploitation by multinationals.”

In final comments, a question was asked about environmental issues and the concept of “good living” from Ecuador was discussed and how the Ecuadorean Government has refused to exploit its hydrocarbon resources because of the devastation it would cause to the environment.  In this indigenous peoples’ philosophy a balance needs to be found in human beings’ relationship with the natural environment.  In other countries such as Bolivia and Bhutan, where life is not seen in macroeconomic terms but rather the Gross National Happiness is measured, similar importance is given to more existential themes and it would be very interesting to expand this around the world.

Hirsch finished by reflecting on why he is an activist and why he travels the world talking to people about the situation in Chile.  “It’s not because I like to speak badly about my country or because I’m a masochist,” he said.

“I do this because I believe passionately that it’s possible for me to leave the world in a better condition than the way it was when I was born.”

“I have discovered that the best moments in life are when I give freely rather than when I spend life trying to accumulate things as the system would have me do.”

“I have discovered that when I ask myself questions such as, ‘Who am I?’ and, ‘Where am I going?’ then I can clarify what is my meaning in life.  And this meaning in life is not just about changing the outside world, changing society if you like, it’s also about working with those closest to me to overcome also the violence in my personal relationships.”

“We will truly make this revolution that we all want when we realise that personal and social change are two elements that we need to work on at the same time.”