By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Nota del Editor: Usted puede leer esto en Español.

Did you catch Chile’s moon landing?

You might know it as the Chilean Mine Rescue. Or one of the clever monikers so vital to cable TV news (Miracle At The Mine, anyone?).

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, right, hugs rescued miner Mario Sepulveda after Sepulveda was rescued from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine.

But don’t kid yourself. The internationally televised rescue of 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped in a copper and gold mine 2,040 feet underground for 69 days is nothing less than Chile’s moon landing.

It was as obvious from the Chilean flag and the words Chile and Fenix 2 painted on the side of the capsule, making it look like a miniature Saturn V rocket. Or the massive Chilean flag erected in the mine as soon as the first rescuer made it to the bottom of the shaft. It became the background for the fuzzy videos beamed across the world, much as that wire-framed American flag became the backdrop for the moon landing.

And as with the moon landing, the entire world watched, hoping to sponge up some of the pride of accomplishment and belief in humanity.

According to Chilean TV, more than a billion people tuned into the late-night drama.

The rescue captured imaginations and lifted spirits, prompted people to celebrate in South Florida streets.

But that’s all cotton candy. It’ll last about as long as a 24-hour cable news cycle.

The real story from the high desert in northern Chile is whether this is Chile’s lunar landing. Its certificate of competency.

After the 33rd miner was rescued Wednesday night, President Sebastián Piñera proclaimed, “We did it the Chilean way and we did it right.”

He continued, “The miners (who were rescued) are not the same people who were trapped, they’ve emerged re-strengthened. And Chile is also not the same, it’s united like never before and it’s more respected and valued. The miners have been an example of greatness.”

Visions of greatness must have been on Richard Nixon’s mind in 1969 when he made the famous phone call to the moon: “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world… For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

Sure sounds like greatness to me.

But heads-up to Chileans: the moon landing did not usher in an age of prominence. The 1970s ended up being about impeachment, inflation, the gas crisis, the hostage crisis. American ineptitude. The Apollo moon exploration program didn’t make it past 1972.

That’s because greatness doesn’t happen in space, or half a mile underground. It isn’t about deftly handling one event or mastering technology.

It’s determined by how a country handles hungry children and the suffering in its slums. How it keeps its people safe and healthy – both physically and economically.

And using those standards, Chile seems to have as much of a shot at greatness as … well … the United States.

When the men were first trapped just over two months ago, there were questions about safety standards in Chilean mines. Piñera quickly declared that the San Jose mine would close after the rescue. And he established a commission on mine safety. Sure, you have to wonder how deep that commitment to safety will be after the cameras and reporters leave. Particularly when copper mining accounts for about 10 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product. But you’d wonder the same thing here.

Remember the mine tragedy in Sago, W.V.? Inspectors found 208 violations in 2005, 96 of those major infractions.  Yet it was still operating in 2006 when a blast killed 12 miners. In an open letter to the families of his dead co-workers, Randal McCloy Jr., the only survivor of that mine disaster, detailed negligence by the mine operator.

But at least we ended up with the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 as a result of Sago.

As to how the two countries are doing, keeping their people economically and physically healthy, well, according to the World Health Organization, the life expectancy for Chileans is slightly higher than for Americans. Although the differences are almost negligible – except for the “probability of dying between the ages of 15 and 60,” a category where Americans score almost 20 points higher.

And of course, our health care costs are also not close. In the United States, we pay about 10 times more: $6,714 per American compared to $697 for Chileans.

So you tell me: Which country is closer to greatness here?

It doesn’t get any better when we talk about economic health. The U.S. government’s lack of oversight played a major role in the collapse of the real estate market and the loss of millions of jobs. It led to a $168 billion stimulus package from President George W. Bush in 2008 and then an $800 billion stimulus from President Barack Obama in 2009.

Last year, Chile spent $4 billion on an economic stimulus package to hold off a recession.

The difference between their stimulus and ours wasn’t just about the number of zeros in the number, but the fact that Chile’s appears to have worked.

Chile started the year with an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent, strikingly similar to ours. But in the quarter ending in August, unemployment was down to 8.2. Now the concern is that the economy may be growing too fast.

But we still have a few things going for us. American contractors got the rescue hole dug. The capsule was NASA-designed.

And it was all capped, courtesy of U.S. Rep Connie Mack of Florida, by the one thing the U.S. does, hands-down, better than anyone else.

A resolution.

One small step, Congressman.

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