Before the quake: A Kiwi view of Chile

In an ironic twist of fate, Idealog columnist and NZTE executive David Downs flew in and out of the Chilean capital Santiago just hours before the 8.3 magnitude quake hit the country. The column he wrote while he was there, little knowing the disaster that was about to unfold, gives cultural, political and business insights into a country about to suddenly and unwillingly find itself in the international news spotlight.

For the next couple of weeks I’m travelling quite a bit for work, so taking the opportunity to reflect on my travels via a few Idealog blog posts.

Today I’m in Santiago in Chile. It’s my first visit here; indeed my first trip to South America, but I like it already. How can you not like a country that charges Australians extra to visit? 

It was also the easiest airport entry I have ever experienced – apparently there was a strike of all the air traffic controllers, which meant most flights were cancelled, but curiously, not my one. Perhaps if there is only one plane landing it doesn't need to be controlled. Anyway, the airport was deserted, and the immigration people were very keen to see me – at least I think so. That would explain why their first question to me: ‘Are you married?’

Although I’ve only been here for 24 hours, it’s been an event-filled day: I was an unwitting part of a street comedian’s performance (apparently I was hilarious in Spanish, even though the only Spanish I can speak was learned by watching ‘Dora the Explorer’ with my kids).

 I sampled the local ‘pisco sour’, drank a concoction of wheat and peach juice (yum); and tried a heap of unusual food (including llama and horse), served at a great traditional local restaurant specialising in produce from around Chile. 

One of the nicest of these local delicacies was a type of banana bread from Easter Island – Rapa Nui bread. Interesting too in that NZ Maori share some ancestry with the Easter Islanders, as well as some common words (nui, like the heads). The Easter Islanders even have a sort of haka.

I’m not here just to eat and drink,  but to meet with our NZTE team in Chile, the people who support New Zealand businesses in Spanish-speaking South America - plus our ‘Beachheads’ advisors. These are an amazing global network of people who help New Zealand businesses as they grow internationally, providing advice on the local market, connections and assistance. They are always a treasure trove of knowledge about what New Zealand companies need to think about as they grow internationally. 

We had a great presentation today on the state of the Chilean economy – summary, it’s not flash. High unemployment (official stats 9% but some suspect much higher), a slowdown in the mining industry and a very unpopular government (22% popularity). Apparently corruption scandals are rocking the government, along with some unpopular tax reforms, and there are a large number of strikes as unhappy workers demand more pay – hence the airport strike.

Now, in adversity lies opportunity, and that’s what the Beachheads advisors outlined. There are a good number of successful New Zealand companies here, primarily in the agri-tech space (which is great).  What’s more, Chileans have a very favourable impression of New Zealand across many factors: our image, a destination for tourism and education; our innovation and technology; and our warm spirit and friendliness. I was delighted to hear that, as it perfectly aligns with our ‘New Zealand Story’ messaging of Open Spaces, Open Minds and Open Hearts.

One of the advisors has lived both in New Zealand and Chile, and has a great understanding of the two countries and the businesses climate in each. For example, lower productivity in Chile and a more individualistic style of operating means that it often takes longer and more people to get something done. Ie, it costs more.

In his opinion, people aren’t as willing to help, or to turn their hand to different things in Chile. He gave the example of a situation he saw in NZ where a guy towing a trailer lost a load of firewood off the back and onto the road. Immediately lots of people came to help, stopping their cars or coming from the footpath to clear the road. He said in Chile that would never happen; people would sit in their car, likely hooting the horn while the person cleared it by themselves. He said it’s not that the Chileans are being rude, just that it’s not their problem, or they might not know how to help.

Another challenge our companies face in this part of the world is the bureaucracy – almost all business documents need to be notarised, for example, and there are many more permits required. This kind of hidden barrier to trade is pretty common in this part of the world, business practices are much more complex and it takes a lot longer to do simple things - we met with one NZ company who is exporting here, who gave us a real example of that; their product needed to get a special certification for the sticker they used on the back of the box, something they’d never struck before.

Key summary of all this; doing business in other markets is not like NZ, and its best to learn as much as possible before diving in.

POSTSCRIPT: About two hours after I flew out, Santiago was hit by a very big earthquake – I heard from our team there that they are fine and I hope that is true for all Chileans and for the city of Santiago – which, by the way, is a beautiful city. Seven million people live there but you’d never know, it's nestled in beside the magnificent Andes, which provides a great vista. It’s got lots of trees and open spaces – in many ways, it’s like a really massive version of Queenstown. I’ll definitely be back.