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Chile's Transformation Creates Model for Latin America

The recent summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Santiago, Chile, put the spotlight on that South American nation's dramatic change over the past two decades, from a repressive military dictatorship to a modern democracy with a dynamic economy.

Chile has become the envy of its Latin American neighbors and a model for what free trade and an open society can do.

The APEC summit gave Chile a chance to show off. Visitors from all over the Pacific rim expressed their admiration for the beauty of the country and the vigor of its $72 billion economy. Chile has long had a global economic reach because of its ample copper resources and its agricultural products, but in recent years its leaders have worked to build free trade agreements that have helped spur a growth rate between four and six percent a year.

Chile's current president, Ricardo Lagos, is also trying to build an economy based on knowledge and technology as well as commodities. One government initiative encourages Chileans to learn English so that the country can expand business links all over the world. Otelo Angulo is a part-time driver and teacher who sees the benefits in learning English.

"It is a business language," he said. "It is a very straight language in its expressions that goes directly to the point. It is very accurate. It is used in so many places for the globalization and international relations."

Not everyone in Chile is enthusiastic about efforts to increase the country's global links. During the APEC summit, thousands of people marched through the streets of Santiago to condemn the meeting and the idea of globalization in general. One of them called herself Carolina. She says free trade deals favor the United States and other large nations and brings few benefits to average Chileans. She also fears such deals make Chile more dependent on the United States. But in the year since the United States and Chile signed a free trade agreement officials from both nations have hailed it as a success.

At the APEC meeting, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick called it exemplary. "If you look at our exports to Chile so far this year, I think they are up over 30 percent," he said. "Chile's exports to us are up 23 or 24 percent, but it is off to a very good start for both economies and we also hope this will help the investment climate, which we know is important in Chile."

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos also believes in the benefits of free trade and used his turn as host of an APEC summit to seek more trade opportunities with Asian nations.

While in Santiago, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi discussed the idea of a bilateral free trade agreement with Chile, saying that he sees this nation as a bridge between Japan and the rest of Latin America.

Many young, educated Chileans are excited by the opportunities free trade provides. This young finance executive is enthusiastic about free trade. He says Chile, as a small country, receives great benefits from its open economy and free trade agreements. But his two friends, both of whom work in the arts, have a slightly different view. They agree that free trade has bolstered Chile's image as being at the vanguard of the Latin American region, but they say the benefits have yet to reach all levels of society, especially the poor. Chilean officials say they are working to spread the benefits of the growing economy to the entire nation and that sticking to the liberalization policy will ensure an even brighter future for Chile.