Isabel Hilton: One ordeal ends while another begins

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In the instant metrics of the digital universe, 12 hours after their rescue, 33 Chilean miners were collectively four times more famous than Barack Obama, with 270 million Google hits to his 70 million.

The miners' helmet, worn by everyone from the billionaire President, Sebastián Piñera, to the almost-orphaned children who waited for the return of their fathers, is now a more potent national symbol than the Chilean flag. The men's narrative of endurance, dedication and faith rewarded has launched the Chilean miners, their nation and their rescuers as a universal fable.

The helmet symbolises the transformative power of this story. Until the men were resurrected from entombment and relaunched as global media stars, their headgear marked them out as labourers obliged to risk their lives in a mine with a notoriously poor safety record.

In their rescue, though, the helmet became the statement of Chile's new values, worn not as protective headgear but as a badge of the zeitgeist. How long has it been, away from the theatre of the football field, since any Latin American country led global headlines with a story that combined technical skill and human solidarity? The compelling appeal of those expertly choreographed final hours of rescue was not lost on the marketing men who scrambled to "donate" their sunglasses to the men; they, too, metaphorically donned a helmet and touted for some of the magic. So powerful was that magic that the President seemed reluctant to let it go: a man who has never done a labouring job in his life, he was still wearing the helmet when he visited the men in hospital the next day.

Copiapo is an unlikely backdrop for a global myth. An unpretentious town in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on earth, it serves the surrounding mining communities and acts as a jumping-off point for the modest desert tourist traffic. The town's previous claim to international notoriety was also connected with the mining business. In 1973, just weeks after General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected president, Salvador Allende, and inaugurated 18 years of dictatorship, he dispatched a trusted general to root out Allende sympathisers from the strategic northern mining sector.

The mission became notorious under the sinister popular nickname of the Caravan of Death for the trail of murder it left behind. Arrested mine administrators were taken from jail and shot. They were buried, secretly, in Copiapo's orderly and traditional cemetery. There are families in Copiapo who grieve, still, for those fathers whose remains have never been found.

The story of the miners' rescue is not just a compelling human drama with a happy ending: it has overturned the stereotypes of political violence, corruption and alienation that have constituted the image of Latin America since the last closing decades of the last century. In place of class struggle and sacrifice, Chile offered a powerful story of national solidarity, dignity, technical prowess and an explicit respect for the value of human life.

With the drama of the 33 miners, Sebastián Piñera declared a new Chile, a country that was ready not only to claim the values of a developed nation, but also to live them. "It's not just about sitting at the table with European countries," he said, "but about treating workers as if we were a developed country." When no effort or expense was spared to get the men out, few were inclined to ask why more had not been spent on mine safety to begin with. Not only had they been saved, the President promised, but civilised working conditions and safety standards would now be enforced.

For the global audience, the rescue offered a rare moment of collective joy in disillusioned times, a moment when the audience could imagine that human life – even the lives of low-paid workers – counted for more than money. It might easily have gone the other way: an accident along the way, a technical slip, an injury or death among the trapped men or their rescuers, and the story would have fallen back into the familiar trope. As it was, commentators began to see other messages in the Chilean success.

For The Washington Post, it became a story of the superiority of Chile's political economy and its entrepreneurial president over the empty rhetoric of the region's new wave of socialist leaders. Sebastián Piñera's open economic policies, according the paper, permitted rescuers to call in leading-edge technologies from around the world: fibre-optic cable from Germany, special mobile phones from Korea and capsule advice from Nasa.

A man with a less admirable political system, the paper argued, a man like Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, could not have pulled it off. Populism and socialism offer empty words; it's capitalism that cares for the working man, and capitalism works. If the note of respect for a Latin American neighbour is new, the perspective offers some comfort to North American readers, in the grip of national anxiety about whether their own political system and economy can ever be made to work again.

The 33 miners, the collective stars of this modern fairy tale, have been liberated from the mine in more ways than one. No longer are they tied to their hard physical labour for $900 a month. They have entered a virtual world in which they must live their new identity as universal heroes. Some may succeed in shaping their own story; others will be swept along by the demands of a narrative that has taken on a life of its own. Only children's stories remain happy ever after. The rest of us prefer our myths more complex.

After the moment of collective joy, the story will be disarticulated into individual character parts and plots – the psychological effects, the dark moments underground, the individuals who break down later. Whatever they do from now on, the men and their families will not escape our hunger for their story.

In these first bewildering months, they might do worse than to learn from another tragedy transformed to modern myth: the story of the survivors of the Andean air crash of 1972, a rugby team from Uruguay who were returning from a match in Chile. Theirs was also a story of a miracle rescue – at least for some. Those who survived nearly two months in the mountains before they were rescued did so by resorting to cannibalism, eating the bodies of the dead. Those who chose not to did not make it. The survivors' story, like that of the miners, became a universal narrative in which some chose to see the triumph of the human spirit where others saw the terrible power of the will to survive. One of the survivors turned professional, transforming himself into a motivational speaker. Most withdrew to private life to deal with nightmares as best they could. The strange ordeal of the Chilean miners is not over; it has just been transformed.

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