In times of good times and prosperity, when everything seems to be running smoothly and the wind is constantly blowing from the stern, it is not often that we detect great lessons for improving individually and collectively. Quite the contrary, it is precisely the complex and convulsive times that usually open our eyes to realities that usually remained hidden. In this sense, the numerous areas in which we have woken up as a result of the pandemic have been repeated ad nauseam, both in terms of the possibilities for improvement, as well as in terms of some immemorial convictions that were taken for granted and that the course of events has definitely buried.
And not everything has necessarily been negative. For example, the development of the last two years has called into question the historical black legend about the lack of efficiency, rigor and order of the Mediterranean countries. There have been many challenges that could have been tackled better, undoubtedly, but the inferiority complex of southern Europe vis-à-vis our northern neighbors should be rethought in view of the way in which each of us has responded to this critical context. Let’s think about the speed and vaccination rates, or civic respect for the guidelines implemented by health authorities. If you will allow me personal experience, during the time of the great restrictions I traveled a couple of times to regions of the continental center and north, and in both cases I returned with the surprising feeling that we were the Prussians.
Another of the complexes that we have internalized more solidly historically refers to the frequency and intensity with which Latin countries are capable of making fools of themselves in the approach, design and construction of large infrastructures. God forbid me from relativizing or underestimating the serious responsibilities that our authorities have accumulated in this type of task (my blood pressure rises every time I think of Jaume I’s smart car park), but if we want to analyze the comparative reality with a certain equanimity, we all we should recognize that beyond the Pyrenees they also have much to be ashamed of. To give a few examples, some time ago I wrote in these same pages about the bizarre construction of the Vasa (a huge Swedish ship that sank ten minutes after it was launched due to having used different units of measurement to port and starboard) or about the embarrassment that Swiss and Germans carried out in the border city of Laufenburg (where they built, from both banks of the Rhine, a bridge that was not oriented to the same meeting point). Today I will refer to a case much closer in time: the Santa Helena airport.
The only thing that most of us usually know about this remote point of the South Atlantic is that it was the final resting place of Napoleon, until the day of his death in May 1821, after being defeated at Waterloo by the English. It is they who today continue to hold sovereignty over this overseas territory, the second oldest of the British after Bermuda. The last home of the exiled French emperor was discovered in 1502 by Juan de Nova, a Spanish navigator in the service of the Portuguese crown, who came across the island on his way back from a trip to India, and named it as a tribute to Helen of Constantinople. It is a small piece of volcanic land of 120 square kilometers, with strong winds, rugged landscape and steep mountains. To locate ourselves approximately, it is located halfway between Angola and Brazil. Although some have wanted to see in this piece of land an enormous tourist potential, the truth is that it remains an absolutely unknown place, with just over four thousand inhabitants. In fact, throughout the 20th century, the only way to get to Jamestown was to take a ship that departed from Cape Town every three weeks, requiring five days of sailing to reach its destination.
In a well-intentioned attempt to reverse this decline, at the beginning of the new millennium the possibility of building an airport that would open Saint Helena to the world was raised. The budget for the small air terminal amounted to 39 million pounds sterling, but no company wanted to take on the work. After numerous problems during the tender, an Italian company took on the challenge in 2007, but a year later it declared bankruptcy and left the island without laying a single brick. The project was taken up three years later by an African construction company. By then, the 39 million pounds had already become 205. The work took five years to complete, but during the takeoff and landing tests serious risks of “shear” due to the wind were detected, a circumstance that led to its being considered the most dangerous track on the planet and limited their possibilities. The inaugural commercial flight took place in 2016, with eighty passengers and the assistance of a hundred islanders. By then, the London government had already paid a bill of close to 300 million pounds, ten times higher than the initial budget. Since its launch, the terminal has reached a maximum of 8,000 passengers per year, which has been used by the forceful English press to baptize this infrastructure as the “world’s most useless airport”.
There is no doubt that the evil of many is only a consolation for fools, but it is equally true that we should stop mythologizing those who also pile up some corpses in their closets. Self-criticism, always. And the more, the better. But let us not consent to lessons from those who display a frequently undeserved moral superiority. Everywhere they boil beans.