Chile's Iceberg Message: We're Both Cool And Efficient

SANTIAGO, Chile - Eager to convince the world that it is a cooler, more efficient country than its tropical Latin neighbors, Chile has shipped an 80-ton iceberg from Antarctica to Spain for display at Expo '92, the world's fair that opened recently in Seville.

The iceberg has provoked a debate here over Chilean identity, with critics jeering at the $850,000 project as an arrogant folly - a self-conscious display of Latin American magical realism - and defenders portraying it as a stroke of marketing genius.

"We wanted something spectacular that would demonstrate Chilean abilities in engineering, transport and the plastic arts," said Carlos Tironi, the movie producer who is coordinating the government's iceberg project. "After all, this is show business."

Actually, it's not an iceberg. It's a 21-foot-tall sculpture created from dozens of mini-icebergs plucked from Antarctic waters.

The idea emerged after the government discarded the possibility of towing a true iceberg to Spain, according to Eugenio Garcia, director of the Santiago marketing firm that conceived the project. Chile decided to emphasize the little-known beauty of ice, especially glacial ice.

Frozen rain water forms conventional white ice. But glacial ice, purified of air and salt by millions of tons of pressure, is rock hard, virtually transparent and often marbled in turquoise or green, Garcia said.

In November - Antarctic spring - a Chilean navy vessel carrying

a crane operator, 25 sailors and a film crew sailed through the Drake Sea to Antarctica's Paradise Bay, winched aboard about 40 mini-icebergs in steel nets secured by navy divers and returned to Chile a month later laden with 160 tons of glacial ice.

Guillermo Tejeda, a graphic artist involved in the project, saw symbolism in the shipment of ice to Europe on the anniversary of the Spanish conquests.

"Ice is the only booty Europeans didn't carry out of America - because they couldn't," Tejeda said.

Chile's relations with Europe and Latin America have been at the center of the iceberg debate, which the promoters provoked with their own early descriptions of the project's intended symbolism: to portray Chile as a cold, businesslike country unlike its informal and less modern neighbors.

"We form part of an imprecise thing that is called Latin America, and there are negative judgments about that," Garcia told the magazine Paula last year. "We are trying to shed that image."

Not surprisingly, critics contend Chile ought to stress economic integration with Latin America rather than differences.

Supporters had little patience with environmentalists who criticized the ice harvest as a threat to Antarctic ecology.

"That's like protesting the degradation of the world's beaches because somebody brings home a bucket of sand," said Luis Poirot, the photographer who documented the project.

In Europe, from the moment the Aconcagua landed at the Spanish port of Cadiz in mid-February after a 28-day sea voyage, the ice has created a sensation. Dignitaries invited by Chile's ambassador to Spain crammed into a Seville meat-packing house to shiver - at 17 degrees Fahrenheit - in awe at the tons of turquoise ice.

In March, Chilean engineers installed the vast refrigerator that will blow below-freezing air on the iceberg to protect it from Seville's 100-degree summer heat. Then a professional set designer using a chain saw began sculpting the glacial chunks into the replica iceberg.