food / travel

Why Empanada Dog Is The Perfect Metaphor For Chile

Chile, not chili! A national deconstructing of that viral video of the hungry Latin American canine stealing the internet's heart.

An empanada thief? A national hero!
An empanada thief? A national hero!
Benjamin Witte

A South American street dog has become an unlikely global internet star after he appeared in a local news segment, ever so slyly stealing an empanada off the grill of a sidewalk vendor. Video of the crafty canine quickly went viral after links appeared on Facebook in Chile, and later on Reddit and Twitter.

The scene is priceless in that homemade kind of way: neither the young reporter in the clip nor the two women he interviews notice the dog, who sneaks into the bottom right-hand-corner of the frame, where we can almost imagine the pooch winking a "shhh..." to the audience. It makes sense, in other words, that "empanada dog" would become an international superstar.

But it's also true that the shady shepherd got his start in Chile, where the episode took place. And there are some specific elements in the video that explain its particular success among Chileans.

THE EMPANADA

From slang words to specific brand names, Chileans are fiercely proud of their cultural reference points. And empanadas, a tasty and convenient meat-filled pastry, are one of them. If the dodgy dog had snatched a slab of steak or hunk of bread it wouldn't have tapped into such a sense of "chilenidad," as the Chilean national identity is sometimes called.

THE TIMING

There's no more important time to celebrate being Chilean than in the days leading up to Sept. 18, national Independence Day, when citizens of all social classes take time off work to gather in parks and backyards and indulge in serious empanada eating and cold beverage consuming. That the video went viral on the eve of the "fiestas patrias' (national festivities) is perhaps no coincidence.

THE STREET

Chile is often hailed as the "economic miracle" of South America. And with good reason. The country's per capita income (just shy of $24,000, according to the World Bank) is the highest in the region. Most of that money, though, is at the top of the income pyramid. For all the shiny new skyscrapers dotting the skyline in Santiago, Chile is still a country of predominately middle and working-class families where street vendors and mangy perros callejeros (stray dogs) are a familiar and not altogether unwelcome sight.

THE CRIME

Petty crime is on the rise in Chile. Or least that's the prevailing perception, one that the political right — which has managed to win the presidency just once since democracy was restored in 1990 — has been careful to project in recent years. Either way, people worry, and in that sense, empanada dog and his feel-good crime may have offered something of a catharsis, a chance to find humor in what is otherwise a source of serious concern for many Chileans.

THE ELECTION

The race to replace outgoing President Michelle Bachelet is in full gallop right now, and the front-runner for the November election is conservative former president Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire who promises to be tough on crime and corruption but has been, er, hounded for decades by allegations of shady business dealings and conflicts of interest. Needless to say, he's not universally loved. But neither are any of the country's other leading political figures. It was, it seems, time for a different kind of hero to emerge. As Chilean artist Philippe Sapiains — who made an illustration of "Empanada Dog" that also went viral — wrote in his popular tweet: "If they're going to elect a thief for president, why not make it an empanada thief."

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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