Early in September 2010, toward the end of the South American winter, Laurence Golborne, Chile’s minister of mining, caught a northbound flight from the capital, Santiago. His destination was Copiapó, a gritty copper-mining town in the coastal mountains of the Atacama Desert. He had put in a full day at the office and had changed into jeans and an open-necked shirt before heading to the airport. Golborne is a small man of fifty, a little cocky and perhaps a little vain. He has longish hair that spills over his ears and collar—a casual look, but well maintained. He has an eye for women. He loves his wife. He had emerged from obscurity in the private sector merely six months before, at the start of the current government, and he was not yet sure about public life. He told me he was too thin-skinned to endure it for long, and did not wish to be president. Recently, however, he had become a popular figure, and you could detect a taste for it growing inside. He himself seemed surprised. When he boarded the airplane, some of the passengers applauded. He smiled and shook a few hands, then retreated to his seat with a briefing paper. You could see him keeping himself in check. Some of his underlings at the ministry were too obsequious for his taste. On the flight north he made a point of carrying his own bag.
The trip to Copiapó was familiar by then, but the mission remained exotic. One month earlier, thirty-three miners had been trapped 2,300 feet underground by a collapse in a min...