Chile: Between Stability and Uncertainty

By Eduardo Silva and Kenneth Roberts*

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Students protest in Santiago, May 2016. A highly-mobilized Chilean civil society has beset Michelle Bachelet’s second term as president. / Francisco Osorio / Flickr / Creative Commons

With national elections looming at the end of 2017, President Michelle Bachelet’s startling reversal of fortune raises the question of whether the traditional parties’ failure to win broad popular support could give rise to an anti-establishment populist leader.  At the end of her first government in 2010, Bachelet was the most popular president in post-democratic transition Chile.  This go-around, high-profile corruption scandals involving party financing and real estate deals implicating her family (along with both governing and opposition parties) have cut into her support.  Irregularities in the electoral registry before the 2016 municipal elections, an ineffective response to devastating forest fires, concessions over major reforms, and a slowing economy have also hurt her approval ratings, which are hovering near 20 percent, the lowest of any president since 1990.  Her administration has been beset by protests over education reform, labor relations reform, and the private pension system that the military government established in the 1980s.  Tensions and violence flare up continuously over land rights in the south between Mapuche communities and extractive industries.  All of this is occurring in a context of marked secular decline in voter participation and political party identification.

The trend of volatile approval ratings and a mobilized civil society now spans three administrations – Bachelet, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), and Bachelet again – from 2006 to 2017.  Unlike in Brazil and Argentina, where “middle class” revolts demanding clean, efficient government and economic growth signified a rightward turn after prolonged center-left rule, most of the protests in Chile come from the left flank, rather than the right.  Moreover, the mainstream parties appear seriously detached from the most active groups in civil society and, as seen in declining levels of party identification, from the citizenry at large.  This raises questions about the future of Chile’s party system, whether its center-left and center-right coalitions can hold together, and the chances for outsider populists.

All things considered, Chile has been a case of exceptional partisan and electoral stability in Latin America since 1990.  The dominant parties and coalitions have won all the elections, without the rise of a major “outsider” populist or a major new “movement party.”  But the next elections may provide a sort of “in between” outcome.  Ex-President Piñera, who has independent tendencies on the right, and a center-left alternative, Alejandro Guillier, are the current frontrunners in presidential primaries scheduled for July.  Guillier is a type of insider, nominated by a small party in a large coalition, with outsider credentials who does not really belong to Chile’s traditional casta política.  At this early point, if Piñera and Guillier win their respective primaries, both would appear to have a shot at winning in November or in December’s runoff – with neither outcome representing a breakdown of the system, nor a widespread electoral protest against mainstream parties.  This suggests, for now, the continuation of a system that is on the surface highly stable in institutional terms, but in reality highly detached from society at large and in particular from youth and the more active, mobilized sectors of civil society.  Neither political coalition shows many signs of significant internal renovation, although Guillier represents at least some change in leadership of the Nueva Mayoría.  However, political systems have been known to limp along under these conditions in the absence of major economic meltdowns, and that may be the most likely outcome of the next electoral cycle in Chile.

February 13, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.

Structural Reforms in Chile: Moving Forward in Midst of Political Crisis

By Claudia Heiss*

Bachelet Chile

Photo Credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has done well pushing her reform agenda despite a series of scandals regarding the illegal financing of political campaigns and abuse of power by her daughter-in-law.  Bachelet started with 58 percent support and the highest electoral margin of victory since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.  Her New Majority coalition incorporated the Communist Party and replaced the Concertación, the center-left coalition defeated in 2010 at the end of her first period, and after 20 years in power.  Bachelet’s current program reflected a left-turn and an intention to correct perceived flaws of a transition criticized for assuming too many features of the model imposed by the dictatorship.  The program included a tax plan to finance education reform introducing free university in a commoditized market of superior education.  This project was the offspring of massive student protests in 2011.  Another proposal was to replace the dictatorship-era 1980 Constitution through an “institutional, democratic, and participatory” process.

The scandals have hurt Bachelet’s popularity – she ended her first term in 2010 with 80 percent support and is now at historical lows below 30 percent – undermined the legitimacy of the political parties and Congress, and prompted a surge of social mobilizations.  (Slower economic growth, owing to the low price of copper, has contributed to the government’s unpopularity.)  But the President has scored some big wins.  In addition to the tax and education reforms she sought, the government has achieved important advances in the direction of its political program:

  • In 2015, a proportional system replaced the Binomial electoral system, which severely distorted popular will in the election of representatives and granted veto power in Congress to the political heirs of the dictatorship.
  • The campaign finance scandals led to the recent approval of a “Probity Agenda,” including higher transparency, forbidding corporate donations to political campaigns, and establishing a new law to regulate political parties.
  • A bill to make the main regional authority, the Intendente, elective rather than appointed by the President – a major step toward decentralization – has passed the Senate.
  • The decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, currently punished in only five countries, was approved by the Chamber of Deputies.
  • Congress is in the final steps of approving a labor reform meant to increase the negotiating power of workers towards their employers.
  • A complex constitutional reform process was launched last year, and this month the government selected 216 “facilitators” to assist the process and initiated a series of local meetings to discuss constitutional principles, rights, duties, and institutions. The process, the first of its kind ever in Chile, will lead to a presidential proposal to be presented to Congress.

The road ahead will not be easy for President Bachelet and her allies.  The political climate is pessimistic, and China’s economic troubles suggest the commodity bubble is over – to the detriment of the Chilean economy.  While rejected by conservatives, the changes appear as insufficient to those who want more radical reforms.  The labor bill has been criticized by union leaders as not allowing enough collective bargaining, and the proposal for constitutional change falls short of a binding participatory process like a Constituent Assembly or a referendum would be.  Bachelet, however, has deftly channeled anger about the scandals into the constructive reforms of the Probity Agenda, and she changed the perception of what is achievable in Chile in terms of progressive political and social transformations.  While public opinion is currently harsh with the government and with political elites, her second term, which ends in 2018, could in the long run consolidate her legacy as an effective reformer even in the face of adversity.

April 14, 2016

*Claudia Heiss is Assistant Professor at Universidad de Chile’s Instituto de Asuntos Públicos and researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies, COES.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Early Reactions Mixed

By Luciano Melo*

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Bob Nichols (U.S. Department of Agriculture) / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreed to on October 5 is drawing both praise and criticism, but approval by legislatures in some signatory nations – particularly the United States – is not a foregone conclusion.  Negotiators representing the 12 Pacific-rim countries involved – including Mexico, Chile, and Peru – hailed the agreement as historic.  It is a far-reaching agreement that will expand countries’ access to a combined market that represents about 40 percent of global GDP, with 800 million consumers.  It seeks to reduce tariffs – including 18,000 on U.S. goods alone – and lower non-tariff trade barriers as well.  The negotiators claim the accord also creates a fair compromise framework for protecting intellectual property rights; adopts the strongest-ever labor and environmental protections; and in a novel feature, establishes assistance for small- and medium-sized businesses to navigate the complex regulations and red tape involved in trade.  Communist Vietnam is a party to the agreement.

Reactions in Latin America have been mixed:

  • El Comercio (Peru) wrote that the TPP will help companies to establish better partnerships with the U.S. and Canada, and to create value chains in which Peru will buy commodities from one country, process them, and sell the resulting product to another. How that long-sought and developmentally imperative objective would be achieved through TPP remains vague, however.
  • El Financiero (Mexico) similarly portrayed the agreement as a means to increase production and foster the specialization of economies. Other Mexican commentators, however, reminded readers that NAFTA and other agreements have not brought the expected results; previous accords have undoubtedly boosted Mexican integration into global and regional manufacturing networks but have actually hurt the agricultural sector – accelerating decades-long migration from the countryside to cities and to the U.S.
  • Mexican and Chilean experts on the pharmaceutical industry, along with Australian and Asian counterparts, claim that TPP provisions on intellectual property will hinder the generic medications sector. They are concerned the accord will allow large U.S. multinationals to expand into markets with products that cannot be replicated for extended periods time.  Chile had negotiated aggressively against Washington’s efforts to transplant its laws providing 12-year monopolies to manufacturers of biologic drugs – compromising on a five‑year period extendable under some conditions to eight.  The Fundacion Equidad Chile warned that the agreement could cost its health sector about $540 million year more due to such provisions.

Details of the agreement will be made public in coming weeks.  While criticism of the secrecy surrounding the accord will naturally fade, substantive debate on its provisions will almost certainly increase amid expensive campaigns by policy advocates on both sides pointing out flaws both real and imagined.  But opposition seems relatively weak in the three signatory countries in Latin America, and ratification there appears likely.  Chile has long been the region’s champion of free trade, and Mexican technocrats appear convinced that trade is key to the country’s eventual graduation to high-income status.  With the commodity boom waning, Peru is counting on TPP to open avenues into a broader array of industries.  In the U.S., however, the path seems rockier.  Congress gave Obama “fast-track” authority, which will allow him to submit the agreement to an up or down vote without congressional amendments that would rip it apart, but criticism of TPP persists.  Some argue that it strengthens ties with Asian countries with bad records in environment, human rights, and labor laws.  An odd twist to the domestic landscape came from presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, who added her voice to the opposition – putting her on the same side, albeit for different reasons, with Republican opponents who have called TPP a “bad deal.”  President Obama will have to work hard to sell this new trade agreement to Capitol Hill and the nation. 

October 14, 2015

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

The Untold Story of Manuel Contreras and the CIA

By John Dinges*

The man who designed and executed the massive human rights crimes of Chile’s military regime died last week.  Manuel Contreras remained a general in Chile’s Army even during the last 20 years in prison, with accumulated sentences of more than 500 years imposed by Chilean courts.  In the United States, his murky relationship with the CIA and masterminding of a shocking terrorist attack in Washington, dominate perceptions of his record.  Contreras, a nondescript, somewhat pudgy man who never tired of boasting about the effectiveness of his anti-subversive campaign, created a security police apparatus, DINA, independent of Chile’s military hierarchy.  He reported only to General Augusto Pinochet, with whom he met early each morning.  DINA was responsible for about half of the 3,200 killed by the Chilean military, and virtually all of the cases of desaparecidos – people detained, tortured and killed in secret interrogation centers, whose bodies were then disposed of in secret graves or dumped into the sea.

Chile was not the most brutal military dictatorship – more than 10,000 Argentines and 200,000 Guatemalans died during that era – but Contreras and Pinochet became the international face of Latin American state terrorism of the 1970s, for various reasons, including their intimate relationship with the United States and in particular with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  It is not quite true that the CIA organized the military overthrow in 1973 of socialist president Salvador Allende, but the U.S. embrace of the violent coup was enough to create the widely accepted narrative that the United States brought Pinochet to power and made him a creature of its anti-communist foreign policy, whose global architect was Henry Kissinger.  In addition to ruthlessly persecuting political opponents in Chile, DINA carried out a spectacular act of international terrorism in the heart of Washington, D.C. – the 1976 car bomb assassination of Allende’s former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, in a blast that also killed an American woman, Ronni Moffitt, and wounded her husband Michael.

Some were quick to see the hand of the CIA in that horrendous crime, a charge that is repeated even today among some writers in Latin America.  But these writers may not be aware that Contreras actually promoted the idea of CIA involvement in Chile as a way to mask DINA’s crimes.  Here, briefly, is what Contreras did to point the finger at the CIA:

  • Contreras was the first to reveal, in an interview, that the CIA had sent intelligence trainers to Chile to help in the formation of DINA, a fact belatedly confirmed by the CIA to a Congressional investigation.
  • As his chief international assassin, Contreras hired Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen who had tried to join the CIA as a clandestine agent – a fact unquestionably known to Contreras and now well established in U.S. declassified documents.
  • Contreras developed a close operational relationship with the CIA, agreeing to provide intelligence in exchange for payment.  He is known to have traveled to the United States to consult with top CIA officials at least five times, including with CIA deputy director Vernon Walters in August 1975 – after which he went on to Caracas to lay out his plans for an international assassination alliance, Operation Condor.  Whether Contreras briefed Walters on the assassination plans is buried in CIA secrecy.
  • Contreras used Operation Condor to obtain false documents for Townley and another DINA agent to use in the first phase of the Letelier assassination.  With the plot under way, in July 1976, he visited Walters again.  Whatever the nature of those conversations (the declassified record is vague), Contreras was again associating himself with the CIA in relation to the impending murder.

When charged with killing Letelier, Contreras pulled out this defense: that the CIA had infiltrated DINA to commit crimes for its own purposes, that Michael Townley was really taking his orders from the CIA, and that the CIA, not DINA, killed Letelier in Washington. That version of events is false, according to my investigations.  Nonetheless, the charge of CIA involvement in Operation Condor and Letelier’s murder has become a kind of dogma, both on the right and the left.  It can be found in the writings of some U.S. academics and is extremely common in narratives of the period in Latin America.  Although there is no direct evidence for the charge, the history of CIA intervention, complicity in human rights violations and defense of military dictatorships is enough to convince many people that it must be true.  Few of those who believe it are aware they are making common cause with General Contreras, perhaps the most emblematic human rights criminal in Latin America.

August 12, 2015

*John Dinges teaches journalism at Columbia University.  He sorts out the documented, fact-based truth about the U.S. role in “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents” (The New Press 2004).

Corruption in Chile and Brazil

By Luciano Melo

Brazilian Pres. Rousseff (l) and Chilean Pres. Bachelet. Photo Credit: UN Women / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Pres. Rousseff (l) and Chilean Pres. Bachelet. Photo Credit: UN Women / Flickr / Creative Commons

A growing perception of corruption in Latin America, most recently in Brazil and Chile, is eroding confidence in two of the region’s most dynamic presidents – Dilma Rousseff and Michelle Bachelet.  The Chilean and Brazilian corruption cases are both serious, but differing perceptions and expectations in the two countries suggest the scandals will have different impacts.

  • Chile has long been the darling of economists and political scientists (and U.S. policymakers) in terms of democratic maturity, economic development, and transparency. The use of political influence to secure millions of dollars in sweetheart loans there has pulled the country down from its high perch, and since the issue directly touched President Michelle Bachelet’s own family members, it has become a huge deal in and outside Chile.
  • Although among the six main economies in the world and alone among the BRIC countries in boasting a stable democratic system, Brazil, by contrast, has repeatedly been tainted by corruption scandals that would lead to the fall of most Scandinavian governments in a matter of days. Former President Lula’s son became a millionaire while his father was in power, yet this fact hardly stained the ex-President’s popularity.  The scandals weighing down President Dilma Rousseff are different.  Brazilian citizens customarily have thought of Petrobras, one of the few remaining state enterprises after the wave of privatizations under President Cardoso during the 1990s, as a great source of national pride, and this sentiment was encouraged by the PT government, never a fan of the neoliberal predilections of its predecessor.  So when the scandal touched almost all of the party’s leaders, in addition to the prized national oil company, even Brazilians inured to corruption felt pain. Moreover, Lula and Dilma’s party, the PT, had promised to do politics in a different way.  As a union leader and a woman who fought against the dictatorship, respectively, they represented the rise to power of leaders based entirely outside the traditional parties and their murky ways of doing business.  Now, some of Dilma’s disillusioned supporters are demanding her impeachment, and many famous artists who once endorsed the PT are feeling betrayed.

Latin American voters have long manifested contrasting expectations of their presidents – cynicism about their venal nature coincided, as Latin America specialist Guillermo O’Donnell once said, with hope that they be “acclaimed saviors.”  Within the codependent relationship between citizens and politicians, trust is impaired once betrayal surfaces, but the marriage normally continues.  In some cases of rupture, as happened with impeached President Fernando Collor in 1992, it hasn’t meant the end of the political affair.  In the October 2014 elections Collor was reelected as Senator for the state of Alagoas.  Dilma and Bachelet have already said they will not resign, and that they intend to implement a comprehensive cleanup.  The road will be easier for Bachelet.  The Chilean scandal is still small and remains manageable, and although the decline in commodity prices has already  affected the country’s economy, further taxing Bachelet’s popularity, Chile has a sovereign reserve fund to cushion any blows.  For Dilma the conjuncture is considerably bleaker.  She was on the board of Petrobras while its executives were engaged in costly shenanigans, and it is now known that the fraudulent scheming also involved the Health Ministry and the state-owned bank Caixa Economica Federal.  And in Brazil, in contrast to Chile, the fiscal situation is sufficiently tight as to constrain the president’s room to maneuver as the commodity-driven economy stagnates.  At this point both women appear likely to survive their challenges, but the road ahead looks a lot tougher for Dilma than for Bachelet.

April 16, 2015

Chile Elections: Bachelet’s Partial Victory

By Maribel Vasquez and Eric Hershberg

President Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND

President Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND

Elections last Sunday didn’t give former President Michelle Bachelet the strong mandate that she wanted but she appears well positioned to win the second round and the honor of serving a tough second four-year term. An underwhelming number of Chileans headed to the polls to cast their votes for the president of the republic, parliamentarians, and for the regional councilors. Polls had indicated that Bachelet would win convincingly in the first round but, with 46.7 percent of the ballots cast, she fell just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off election on December 15. Conservative Evelyn Matthei, from the governing right wing Alliance Party, received 25 percent of the vote in the first round and has little chance of winning the run-off: another 17 percent of Chileans voting in the first round opted for candidates running to the left of Bachelet, and observers predict they will either stay home in December or select the former president as a second best option.

A 2012 change in voting law appears to have hurt Bachelet’s percentages. Under the new norm, Chileans for the first time were automatically registered to vote in presidential and congressional elections upon reaching 18 years of age, instantly expanding the electorate from eight to 13 million potential voters. But also for the first time, voting was not compulsory, and that proved consequential. In a country where public opinion polls have long shown high levels of alienation from the political system, particularly among younger segments of the population, abstention reached unprecedented heights. Fewer than seven million Chileans turned out to vote on Sunday, representing only around half of those eligible to do so. Turnout was undoubtedly suppressed by the stubborn persistence of Chile’s binomial electoral system, a holdover from the Pinochet dictatorship’s 1980 Constitution that gives the losing party a bloated presence in Congress (in order to receive both seats in any given district, the winning party or coalition must win double the percentage of the vote received by the runner-up, so frequently even a wide margin between the two top vote getters generates an equal allocation of seats). Bachelet’s center-left coalition, the New Majority, has proposed amending the constitution to make the electoral system more reflective of public preferences. But the newly-elected Congress, selected according to the rules of the authoritarian regime, is unlikely to generate the super-majorities needed to achieve constitutional changes that would alter the system so as to democratize congressional representation.

Getting elected to a second four-year term as Chile’s president might prove to be the easy part for Bachelet.  Harder still will be pushing forward the ambitious policy reforms she has promised. An especially prominent issue in the campaign was the demand of a growing student movement to reform Chile’s privatized education system, and Bachelet responded with a pledge to guarantee free, quality higher education to all Chileans, to be funded by a proposed increase in corporate tax rates and elimination of tax deferrals used widely by Chilean companies. Yet while Bachelet’s bloc secured the simple majority needed to secure modest tax reform, it fell short of the super majorities needed to secure education reform or change the electoral system or constitution, and the rightist opposition is loath to cede ground on either of these issues, which are also legacies of the Pinochet constitution. To enact the key pillars of her agenda, Bachelet’s second presidency will need to calibrate difficult negotiations with Congress with popular pressures to fulfill democratic aspirations for political representation and a more social democratic approach to public services than has been possible to achieve during the first 23 years of post-authoritarian rule.

September 11 Coup in Chile: Global Ramifications

By Eric Hershberg

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

In Washington last week many events recalled the bloody coup of September 11, 1973, which overthrew the Popular Unity government of Chilean Socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in a dictatorship that, even by South American standards of the time, stood out for its brutality.  Discussion about “the other September 11” highlighted the human cost of the coup, the role of U.S. government agencies in undermining Chilean democracy and encouraging the military’s actions, and the memories of the coup and dictatorship that remain deeply embedded in Chile today.  These and similar gatherings around the world and in Chile featured demands for the full truth about the dictatorship’s crimes – the fate of some thousand of the disappeared remains unknown today, according to the Human Rights Observatory of the Diego Portales University – and to hold those who committed them fully accountable.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet destroyed Latin America’s longest standing democratic regime and ended a unique experiment testing the proposition that electoral democracy could catalyze a transition to socialism.  In Chile, the coup initiated 17 years of military rule grounded in state-sponsored violence, but it also resonated far beyond that country’s borders, marking a watershed in global affairs.  To this day how people around the world conceive fundamental issues of political change, economic development and human rights is affected by September 11, 1973.  These broader legacies were the focus of a panel discussion at American University, co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Washington College of Law, this week.  (Click here for details.)

We can now see three large sets of consequences that the Chilean coup had far beyond its borders. 

Political:  Across Southern Europe, it reverberated powerfully, undermining the confidence of sectors of the Left that believed fervently a socialist transition could be effected through victory at the ballot box.  After the coup, Eurocommunists in Italy and Spain came to believe that victory would require an alliance with Christian Democrats or other centrists, lest a coup coalition akin to that in Chile bring down democracy altogether. For much of the Latin American left, the Chilean experience would over time prove a wake-up call, alerting those aspiring to turn the world upside down that democracy was not a mere bourgeois luxury and suggesting that “second-best” options – more gradual change –were preferable to maximalist goals that would likely jeopardize democracy.

Economic: The coup paved the way for “neoliberal” policies that would shake the foundations of conventional thinking about development for nearly three decades.  They were prescribed across Latin America.  It would not be until the emergence of ALBA in the mid-2000’s that the region would again witness a faith (however misguided), in the capacity of import-substitution and inward-oriented redistribution to achieve lasting economic advance in the region. 

U.S. policy:  Finally, the coup set in train levels of violence and human rights abuses so abhorrent that they drove major changes in U.S. human rights policy and international jurisprudence.  In the United States, advocacy organizations, progressive majorities in Congress, and the Carter Administration introduced unprecedented legislation aimed at preserving democracy and curbing human rights abuses.  Well beyond Washington, numerous international regimes put in place to combat impunity were motivated and influenced by what had taken place in Chile and the imperative of ensuring that it not happen again.  

Just as the cataclysmic event that took place in the U.S. on 9/11/01 opened the door to extreme and ongoing changes felt around the world, so too did the Chilean tragedy that began on 9/11/73.

Chilean Watershed?

 

Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Sunday’s presidential primaries in Chile – the country’s first ever –reaffirmed former President Michelle Bachelet’s leadership of Concertación and cleared the way for a faceoff in November between herself and the Conservative candidate, Economy Minister Pablo Longueira.  Bachelet trounced challengers within her center-left coalition, winning 74 percent of the primary vote, and seems poised to build on the astounding 81 percent approval rating she had in 2010 when her first term ended.  (Current President Sebastián Piñera’s approval rating now hovers around 40 percent, a two-year high for him.)  Conservative Longueira will have the advantage of Piñera’s incumbency, but his party’s somewhat weaker performance on Sunday – with about 27 percent of all votes cast – and his slim 3 percent margin within the coalition suggest a tough campaign ahead for him.  Most observers deem Longueira’s performance in Piñera’s cabinet to have been competent but unexciting, and they predict an easy Bachelet victory in November.

Whichever candidate wins, Chile faces an evolving set of challenges.  Its commodities-driven economy is slowing down, and a stubborn gap between rich and poor is fueling demands for tax and education reforms.  Chile is ranked the most unequal country of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Widespread demonstrations by students, teachers and professors have been demanding free tuition from preschool through university, and key labor unions are increasingly joining these mobilizations for reform.  Accepting her primary victory on Sunday night, Bachelet said voters were motivated by a desire for tax and education reform as well as a new constitution to replace the one created under dictator Pinochet in 1980.  She has also said that if elected she will halt the controversial HydroAysén project, which would build five mega-dams on two of Chilean Patagonia’s rivers.  Despite this rhetorical shift leftward and her role as the leader of the Socialist Party, such statements are not expected to lead to significant policy shifts; Chilean observers say she will continue to hew closely to the market-friendly policies that helped make Chile one of the region’s most stable countries during her first term.

Bachelet’s and Longueira’s competition may fail to excite the electorate in November, when voting will not be obligatory for the first time, and low turnout could deprive the victor of the mandate needed to lead thorough change, an arguable requisite  to increase the credibility of democratic institutions.  Empowered by two years of protests, student leaders are not leaving things entirely up to political elites.  Many are also running for office and aspire to bring a new perspective and direction to reforms in Chile.  International attention has focused in recent weeks on popular mobilizations in Brazil, but as recently as last week, tens of thousands of Chileans marched through the streets of Santiago and other major cities, challenging the credibility of the existing political order.  Bachelet has made deals with some of the protest leaders – agreeing, for example, not to run a Concertación candidate against one of them in a congressional race – but their demands are unremitting and strategic, and the winner of the upcoming election faces  a real challenge in trying to satisfy them. 

Chilean Student Protests and Inequality

Photo by Davidlohr Bueso, Santiago, Chile via http://www.flickr.com

Following a year of student demonstrations, Chilean students have renewed their demands for education reform with a massive street protest in Santiago. According to a report from the BBC News, 25,000-50,000 students participated in a march for free education on Wednesday. The protest came despite President Sebastián Piñera’s announcement that a state agency would be created to finance university-level education and that private banks would no longer be permitted to provide loans to university students. Piñera also announced that interest rates on student loans would be reduced from 6 to 2 percent. The student protests are just one of several political issues confronting Piñera, such as the construction of dams in Patagonia and government handling of political protests in the southern region of Aysén. The students’ cause has reverberated throughout Latin America and indicates widespread discontent with high levels of socioeconomic inequality in Chile.