The Left Returns To Power In Chile

Chile’s presidential run-off was remarkable for many reasons – including the childhood friendship of the two lead candidates, split by Pinochet’s coup 40 years ago, writes Antonio Castillo.

Last weekend Chile experienced a remarkable event. In a country with a poor record of gender equality, two women contested the run-off for the Chilean presidential election. Centre-left Michelle Bachelet, who won an expected landslide victory over her right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei, was returned to power for a second stint as President – she previously governed from 2006-2010.

What was not expected was the low turnout in the country’s first election with non-compulsory voting. 5.6 million ballots were cast, an estimated 41.5 per cent to 44.8 per cent of the eligible population. As the Chilean  independent news website El put it, “it is a democracy of the few”.

Last weekend’s run-off followed the 17 November general election, when none of the record nine presidential candidates obtained the majority required by Chile’s presidential system.

The pool was narrowed down to Bachelet and Matthei. Coincidentally, the two are childhood friends, whose experience diverged after the 11 September 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet, that overthrew the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

Bachelet’s father Alberto was a General loyal to Allende, which brought his arrest and death at the hands of the military junta.

Matthei’s father Fernando was also a General. He took a different path after the coup, and became part of Pinochet’s regime, which ruled Chile until the end of the 1980s.

The election of Bachelet, 40 years after Pinochet’s coup, marks the return to power of the centre-left. It also puts an end to the four-year government of the right-wing tycoon Sebastián Piñera a kind of Chilean Silvio Berlusconi. As I wrote in NM in 2010, Piñera’s government was the first time since the military regime that the right was in power.

Piñera became an international name when 33 Chilean miners were hauled to the surface after 69 days trapped in a collapsed mine in 2010. He took the credit for the miners’ rescue, but his brief celebrity never reached the polling booths. The beginning of the end for his right wing parenthesis began last year, when when the right lost some of its safest seats in the country’s legislature.

Bachelet will be sworn in on 11 March next year. Her previous tenure as President was mediocre, she had few legislative achievements and dealt ineffectively with the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that devastated a large part of the centre and south of the country.

She relied instead on a populist approach, peppering her speech with colloquial Chilean Spanish and presenting a caring motherly figure. That may not be enough this time around. Since she lost power in 2010, Chileans have become deeply disaffected and radicalised by the so-called tareas pendientes (outstanding commitments).

Bachelet – who will lead the New Majority coalition that includes Christian Democrats and Communists – was spot on when, in her winning speech, she admitted that Chileans “have distrust and frustration with a state that doesn’t protect them”.

Perhaps the massive political absenteeism that marked last weekend’s run off is a resounding reflection of the Chilean disenchantment with their political class. Traditionally Chileans have had a strong civic and political commitment, and heading to the polls has been deeply inscribed in the Chilean political conscience.

But steady disengagement with traditional politics has diverted the spirit once felt for the ballot box into street politics. Massive street mobilisations over the last few years are spearheaded by a wide, cross-factional group demanding an improvement to the appalling education system, better healthcare, the democratisation of an authoritarian constitution left in place by Pinochet, reforms to the taxation system, improvement of pensions, commitment to environmental protection and justice for the indigenous people whose struggle has been systematically criminalised.

The greatest demand of all is to close the abysmal gap in Chile’s income distribution, long regarded as a stain on Chilean society and an obstacle to a truly consolidated democracy. Chile might well be an example to follow for other Latin American countries, as an orderly economically sound society. But this is not the whole story. The promised trickle down never eventuated: according to a study by the University of Chile, the richest 1 per cent of the population concentrates 31 per cent of the wealth.

These are some of the outstanding and urgent tasks President Bachelet will have to honour in Chile’s new political paradigm, in the “democracy of the few”.

Posted in New Matilda


Chile Rewrites History To Whitewash Pinochet

The school books are being rewritten in Chile. Students will no longer learn about the Pinochet dictatorship, but about a long period of military government, writes Antonio Castillo.
From now on primary school students in Chile will learn that there was no dictatorship in Chile. They will learn instead that the dictatorship of General August Pinochet, 1973-1990, was actually a military government.The change of concepts — to be introduced into the new school texts of history, geography and science — aims to masquerade and legitimise one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships. Chile’s celebrated historian Gabriel Salazar, one of the many victims of Pinochet, was spot on when he described the move as “stupidity”.According to Plato, those who hold the power write history; and in Chile power is now held by the right wing President — an immensely wealthy tycoon — Sebastián Piñera. Ever since Piñera came to power via the coalition of his party, Renovación Nacional (National Renovation or RN), and the Union Democrática Independiente (Democratic Independent Union or UDI), a party of Pinochet’s henchmen has been attempting to bleach the stains left by the dictatorship.

To swap the word dictatorship for military government has been a long held ambition of the Chilean right. For the former collaborators of the dictator who now walk up and down the corridors of power in La Moneda, Chile’s government house, the word dictatorship was always hard to swallow.

To them the term was inaccurate and unfair — and reflected the left wing view of the period. Ivan Moreira, a staunch Pinochet collaborator and a UDI parliamentarian, said the word dictatorship deleted from school texts would allow an “objective” narration of the Pinochet period — ” something that hasn’t been done yet in Chile.” Deputy Alberto Cardemil, a long time collaborator of Pinochet and now a member of RN, said countries must revise their past in order to have a more “balanced version” of history.

The introduction of the new concept into school texts was incubated inside the Consejo Nacional de Educación (National Education Council or CNED). This is formed of 10 councillors who are designated by educational and research institutions; the Supreme Court and, believe or not, by the armed and police forces.

The representative of the armed forces is Alfredo Ewing Pinochet (no relation to the dictator) who endorsed the change of concepts. Ewing Pinochet was, according to Communist Party parliamentarian Hugo Gutierrez, a member of General Pinochet’s Central Nacional de Información (National Centre of Information or CNI). The CNI was responsible for the kidnapping, torture and homicide of thousands of dissidents. Around 700 former military personnel were brought to justice; 250 were condemned — but only 50 are now in jail.

Families of the victims of Pinochet, among others, have accused the government of historic revisionism and an attempt to give some kind of legitimacy to the dictatorship. Lorena Pizarro, the president of the Association of Families of Detainees and Missing people, said the abolition of the concept “alters the truth of history”.

Since the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Chile in 1990, the word dictatorship has always been problematic in school texts. Initially the word was avoided in school history classes. Among most schools teachers it was a word to be avoided. There remained the fear of offending Pinochet who, until his peaceful death in his own bed, was a disturbing figure in Chile’s new democracy.

Now the figure of Pinochet is once again centre stage. Harald Bayer, the minister of education who was appointed last December, has argued that military regime is a more “general” concept than dictatorship.

The official reason provided by the CNED for the change change states that — and here follows my own translation from Spanish — the new concept will allow students “to compare different versions of the democratic collapse in Chile, the military regime and the process of democratic recovery at the end of the 20th century considering all the different actors, experiences and view points.”

Dr Andrea Minte, a history academic and expert in history curriculum development, told New Matilda this was “clearly an effort to rehabilitate the military dictatorship and the figure of General Pinochet.” Minte said it was a “euphemism” constructed to avoid historical responsibility. “When military regime is used as a concept there is no direct allusion to General Pinochet, who was internationally recognised and condemned as a dictator and responsible for crimes against humanity.” The word dictatorship, Minte said, “involves clear responsibilities and perpetrators.”

Such right wing historical revisionism is in full swing in Chile. Another pesky concept for the right wing government is human rights. It has been suggested that it might be replaced by a less accusatory concept, “essential rights”; and human rights violations will be deleted from the historical memory to be replaced by “excess of force”.

The right wing attempt to rehabilitate the dictatorship and its leaders goes beyond the school books. Only last month Miguel Krasskoff, a retired general who was condemned to 144 years in prison for crimes against humanity, was publically homaged in a public event organised by the mayor of Santiago, Cristián Labbé, a former bodyguard of Pinochet and a member of the UDI.

Many observers here in Chile believe that the historical rehabilitation of Pinochet, his period in power and the actions of his collaborators is part of a deeper ideological agenda — the derechizar, or push to the right, of Chilean society.

What might result from this ideological conflict is not yet known. What it is clear is that this will re-open old wounds in a society that has failed repeatedly to achieve reconciliation, justice and truth. It is also — after so many years of struggling to build a truly consolidated democracy — an alarming political regression.

Posted in New Matilda

And Now To Rescue Chile

Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera might be enjoying the international limelight after the miners’ rescue but there remain plenty of problems at home, writes Antonio Castillo.
Just a few hours after the 14 October rescue of the Chilean miners trapped in the San Jose mine, President Sebastián Piñera kicked off his European tour.
His presidential luggage was perhaps heavier than usual on this trip.

He was carrying carefully framed pieces of rock from 700 metres underground where the miners were trapped as presents for European leaders — and even one for Manchester United’s coach Sir Alex Ferguson.

The metaphor was self-explanatory. Piñera was trying to show the Europeans that Chile is a rock-solid country. In contrast to other Latin American countries, he is selling the image of Chile where — as his mantra goes — las cosas se hacen bien (things are done well).

Piñera is a billionaire financial speculator who managed to amass extraordinary wealth during the Pinochet military dictatorship. Since he came to power eight months ago, he has tried to project his own image as a winning businessman; as one to which Chileans should aspire.

When it comes to enhancing his winning image, Piñera doesn’t hesitate to manipulate emotionally charged occasions. This was evident in the finely staged media coverage of the rescue. Piñera’s main adviser is Ricardo Sepulveda, a filmmaker who was a ubiquitous figure near the San Jose mine. Every stage of the miners’ drama was carefully orchestrated, even before the rescue.

For the first 17 days after the mine collapsed, the 33 miners were thought to be dead.

At daybreak on 22 August Piñera was alerted that the miners were alive. Yet the anxious families of the trapped men were not told their loved ones were still alive until midday. Piñera’s minders were ordered to delay the good news until he arrived in San José. He wanted to be the first person to make the announcement. A winner always needs to be first.

In his tour last week to Europe, Piñera claimed total ownership of the rescue.

And something else which received less attention also occurred. Last week he told the British media that the rescue of the miners means Chile will now be known and remembered as an example of “unity, courage, leadership and success and not for Pinochet.”

In an Orwellian twist, Piñera sought to erase Pinochet’s memory from the international consciousness. One wonders what his brother José Piñera — a former Pinochet minister — would have to say about this rebranding exercise.

One also wonders what Luis Urzúa (link in Spanish), the last miner rescued, would have to say about this. His father and stepfather were executed by Pinochet. Urzúa’s father — also Luis — was a union leader and member of Chile’s Communist Party. He has been “missing” — the terrifying symbol of repression waged by Pinochet against workers — since September 11 1973, the beginning of the dictatorship that deposed the government of President Salvador Allende.

The stepfather of Luis Urzúa, Benito Diaz, was another victim of Pinochet. Diaz was also a mining union official. He was one of the victims of the Caravan of Death, a notorious death squad that roamed in a helicopter around the country exterminating Pinochet’s political prisoners.

Benito Diaz was executed in the cemetery of Copiapo, the same northern city where Luis Urzúa was taken two weeks ago to recover from his two months underground.

In his presentation of Chile to world leaders, Piñera claimed again and again that the country was united. This is far from true.

Chile is a profoundly divided society — along both class and ethnic lines. The working and upper classes rarely interact and workers are regarded with disdain.

After being embraced by Piñera, Luis Urzúa said to him him: “I hope this won’t happen again.”

But it did happen again.

The day after the rescue of the 33 miners, a 26 year old miner lost his life in a nearby mining accident. Over the last year alone there have been more than 31 accidents and 10 miners killed.

Last year more than 400 lost their lives. “Workers died because there is no investment in safety, while at the same time mining companies increased their production and earnings,” said Miguel Barraza, a union leader of Chile’s Mining Federation.

The rescue was a handy smokescreen for Piñera’s failure to deal with the destruction caused by last February’s earthquake and tsunami — but it didn’t hide everything

Raul Bustos, one of the 33 miners rescued, became an annoying reminder of Piñera’s failure. Bustos and his family had been forced to leave the destroyed port city of Talcahuano, one of the worst hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Destruction and unemployment are the only thing left standing in this part of Chile.

With work gone at the Chilean shipbuilder Asmar, Bustos and his family were forced to take the long trip north to find work in the mines.

In cities such as Talcahuano and Concepción — the latter, the third largest city in the country — numerous streets are still closed and unemployment is rising. “With the rescue the government has forgotten us,” Maru Cherres from Concepción told New Matilda.

While Piñeras was busy staging the rescue of the 33 miners, in the south of the country 34 indigenous people — Mapuches — were on a hunger strike and drawing dangerously close to death.

One of the most dispossessed sectors in Chilean society, the Mapuche demands for land have been completely ignored and their leaders trialled under Chile’s anti-terrorist laws.

“The Mapuche situation is not a priority for Piñera,” Alfredo Joignant told New Matilda. Joignant, a political scientist and one of the sharpest observers of contemporary Chilean society lamented the “great indifference about the Mapuche problem.”

For this political scientist and commentator, “the rescue of the miners reinforced the individualistic character of Piñera.” Joignant said the rescue of the miners was for Piñera a “triumph of image” yet also “an image that has been trivialised and will soon be forgotten.”

And now, with the rescue of the 33 miners now complete, Piñera must engage with the problems facing his country. While the latest opinion polls show him enjoying more than 65 per cent approval, this will not last if he doesn’t start focusing on the increasing social and economic problems faced by Chile.

And not just the earthquake reconstruction and the Mapuche crisis either. Piñera has to do something about the more than 3000 public employees who have lost their jobs in the last six months. He also has to do something about that unfulfilled political campaign commitment to create more than 250,000 new jobs each year. So far, he has had little impact on employment statistics, beyond a slight increase in the number of domestic servants.

And then there is Chile’s main problem, of which Piñera with his billions is a constant reminder: the unequal distribution of wealth, one of the worst in the world.

So while the publicity storm around the rescue of the 33 miners has helped Piñera, it is certain that Chile — far from resting on rock — is resting on sand. Sand that, at any moment, could start to blow away.

Posted in New Matilda

The Billionaire Running Chile

A right-wing businessman was elected president of Chile this week, flouting the region’s recent shift to the left. Antonio Castillo analyses the victory of Sebastian Pinera.
If you are planning a holiday in Chile this year, it’s likely you’ll fly with an airline owned by the newly elected Chilean president Sebastián Piñera. A right-wing tycoon — whose businesses include LAN, the airline that flies between Sydney and Santiago — Piñera was winner of Sunday’s runoff election in Chile.
Piñera, the leader of a right-wing alliance formed by his own party — the National Renovation (RN) — and the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), won 52 per cent of the vote, defeating the candidate of the ruling Coalition for Democracy and former president, Eduardo Frei, who took the remaining 48 per cent of the vote. Piñera will take office in March and serve as President for four years.

With this victory, Piñera has put an end to 20 years of government by the Coalition for Democracy. This alliance of Socialists and Christian Democrats was formed in the late 1980s to tackle the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and has ruled since.

So who is Sebastián Piñera? For starters, the newly elected Chilean president is a very successful financial speculator. His wealth — principally amassed during the decades of military dictatorship in Chile under General Pinochet — is enormous and makes him one of the wealthiest men in Chile.Forbes magazine ranks Piñera 701st on its list of the world’s billionaires and estimates his net worth at US$1 billion.

The vast financial empire Piñera controls includes the highly profitable LAN airline, a major television network, pharmacy chains, as well as forestry and financial institutions. He also has major stakes in Colo-Colo, the country’s most popular soccer club. That’s right, Piñera is a Chilean replica of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

With the election of Piñera, the Chilean Right is back in power. The last time it occupied La Moneda, the old colonial presidential house in the capital Santiago, was during General Pinochet’s brutal regime. Throughout the 17 years of military dictatorship, the Right was part of the civilian apparatus that upheld and administered Pinochet’s rule. Piñera’s brother — José Piñera — was Pinochet’s secretary of labour and social security.

And while Sebastián Piñera has successfully managed to distance himself from Pinochet’s image and convince the Chilean electorate of his democratic credentials, his right wing political base is crammed with staunch defenders of the former dictator.

His opponent, the defeated Eduardo Frei, was all along the wrong man to run against Piñera. With a charisma deficit that would make Kevin Rudd look highly alluring, Frei served as president from 1996–2000, a period of major economic and social decline.

Indeed, Frei’s campaign was so ineffective that he failed to capitalise on the 80 per cent approval rating enjoyed by the current president, the Socialist Michelle Bachelet. Frei, as many commentators agreed, had nothing new to offer the electorate.

Nothing new to offer was also the main problem faced by the ruling Coalition. After two decades in power, it had become a tired and divided alliance. In the 1990s, during the first years of the post-dictatorship transition to democracy, the Coalition was unified by the fear that the country would return to dictatorship. As democratic institutions were consolidated, this fear faded and ideological differences and individual party ambitions began to emerge within the Coalition. Its defeat this month is also the response of a society fed up with increasing levels of governmental corruption, infighting and nepotism.

By contrast, Piñera skilfully maintained cohesion and discipline throughout the long campaign. Some of his ultra-right wing supporters even had to quieten down and swallow some of the more progressive statements he made about issues like gay rights as well as his belated criticism of the human rights violations committed by Pinochet.

Piñera successfully constructed a progressive discourse that appealed to the political centre and to the middle class which was badly hit by the global financial crisis, and while the Government implemented social welfare programs to help the poor, the middle class was, foolishly, neglected.

Piñera was also able to grab key votes from Frei’s core supporters, mainly from members of the Christian Democratic party who were unhappy with a parliamentary deal made by the Coalition with the Communist Party.

While the Coalition has been defeated it would be unjust not to recognise its substantial achievements. It was responsible not only for the successful transition from dictatorship to consolidated democracy in Chile but also supervised the transformation of Chile into an economically successful and stable society. And while income inequality remains a major problem, Chile is one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations.

The return of the Right to power produces a significant degree of uncertainty. The Chilean Right has historically shown a deep aversion to democratic norms and practices. Each time it has been in power it has introduced laws whch have seriously restricted democracy and it has been equally averse to state sponsored social-welfare programs like the initiatives introduced by the Coalition government to alleviate poverty. There are genuine concerns that the newly elected right-wing government will scrap them at the first opportunity.

The election of Piñera will be closely watched by Australia’s federal government. Chile is one of Australia’s most important commercial partners in Latin America and it was the first Latin American country to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Australia.

Sebastián Piñera’s victory will reverberate not only in Chile but also, of course, in the rest of Latin America. The return of the Right to power in Chile effectively reverses the convincing shifts to the Left apparent in other Latin American countries. Just a few weeks ago, Uruguay elected a former left-wing guerrilla, José Mujica, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales — the first Indigenous leader in that country — was convincingly re-elected in December.

It’s too soon to predict what the effects of Piñera’s election will be on other countries in the region, but as the new President’s term in office gets underway, observers alert to the prospect of an ideological swing back to the right in Latin America will surely be keeping a very close eye on Santiago.

Posted in New Matilda