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Michelle Bachelet's hard lesson

Tom Burgis
25 June 2006

Michelle Bachelet's honeymoon would seem to be over. One hundred days after becoming the first woman to lead Chile, the new president's approval rating has taken an abrupt dive. According to a recent poll in La Tercera newspaper, 55% of Chileans do not believe Bachelet commands authority.

Doubtless she will not be overly troubled by a trouncing in the conservative press. Immediately after taking office, she decreed a series of measures to patch the holes in the country's social safety-net – previously more like a colander – including expansions in healthcare coverage and a commission on pension reform. She has also shown spine by standing up to pressure from Washington to block Venezuela's candidacy for the continent's rotating seat on the United Nations security council.

Moreover, she has weathered the largest student protests in Chile in three decades, though not before the carabineros viciously assaulted scores of demonstrating children and two general strikes paralysed the country.

The demands of the protestors, whose black-and-white uniforms saw them designated the "March of the Penguins", were largely practical. The students wanted bus-passes, subsidised meals, and a state guarantee that they will no longer be dragooned into crumbling buildings while a tiny few have their minds lovingly massaged at great expense in private schools.

Bachelet has acquiesced to all but their costliest requests. Her stumble in the polls appears to derive from the chaotic response to the crisis from her ministers, whose flip-flopping contrasted with the president's principled calm.

But the wrath that drove tens of thousands of students to march in all Chile's cities and occupy hundreds of schools is not born simply of peckishness or tired feet.

They are not the generation who were slaughtered and sodomised by Augusto Pinochet's goons. They are, however, the generation that is feeling the injustice wrought by the generalissimo's economic programme.

Political vs economic power

Indicative of this is the teaching law, the Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Enseñanza (Loce), which came into effect on 7 March 1990, the last day of military rule in Chile. A parting kick in the teeth to poor Chileans still reeling from the shotgun market liberalisation engineered under Pinochet, the law devolved the duty to provide schooling to penniless municipal governments. At a stroke, schools shifted to private control as education was contracted out; the state looked helplessly on as teaching standards plummeted.

The bitterness engendered among students, teachers and society at large by the Loce was what drove the recent protests. One banner said it all: "Why not sell a kidney to pay for your education?"

The law will now be changed, Bachelet has announced, making good on a promise made and broken by the four governments that preceded hers. She has also instructed her officials to consider how best to restructure Chile's arcane electoral system.

But for all her progressive zeal, the president – whose own position as a non-religious single mother made her a target of the Catholic establishment during the electoral campaign – remains trapped in a forced political marriage: the dysfunctional power relationship that has distorted Chilean politics since the end of the dictatorship.

She is bound by what Tomas Hirsch, the presidential rival she beat into third place, calls Chile's "compacted peace".

"The Chilean democracy is a compact", he says. "The left holds official power; the right holds economic power."

This compact was drawn up in the late 1980s, when Ricardo Lagos, Bachelet's predecessor and mentor, was among those negotiating the handover of power from Pinochet's junta to a civilian administration.

The deal saw Pinochet retain control of the military after the October 1998 plebiscite that toppled him. More broadly, it has hedged the reforms that the centre-left Concertación has been willing to undertake in sixteen years of unbroken power.

Hirsch, who ran at the head of a loose affiliation of humanists, leftists and social movements called Juntos Podemos Más, served as ambassador to New Zealand under the first post-Pinochet government.

"After the return to democracy, I worked in the Concertación", he recalls. "But instead of being transformed, the neo-liberal social and economic model of the dictatorship was deepened."

An insightful man and an impish political tactician, Hirsch refuses to credit the orthodox description of Chile's "economic miracle":

"Travelling the length of Chile, I can summarise what I heard in a word: people feel badly treated, and they don't know why.

"They see fantastic lives being lived on the TV; they see figures that the economy is growing, that exports are up. But they look at their families – no money for medicines, miserable pensions.

"But the TV tells me that I've never had it so good. Conclusion: I am an idiot that can't get onto the wealth chariot. What to do? Get to the shopping centre and take on some more debt!"

openDemocracy writers assess the new politics of Chile:

Geoffrey Bindman, Juan E Garces and Isabel Hilton, "Justice in the world's light"
(June 2001)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, "Michelle Bachelet: Chile's next president? " (December 2005)

Justin Vogler, "Michelle Bachelet's triumph" (January 2006)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (January 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war" (February 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Mapuche: the other Chile"
(June 2006)

An unequal land

Of 124 countries surveyed by the United Nations Development Programme, only eleven have a more skewed income distribution than Chile. According to the latest Human Development Report, the richest 10% of Chile's 16 million inhabitants account for 47% of total consumption.

The poorest 10% – in the shanty towns of Santiago's suburbs, in the desert outposts of the far north and the rickety townships of the southern lake-district – consume only 1.2%. Put it this way: incomes are twice as unfairly distributed in Chile as they are in China. Among the poorest 5% of Chileans, unemployment has reached 48.7%.

The inequality that plagues Latin America is a legacy of the financial conjuring-tricks pulled by fantastically corrupt governments over the past quarter-century and applauded by the International Monetary Fund. Though it has for years been masked by an obsession with growth, inequality has bred the society Hirsch describes. The poor remain in relative poverty even as they watch what they are told is their country's deliverance to an Arcadia.

"In Chile, we have elected a good, sincere woman", Hirsch says of Bachelet. "But she will change nothing. Apart from cosmetic changes, structurally everything will be the same."

Tellingly, much of what Hirsch argues rhymes perfectly with the views of Hermógenes Pérez de Arce, a columnist in the biggest-selling Chilean daily, El Mercurio, and one of Pinochet's staunchest apologists.

"The Concertación has respected the model inherited from the military government and, thanks to that, has won every election to date since 1988", Pérez de Arce says. "I don't believe they wish to change a system that has brought them so many triumphs (and so many jobs in government)."

Pérez de Arce rightly observes that poverty in Chile has more than halved – from 40% to 18% – since the transition to civilian government. He blames entrenched inequality on "socialist interventions" in the labour market.

"Inequality has remained, but the conditions of everybody – poor and rich – have improved … If there had been more freedom to hire, more poor people would find work in the formal market."

These are two classical lynchpins of the neo-liberal argument: a rising tide lifts all boats, and the more "flexible" workers are, the more jobs they'll get. It is exactly this prescription for a labour market of contortionists in kayaks that has fuelled the March 2006 protests in France and which prompted one Chilean wag to spray onto a wall in downtown Santiago the legend: "We do not want the only way not to die of hunger to be dying of boredom."

At the same time, Bachelet's social programme is underway and, driven by popular pressure, she has moved to address bias in the education system, a sure root of inequality. After the previous government spectacularly capitulated to big business over a wood pulp plant in Valdivia and a mining company that intends to shunt a glacier out of the way to get at some gold, she also faces increasingly strident environmental and indigenous movements.

The extent to which Bachelet is willing to impose royalties on multinational fishing, logging and mining companies will be a yardstick of her commitment to reducing inequality.

If the shift in Chilean politics is to be more than symbolic, Bachelet will need to risk upsetting many in her own coalition whose primary goal seems to be personal enrichment. If she was serious when she declared her intention to make the elites of Santiago's Barrio Alto "tremble", she will need to formalise a divorce between the civilian president and the vested interests that have held Chilean politics in their grip since the 11 September 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power.

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