Chile: the politics of patriarchy

Justin Vogler
1 April 2009

The Concertación - the centre-left coalition of leftists, radicals and Christian Democrats that has dominated Chilean politics since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship - is preparing to hold the first of a series of primaries to choose a candidate for the presidential elections in December 2009. The overwhelming likelihood is that the 66-year-old Christian Democrat and former president, Eduardo Frei, will be nominated. The fact that he has already been endorsed by all three of the Concertación's main parties makes the primaries, which begin on 4 April, a formality. Frei's sole rival is the Radical Party leader, José Antonio Gomez; his campaign team may optimistically call him "our Obama", but Gomez's token candidacy is what polite Chileans call un saludo a la bandera (a salute to the flag).  

Frei's father - also called Eduardo - served as president from 1964-70. He initially backed Pinochet's coup on 11 September 1973 that overthrew Salvador Allende's government, then led opposition to the dictatorship; in 1981, he died in suspicious circumstances. The young Eduardo took his father's place in the queue of post-dictatorship presidential hopefuls, and duly received the tricolour sash in 1994. His six years in office oversaw an explosion of inequality in Chile. When democracy was restored to Chile in 1990 the richest 10% of Chileans had earned a scandalous thirty-nine times more than the poorest 10%; by the time Frei left office in 2000 they earned fifty-seven times more.  Frei is also infamous for demanding Pinochet's return from London on the grounds that the dictator's detention in October 1998 violated Santiago's sovereignty.   Also on Chilean politics in openDemocracy:

Geoffrey Bindman, Juan Garces, Isabel Hilton, "Justice in the world's light" (15 June 2001)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (16 January 2006)

Jorge Larraín, "Pinochet's death" (12 December 2006)

Alan Angell, "The Pinochet regime: an accounting" (12 December 2006)

Carlos Huneeus, "Pinochet's regime: the verdict of history" (13 December 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

David Sugarman, "The arrest of Augusto Pinochet: ten years on" (29 October 2008)

But today, Frei has reinvented himself as a progressive. He is prepared to "debate" the legalisation of therapeutic abortion, a contested issue in socially conservative Chile. A price-fixing scandal involving Chile's three biggest high-street chemists gave him a chance to lambast unscrupulous businesses - and in the process target the millionaire rightwing candidate, Sebastian Piñera, who conveniently holds shares in one of the companies involved. Frei, who also made millions from Pinochet-era privatisations, told Piñera: "Chile needs a president not a CEO." He even spoke at the seminar that opened the progressive-governance meeting of international centre-left leaders in Viña del Mar on 26-29 March, and called for "the reinforcement of democracy and definitive liberation from neo-liberal complexes".

The domestic agenda 

Eduardo Frei's political journey makes it clear that he is a consummate political operator. He has reached this point of near-certain presidential candidacy by positioning himself as a consensus figure after two other heavyweight contenders - former president Ricardo Lagos and the general-secretary of the Organisation of American States, José Miguel Insulza - withdrew from the race. With the field clear, it will be Frei who draws the curtain on Michelle Bachelet's brief experiment with a "different style of leadership".

The contrast is instructive. Bachelet won election to the Chilean presidency in January 2006 via a clever campaign that built her candidacy on grassroots popularity and bypassed the hierarchies of the Concertación. Frei's nomination has been negotiated by the party elites with little attention paid to opinion polls. Bachelet is bubbly, agnostic and socialist; Frei is dour, pious and business-friendly. Bachelet promised change and renovation; with Frei, the old guard and the old ways are set to return.   

The myth being propagated is that Bachelet has not been up to the job, and that in a time of economic crisis Chileans will welcome the return of an experienced - and male - hand. There is no evidence to support this fairytale. A survey in February 2009 found that 58.5% of Chileans "approve of the way Michelle Bachelet governs", while only 24.5% approve of the Concertación. In the 2008 municipal elections the Concertación was burned in central Santiago, where they fielded Jaime Ravinet, a longstanding Frei ally who had previously served as Santiago's mayor. Ravinet's campaign slogan was "We miss him". He lost decisively to a youngish, clean-cut rightwinger called Pablo Zalaquett who understood that Chilean voters are not nostalgic and want fresh faces and new ideas.

A variant on the condescending and inaccurate portrayal of Bachelet is that she is a campaign phenomenon who lacks political and intellectual ballast. This macho narrative has been disseminated by the Chilean press and reproduced uncritically by influential international publications to the point where it has become received wisdom (see, for example "Chile's Troubled President" [Economist 29 March 2007] and "Courting Castro" [Economist, 19 March 2009]).

The evidence suggests otherwise. Chile under Bachelet has so far weathered the international economic crisis better than most other countries, and this despite plummeting commodity prices. Her policies of fiscal discipline, market diversification and increased social spending have paid off. During his visit to Chile for the progressive-governance conference, Michelle told an uncomfortable British prime minister Gordon Brown how Chile had "saved in the good times" in order to sustain social spending during the downturn. This is not just rhetoric: the major overhaul of Chile's pension system pledged in the 2005 campaign is being systematically implemented. Bachelet´s promise is to "protect and care for all Chileans from the cradle to the grave".   

Moreover, a programme of constitutional reform continues. In March, the first major modification was made in the contrived electoral system hatched by Pinochet's henchmen when electoral registration became automatic and voting voluntary (a reversal of the previous, absurd rule whereby inscription was voluntary but once completed made voting obligatory). This arrangement initially favoured the right but now does not appear to - hence the right's disposition to support the reform and help create the majority needed to pass it. Chile has also taken an important step towards the constitutional recognition of its indigenous population after the International Labour Organisation (ILO's) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal People was finally ratified in September 2008.  

The regional touch

Michelle Bachelet's record in foreign affairs is also impressive. She has, overall, managed to preserve Chile's international credibility while maintaining good relations with the left locally. Her visit to Havana was well timed to coincide with Washington's rethink of its Cuba policy, though press coverage was scathing. She has managed to neither fall in with, nor fall out with, Hugo Chávez: a diplomatic feat matched by few in Latin America.  

The president has also made quiet progress in negotiations with La Paz towards a historic deal to give landlocked Bolivia a land-corridor to the Pacific. This would be a major breakthrough in a dispute freighted with nationalist sensitivities; though any agreement could be vetoed by Peru, whose consent is needed to modify the existing treaties. To complicate matters further, Lima is seeking redefinition of its maritime border with Chile and the transfer of 35,000 square kilometres of territorial waters currently under Chile's jurisdiction. Peru is pursuing this case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, making it unlikely that a tripartite agreement on Bolivian maritime access will be reached.  

In this messy ménage à trois, Bachlelet has again managed to preserve good relations with all sides, leaving Lima and La Paz to hurl insults at one another. Even as the Peruvian diplomat Allan Wagner presented the case against Chile at the ICJ, Bachelet and her counterpart Alan Garcia celebrated the implementation of a bilateral free-trade treaty (FTA) and a surge in bilateral trade. With Evo Morales too, Bachelet has achieved a level of cordiality and trust not seen in Chilean-Bolivian relations since diplomatic ties were severed in 1978. Her convening of an emergency summit of the Unión de naciones Suramericanas  (Unasur) on 15 September 2008 to intervene in the disorder that accompanied Bolivia's constitutional crisis was a highly effective piece of diplomacy that greatly improved her standing with La Paz (see "Bolivia nears the precipice", 17 September 2008).  

The Progressive Governance gathering in Santiago, which in effect became a prelude to the G20 summit in London, was another diplomatic coup. Quite apart from the economics lesson Bachelet delivered to Gordon Brown, she was able to demonstrate to Chileans how her promise to "put people first" has become the leitmotif of the emerging global consensus.  

In short, the notion that Michelle Bachelet's style of leadership has failed at home and aboard is spurious. Eduardo Frei will win with the presidential candidacy because he outmanoeuvred the other Concertación barons, not because he represents what the majority of Chileans want or need. The December race is wide open and the Concertación is a formidable electoral machine. But if the most durable political coalition in Chilean history does once again secure the presidency it will be despite, not because of, the return to patriarchal politics that saw Eduardo Frei nominated.


Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist based in Chile, teaches political science in the socio-economics department of Valparaiso University and is studying for a PhD at the department of peace studies at Bradford University, England. He has spent twelve years travelling and working on development projects in southeast Asia and Latin America and is a regular contributor to the English-language daily, Santiago Times

Among Justin Vogler's articles in openDemocracy:

"Michelle Bachelet's triumph" (January 2006)

"Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war" (22 February 2006)

"Latin America: woman's hour" (17 March 2006)

"Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble" (7 April 2006)

"Mapuche: the other Chile" (20 June 2006)

"South America: towards union or disintegration" (20 July 2006)

"Democratising globalisation: Joseph Stiglitz interviewed" (25 September 2006)

"Augusto Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold" (9 December 2006)

"Bienvenido, Señor Bush" (8 March 2007)

"Argentina and Britain: the lessons of war" (3 April 2007)

"Chile: Pinochet's ghost, Bachelet's swamp" (8 October 2007)

"King Juan Carlos vs President Hugo" (13 November 2007)

"Bolivia nears the precipice", 17 September 2008).  

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