Chile’s dissatisfaction

The recent proliferation of corruption scandals show the sheer necessity of substantial reforms of the political system in Chile, if only to be able to get rid of the old Pinochet regime’s remaining ghost. Español

José Zepeda
27 August 2015

Protests in Chile. April, 2015. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Hardly anyone expected the national and international fuss about the corruption scandals in Chile, a country hailed as an example of development and democratic consolidation. The latest Transparency International report (2014) ranks Chile 21st in the world, a position that comes to show the country’s high level of integrity.

However, corruption is not a nonexistent phenomenon in Chilean history. When democracy was restored in 1990, a usual remark argued that Chile had probably had one of the most ferocious dictatorships in the region but, unlike other countries, had not suffered corruption. This confidence was disproved when Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London and, to the violation of human rights charges, corruption offences were added.

So, why so much shock and discomfort?

Because despite all this, in the national judgment lingers the belief that Chile is an austere country. What has happened in recent months is the relentless unveiling of a set of common practices that were disregarded or that lacked adequate media coverage. On the one hand, the perception of Chileans about their own national virtues has been altered and, on the other hand, the perception of the country by the international community has changed.

Corruption involves the whole political spectrum

The three paradigmatic cases - CAVAL, which involves the son of President Michelle Bachelet, as case of influence peddling for purposes of real estate speculation; PENTA, a tax fraud case related to the illegal subsidizing of election campaigns; and SOQUIMICH, about invoices linking unsupported payments to illegally subsidize politicians at the expense of the public treasury by an estimated amount of $125 million - overshadowed the huge mobilizations, during President Sebastián Piñera’s tenure, on issues such as the price of medical drugs, which brought into the open the collusion among the main pharmacy owners to artificially raise the price of at least 222 drugs. Or the Cascadas case, involving a series of corporate transactions related to both investment and financing, which left significant blocks of shares available for auction in the market to be repurchased at a higher price than the initial sale. Or the La Polar scandal, the fourth largest retail company in Chile, about the way in which they dealt with the consumers’ credit cards, lacking their agreement.

What is new, and alarming, about the facts currently unveiled is the complicity between the economic and the political power, particularly since it entails all the political parties from the entire political spectrum. And the confirmed collusion between individuals linked to the military dictatorship and notorious figures of the left.

What citizen protests are saying is that the people will not tolerate what still qualifies, in international standards, as low level corruption. Former Minister of Planning Clarisa Hardy shares this view: her work in Latin America confirms that Chile still stands apart from what happens elsewhere, where corruption has been "naturalized" and built-in as a seemingly inevitable wickedness.

A sizable part of the Chilean population experiences a strong sense of helplessness, of having suffered sustained and repeated abuse and mistreatment. This feeling is now exacerbated by the proven collusion between all forms of power, generating reactions which are far more violent than anticipated.

The problem of inequality

Enrique Iglesias, former Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (acronym in Spanish: CEPAL) is confident that legal action in Latin America, which is taking the suspects to court - something quite unthinkable twenty years ago -, will end up with strengthened institutions and a greater empowerment of the people.

The binomial corruption-protest probably springs from a shared responsibility in Latin America at large: the focus on overcoming poverty, successfully so in the last two decades, has pushed into the background the multidimensional inequality phenomena which are common in all societies.

The World Bank report Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, Breaking with History? finds out that the richest 10% of the population receives between 40% and 47% of total income in most Latin American societies, while the poorest 20% only gets between 2% and 4%.

Indeed, the miserable living conditions of twenty years ago have been overcome and progress has been made both in education and healthcare. A sector of the population has gone from exclusion to social integration, but it has done so precariously. Overall, however, Latin American societies have not moved from poverty to stability.

Inequality is thus one of the keys, perhaps the main one, explaining the Chilean social unrest: how people perceive inequality, particularly when they feel vulnerable facing power. What lies behind civil unrest today is the way in which the economic, political, social, and symbolic powers are played.

Perceptions are intensified by the generational differences: while most adults who grew in the uncontrolled market system are not demanding a revision of the model, but only a more generous and inclusive turn to it, younger citizens do share a form of criticism which is value-based and cultural. This can be clearly seen in the narrative of the youngsters that led the student movement of 2011, where major strategic orientations, though coming from different political sides, had as common denominator a thorough questioning of the model.

Individuation and reforms

Chilean society has shifted towards individuation, to the extent that public policy has been commoditised. Money has had a decisive influence on the generation and reproduction of power. For instance, the basic right to education: university is no longer exclusively for the elite, but to attend it means raising a long debt for families and students. The protests also had to do with this.

This has led observers to ponder whether there is not something structurally wrong in the current educational model, which needs reform. The same applies to the current pension system, which needs reform too. And, again, to the healthcare model, which has been partially reformed.

These are the substantive issues related to how economic and social inequality affect each and everyone.

Today, inclusiveness implies revising the bases upon which the Chilean social model rests. This is a cultural task, and the most vulnerable groups in society have raised the alarm.

Some of the reforms to be implemented in Chile are favoured by international agencies such as the World Bank:

"The state must strengthen its redistributive capacity, which for most of the countries in the region means increasing the tax burden (low) and, in the long run, making taxes more progressive by improving the efficiency of tax collection on personal income and property".

Chilean national complexity has created a kind of divorce between policy and society, through a lack of understanding of the radical change the country has seen in recent years.

This is one of the central elements that are hard to bring to the table of national debate. How everyone must face, in everyday life, the country in which he or she lives. The performance of the political system should reflect the ability to convey different interests, express them and lead projects for change. The required modernization should not be delayed. But for now, it is noteworthy that Chilean parties suffer from low internal democracy and a lack of response to the popular demands.

Disaffection, protests, high expectations

Perhaps the most serious issue, however, is the popular disaffection with the institutions, which are seen as quite alien to their interests. The parties are losing their citizen base and the capacity to represent social diversity, while social de-politicization in the country, a sad consequence of the dictatorship, endures.

This is not the best scenario for substantive debates.

Perhaps one of the most important questions is how to rebuild and strengthen democratically the party system in order to steer the answers and guide the solutions demanded by society.

This is why some think that the constitutional debate is crucial, for it is a way to politicize society, to persuade citizens that the debate that favours democracy is also the way to solve what appears to be most important in life: health, education, social security, justice.

Query, protest, and social rearrangement demands are flourishing again, at a time when the economy is working well. Former President Sebastián Piñera has gone down on record saying that he could not understand why society was reacting in such a way, considering how healthy the economy was. All the conditions were there, at a time when the economy and the international context were favourable, to have undertaken some of the tasks still pending, which only piled up with the protests of 2011.

In the last presidential campaign in 2013, eight out of nine candidates were proposing radical changes, to the effect that expectations increased substantially. The current government was born out of these inflated aspirations which neglected the added difficulty of an economic slowdown, the predictable result of the structural deficiencies of the Chilean economy which were not addressed in previous terms.

Michelle Bachelet’s first year in government generated a great deal of frustration and a surge in the demand for political shift in order to meet with the expectations endorsed by her program. This shift implies efficient political leadership. Such is the challenge and nobody knows what will happen. It is assumed that the recent government decisions will overcome these shortcomings, although many have lost confidence in the political leadership of the executive.

Institutional reform, including a new constitution and the indigenous people’s issue

A key factor is the restoration of the citizens’ confidence in the political institutions to be able to carry on the reforms that will ultimately confer credibility and strength to the country’s democratic institutions.

According to Adimark, the disapproval rate of the President reaches 70%, which is the most critical level ever registered since 2006.

If early elections were called right now, as some have precipitously suggested, they would be held under the very same rules that have led to the current Chilean society problems. The same old parties would be running for office. The only difference would be the electoral system, which has changed from binominal to proportional. But from the perspective of generating the conditions for parties to build a strong leadership, and suitable candidates, there would be nothing new. It would be a liturgical act which would eventually take the country back to the unresolved institutional problems.

A possible way to overcome the crisis is the one the government has in fact taken: a powerful agenda for political reform, aiming at integrity and transparency. The announcement of a constituent process is expected in September. This could be it: setting up democratic institutions that can engage broad citizen participation and legitimacy. This is what needs to be built, despite the fact that the four-year presidential term is too short to carry out all the necessary reforms. The government will have to accept gradualism and moderate its reforming ambitions.

In this complex political arena and quite contrary to the expression "Ya pasó la vieja" (literally: The old lady has gone; Chilean expression meaning a lost opportunity), used by a well-known political commentator referring to human rights violations, the issue acquires exceptional relevance again, following the confession of former conscript Fernando Guzman. Guzman was involved in the so-called Quemados Case, in which a military patrol set fire to photographer Rodrigo Rojas and Carmen Gloria Quintana on July 2, 1986. The confession of this former soldier has laid bare a conspiracy of silence within the army. US authorities have confirmed the facts and published documents indicating that Augusto Pinochet himself was responsible for concocting a false explanation to conceal the crime. The Chilean dictatorship had two essential features: one, the violation of human rights and crimes against humanity as State policy. Two, carrying out a modernization (in the capitalist sense of the word) which consequences persists to this day. It is no coincidence that the dictatorship ended with Pinochet winning 43% of the vote at the 1988 plebiscite. It is from that dictatorship that the current constitution emanates, a constitution which, with all its amendments, still governs the country's destiny.

Finally, although not deemed a priority, there lingers a problem systematically postponed in Chile: the indigenous issue. Chilean aboriginal people constitute a small percentage of the population: 4.6% according to the 2002 census. Many have undergone a process of acculturation and are living in big cities. But this is not a question that has to be measured quantitatively. From a qualitative point of view, it is a serious issue that has dragged on since the independence. President Patricio Aylwin tried to solve it with the Indian Act of 1993. The project failed. Later on, President Ricardo Lagos established a Commission for Historical Truth and a New Deal, the task of which was to produce a proposal for an arrangement that would solve the indigenous question. Unfortunately, the commission’s report fell into a pool of indifference. Neither the government of President Lagos nor President Bachelet’s have endorsed it since.

The report suggested three fundamental measures, according to Diego Portales University provost and international relations analyst Carlos Peña:

- Rules to ensure the political participation of the indigenous people, based on the New Zealand and Canadian experiences.
- Economic compensation, particularly for the people who had been dispossessed of the land they had been granted at some point in history. There is historical evidence of the theft they suffered and the State should, accordingly, compensate them.
- Memory reparation, to counteract the myth that there are no indigenous people in Chile, supposedly a culturally homogeneous country where the weight of the concept of nation is overriding. This has resulted in the drowning of indigenous identity, and the report suggested a reversal of the situation.

None of this has been done.

But you cannot sustain a proper democracy without building plural forms of coexistence among different groups in society. Today, democracy is either multicultural or it does not deserve its name.

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