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Chile is Latin America’s ‘Chosen’ Country

Winter 2010 In Situ

Chile is Latin America’s ‘Chosen’ Country

Pinochet – the few good parts – has been reinvented

Patricio Navia reports from Santiago, Chile.

A famous tango from neighbouring Argentina reckons that “20 years is nothing.” Those who walked by the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile in the hot and dry summer month of February might disagree. For the first time in 20 years, a democratically elected president representing the political parties that supported the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) will enter the palace where socialist president Salvador Allende committed suicide while resisting a military coup against his democratically elected government on September 11th, 1973.

On January 17th, Chileans elected right-of-centre candidate, Sebastián Piñera, as president. He received 51.87 percent of the vote, becoming the fifth democratically elected president since the restoration of Chilean democracy in 1990. A successful, self-made businessman – the 701st-wealthiest person in the world in 2009, according to Forbes – with a prior academic career (Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard) and an eight-year stint as Senator in the 1990s, Piñera has combined business interests (LAN, the biggest Latin American airline, as well as other investments) with a political career. He lost in 2005 to Michelle Bachelet, the candidate of the left-leaning Concertación government coalition. Bachelet was the first Chilean woman to be elected president since the end of the dictatorship in 1990.

Twenty years before Bachelet, Chile had been a much different country. The Pinochet dictatorship had transformed the economy, opening markets and adopting market-friendly policies. Pinochet had also violated human rights. But after Pinochet lost a plebiscite in 1988, Chileans voted in Patricio Aylwin, the leader of the Concertación, as president in 1989. Four presidential periods later, the Concertación lost power. After having led a successful period of democratic consolidation and economic growth – poverty was reduced from 40 to 13 percent, and per-capita GDP more than doubled – Chileans were surprisingly relaxed about the return to power of the political parties most closely associated with the dictatorship. In part, this is because the Concertación kept most of Pinochet’s economic policies. Neoliberalism became ‘neoliberalism with a human face,’ and market-friendly policies were made into socially-oriented, market-friendly policies.

The Pinochet legacy, slowly but surely, disappeared from everyday life. That made it easier for those who supported authoritarian rule to reinvent themselves as democrats and as free marketers committed to a social safety net put in place by the Concertación. To be sure, Pinochet’s shadow still looms over Chile. The 1980 Constitution – reformed and stripped of most of its authoritarian provisions – was put in place by Pinochet.

Chile is going through its best period in history. From poverty to enrollment in higher education, from infrastructure to life expectancy, Chile is the envy of Latin America. Santiago is full of malls, restaurants and automobiles. The middle class extends well beyond the wealthiest quintile. Five out of 10 Chileans have income levels that make them middle class. They have consumption power. They have expectations, dreams and fears. They also have things to lose. The four presidential candidates talked about extending the safety net and expanding economic growth to strengthen and consolidate the middle class. Unlike nationals in other countries in the region, Chileans want to forge ahead, not change course. Chile feels like the chosen people near the promised land: many have crossed, but many are still waiting. Prophets who offer alternative promised lands have little following. The challenge is to offer more ways to bring about social and economic inclusion.

Chilean society is still beset by inequality. Though statistics show a small improvement, visual differences in wealth between the haves and have-nots have increased. The capital city is one of near-perfect segregation. One can live in a well-to-do area and never come into contact with the nation’s poor or low middle class. The proliferation of private schools, universities and highly segregated housing gives the impression of two parallel Chiles. Conveniently, highways – state concessions that are privately run and operated – run from wealthy, uphill neighbourhoods, underneath the Mapocho river, to the outskirts of Santiago, on the way to the airport or to the private luxury locations on the beautiful Pacific Ocean shores.

As Chilean novelist Isabel Allende put it recently, when presenting her latest book, The Island Beneath the Sea, in Santiago, it is hard to think that the wealthy could be wealthier under a right-wing government. The Concertación did improve the lives of most Chileans. But the lives of the wealthy improved more. True, who cares about the wealthy when the poor are significantly better off! But for a left-wing coalition, the high levels of inequality cast a powerful shadow on its long list of positive accomplishments.

As Piñera – who opposed Pinochet, unlike most leaders from his coalition – gets ready to take office on March 11th, and the Concertación prepares to democratically turn power over after 20 years, the real news from Chile’s capital is how little it all seems to matter to those middle class santiaguinos whose parents lived in poverty and whose children, they hope, will live in the first Latin American nation to have reached industrialized status by 2020.


Patricio Navia is a faculty member in Liberal Studies at New York University and in Political Science at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / Jorge Saenz)

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