Chile: The Good Democracy?
by Rodrigo Acuna, Red Pepper
www.zmag.org, June 22, 2007
A glance at much of the media's coverage
of Latin America would suggest that there are two types of democracies
in the region today: the good and the bad. Due to an almost pathological
obsession by outlets such as the New York Times and the Economist,
Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have been categorised as places
where democracy is being 'eroded' and freedom of the press 'curtailed',
and where popular demagogues are happily marching their people
towards dictatorial systems.
In its 19 April 2007 edition, the Economist provided a classic
example. Its target was the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.
Although the report noted that Correa takes many of his cabinet
secretaries around the country with him "in an attempt to
bring government closer to the people"; has doubled cash
transfers to 1.3 million of the nation's poorest people; provided
a further $100 million to "housing subsidies for the poor"
and "increased substantially" spending on education
and health, unfortunately, it was hard to "find an independent
political observer" who thought Ecuadorians had something
to be hopeful about.
To make matters worse, "the growing strength of the president's
grip on power is giving cause for alarm", stated the Economist
in the most predictable fashion. Back in Venezuela, Simon Romero
on May 17 filed a story for the New York Times titled: "Clash
of Hope and Fear as Venezuela Seizes Land." With a combination
of historical knowledge and imagination, Romero wrote:
For centuries, much of Venezuela's rich farmland has been in the
hands of a small elite. After coming to power in 1998, and especially
after his re-election in December, President Hugo Chávez
vowed to end that inequality, and has been keeping his promise
in a process that is both brutal and legal.
Charging the Chávez government responsible for the "largest
forced land redistribution in Venezuela's history", Romero
notes that the "violence has gone both ways" with "more
than 160 peasants killed by hired gunmen" and eight landowners
also murdered thus far. The slight disparity in deaths between
peasants and landowners however escaped Romero's attention, as
with the fact that the government has targeted landowners with
non-productive haciendas who cannot prove documentation for their
original titles of purchase - a wide spread problem in the region.
In short, of course the conclusions one should draw from Venezuela
are all too obvious.
So where can one find the good democracy in Latin America? Where
is the 'responsible' government? For that, if we are to believe
many commentators, one must travel across the Andes to Chile and
meet socialist President Michelle Bachelet. As the second female
President in Latin American history after Nicaragua's Violeta
Chamorro (1990-1997), Bachelet evokes a combination of admiration
but unfortunately also disappointment due to the policies of her
By now much of her personal story is well known. With a father,
Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet, who served loyally with the
Allende government (1970-1973), Michelle and her mother Ángela
Jeria were imprisoned shortly after General Augusto Pinochet's
coup on the 11th of September 1973. Having fled with her mother
after her father died under torture, Bachelet lived for various
periods in Australia, the former East Germany and the United States.
Trained in paediatrics and military studies, Bachelet received
much attention after she was made Health Minister, and later Defence
Minister, under the centre-left Concertación government
of Ricardo Lagos.
As a minister and now incumbent President, Bachelet must be given
credit for certain achievements. Given the task as Health Minister
of drastically reducing waiting lists in public hospitals within
the first 100 days of Lagos's government, Bachelet generally achieved
these aims while making it mandatory for all primary-care facilities
to provide emergency contraception to all females over the age
of 14 who requested it.
Aiming to make good on her promise of breaking down gender barriers,
as President she appointed the first-ever gender cabinet with
roughly 50-50 men and women while extending the proposal to undersecretaries
and regional governors, amongst others, whom she is personally
allowed to appoint. In a country where the Catholic Church, right-wing
politicians and deeply rooted chauvinism in society hold considerable
sway, such initiatives by Bachelet must be commended. Likewise,
the Chilean head of state's government has seen 800 new childcare
centres open while a low-cost health-care scheme has also been
However, recognising Bachelet's achievements, under scrutiny,
her government is also riddled with disappointments while becoming
somewhat of a hurdle for Latin American integration and the new
push to expand democracy throughout the region. Thus far, on a
national scale, the failings of her administration are all too
noticeable commencing with the debacle of Transantiago - the government's
public transport system in the capital.
Originally aimed at providing people with a more efficient and
environmentally friendly system, private companies ended up refusing
to supply the amount of buses they originally promised leaving
commuters to walk several kilometres to the nearest bus stops
- if they have even been built as in some cases. For Santiago's
poor the debacle has been nothing short of catastrophic and thousands
of people have lost their jobs due to lateness. As the public
have became aware of the speculative gains by business and the
fact that the state has been losing huge sums of money ($30 million
in April alone according to one observer), many spontaneous protests
have broken out .
With the government initially sacking several ministers, including
the transport minister Sergio Espejo, the measures were really
a face-lift as Bachelet asked Congress for $290 million to give
to a private company that did not fulfil its original contract.
According to one analyst recently in La Jornada, such a lack of
courage to take on local businesses for their failures even led
some "Christian Democrat deputies [to] have questions about
the state supporting business inefficiency" .
But continuing the status quo, is essentially what the Bachelet
government has been about and such policies to allow the private
sector to eat out of the public coffers is a clear example of
this. Likewise, the government's reluctance to moderate in an
industrial dispute between BHP Billiton mining company and employers
at La Escondida mine last year, highlight that only after great
public pressure is the Chilean government willing to side with
workers who seek better wages .
Even with the dispute resolved, after one of the longest strikes
by Chilean miners in recent history, the Bachelet government could
face more crippling industrial actions as large numbers of workers
did not receive moderate wage increases - despite the fact that
mining companies, due to the Chinese boom, are recording record-breaking
profits.__In education and health, the government's credentials
have also come under question. Over the last year and a half,
Chile has seen the growth of the Penguin movement by high students
who demand that the archaic education system established under
the military dictatorship no longer favour those with high incomes.
After tens of thousands of students took to the streets early
last year, and were often brutally repressed by police (someone
has yet to tell the police force, Carabineros de Chile, that in
a democracy one has a right to protest), the Bachelet government
conceded that students' grievances had a basis in reality. Studying
in classrooms with leaking roofs and inadequate chairs and desks
was going to change, according to the government, yet thus far,
little actions have been taken.
Similarly, in health, Bachelet's failures have angered many. Claiming
to have established new hospitals all over the country, Dr. Juan
Luis Castro - head of the Doctors Association (Colegio Medico)
- recently stated, "things have to be called by their name
and of the eight hospitals announced by the President, only five
correspond to that denomination" . Although stating that
he believed that the President had been misinformed, Castro added
that there has been "deception, an error which must be rectified"
adding, "It is clearly a euphemism to speak of hospitals
Then there is the issue of Chile's indigenous peoples who are
the most marginalised.
While under the military dictatorship, their leaders suffered
brutal repression and were pushed off their lands at the will
of the General or local landowners, today the Bachelet government
simply puts its head in the sand over the issue of indigenous
land rights. Even worse, it has allowed repressive anti-terror
laws established under the dictatorship, and strengthened by the
Lagos government, to pursue Mapuche leaders whose lands are been
threatened by foreign corporations in the forest industry.
As Carmen Curihuentro Llancaleo - an indigenous activist - recently
explained at a conference in Sydney, Australia last year, she
was under the impression that as a former victim of torture, Bachelet
would surely have more sympathy towards her people's plight and
the human rights violations they have endured by the state. Currently,
numerous indigenous activists languish in Chile's jails on trumped
up charges as local landowners in the south take the law into
their own hands against indigenous organisations. The legitimacy
of such a judicial system, and the lack of will by a government
to see that its citizens receive fair trials, should be seriously
Likewise, the administration's adherence to the 1980 constitution
with its clause that curtails the role of the state in the market,
and bans it from interfering in sectors of interest to private
capital, highlight the government's commitment to neo-liberalism.
Although the high price of copper, profits from the forestry industries
- at great ecological cost to future generations - and moderate
social spending explain much of the so called 'Chilean miracle',
the fact that the country's resources are not infinite seems to
escape many people's imaginations inside Bachelet's cabinet.
Hence why the regional integration today being promoted by the
likes of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and to some
extent Brazil, are so vital if Latin America is to modernise,
establish political and economic unity, and (one day) negotiate
with Washington on a more equal terms. In this process, Chile's
role has been quite embarrassing if not shameful. Since the Lagos
government, Chile has been all too happy to sign bilateral free-trade
deals with the United States, China, Singapore and Colombia. The
latter is one of Chile's largest trading partners in the region
while it can also claim the title of worst human rights violator
in Latin America.
During mid-2006, when many international observers noted the huge
electoral fraud that robbed centre-left candidate Andrés
Manuel López Obrador of the presidency in Mexico, Bachelet,
along with US President Bush, were the first in the region to
recognised Felipe Calderón as the new President. Recently
Bachelet visited Mexico and with her presidential counterpart
declared that they wanted to "obtain in the shortest time
possible results that favour the business area". Although
the militarisation of Mexican society continues as the country
remains unstable from last year's electoral fraud, and the abject
poverty exacerbated by neoliberal policies, Bachelet does not
seem to be too troubled with Calderon's company.
Bachelet also further displayed her colours when Latin American
countries had to choose last year between Guatemala and Venezuela
for a seat at the Security Council in the United Nations. The
dilemma of having to support Venezuela over US-backed Guatemala
- whose decommissioned para-militaries are notorious for the country's
abysmal rate of rapes and murder of women - proved too much for
the self-professed feminist President. Under pressure, her government
abstained during the vote.
If one considers Chile's experiment in expanding democracy under
the Allende government and Bachelet's past, the current developments
in Venezuela, and Chile's official position to them, of course
seem ironic. Over a series of issues both countries have had diplomatic
clashes while Chile thus far has chosen not to be part of regional
projects such as TeleSur - a joint broadcasting initiative by
Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba aimed at countering the
cultural hegemony of US networks like CNN.
Recently, in an interesting article in the Washington Post on
May 17, Juan Forrero noted Venezuelans' mass participation in
community councils which: "In the neighborhoods, [is] hard
to find anything but bubbling enthusiasm" . Ferrero wrote
Council members are elected, and each oversees a committee that
concerns itself with an issue such as education or health care
or youth services. When big decisions are made, they must be put
before a neighborhood assembly of residents, representing on average
about 400 families. The state provides funding for a wide range
Although one should certainly not idealise leaders like Hugo Chávez
and fail to point out flaws in his administration, the above practises
described by Forrero are certainly common in Venezuela. Last December
in fact an extensive survey by Latinobarómetro - a polling
firm based in Chile - noted that just after Uruguayans, Venezuelans
held highly favourable views of their democratic institutions.
Chile on the other hand ranked eighth, just above Colombia .
In future, Chileans may well decide to expand their democracy
as the failings of the Concertación government and its
adherence to free market policies become all too apparent. For
now though, outsiders who are looking for democracy in Latin America,
and in particular, interesting experiments in its expansion, may
choose to visit countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and
Argentina. In Chile, thus far, you will find a President who calls
herself a socialist, twinkles at the edges of the system with
some reforms, but not much else.
Rodrigo Acuña is a free-lance journalist based in Sydney
Australia. He specialises in Latin American affairs and in 2005,
he was awarded the Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the
University of New South Wales. He writes regularly with New Matilda
and has published in El Español en Australia, Eureka Street,
On Line Opinion: Australia's e-journal of social and political
debate and the New York Latino Journal, amongst others.
 Raúl Zibechi, "Chile: Crisis in Neoliberal Paradise",
ZNET, 21 May 2007. First published in La Jornada, Mexico, on 18
 Makiko Kurosaki, "Chile's Mining
Strike at La Escondida has Ended, but the Nation's Labor Struggle
Continues", Council of Hemispheric Affairs, 21 September
 Colegio Médico de Chile A.G.
"Desconcertantes anuncios de nuevos hospitals", 25 de
 Rodrigo Acuña, "Mexico:
The Mystery of the Missing Ballots", New Matilda, 13 September
 "Mexico, Chile fortify bonds",
El Universal, Miércoles 21 de marzo de 2007.
 Juan Forero, "Venezuela Lets Councils Bloom", Washington
Post, 17 May 2007.
 "Latinobarómetro Report 2006", Latinobarómetro,
December 2006. Online at: