in Articles, Chile, Latin America and the Caribbean, Repression, Workers

Progressives Hail Socialist Party Leader’s Election in Chile: Hopes High Bachelet Will Fulfill Pledge to Reduce Inequality

By Asad Ismi

The Latin American Revolution scored a powerful victory last December when Michelle Bachelet, the Socialist Party’s leader, was elected President of Chile for the second time. She takes office on March 11. Bachelet won in a landslide, taking 62% of the vote compared to only 38% for her rival, Evelyn Matthei, who represented the ruling right-wing Alianza coalition.

This was the largest electoral victory margin in 80 years. Bachelet ran as the candidate of the New Majority coalition which includes both the Christian Democrat and the Communist parties, along with five others. Her coalition won a majority of seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Bachelet won on a radical platform aimed at reducing deep inequality. She promised profound progressive changes, including free higher education, increased corporate taxes, and a new and improved democratic constitution and electoral system.

“Those who want to reduce inequality have triumphed.“ said Bachelet during her victory celebrations. The President-Elect also made clear that she will be seeking closer relations with the other 10 leftist governments in Latin America and furthering regional integration. When she assumes power, Bachelet will become the third ruling left-wing woman President in South America, joining Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina.

Inequality is the primary political issue in Chile, with many of its citizens feeling excluded from the benefits of the country’s economy which have gone to a small élite. “At this point, equitable distribution has become more important than overall economic growth,” explains Professor Patricio Navia of Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales. Chile is the world’s leading producer of copper, which is the main source of its wealth.

Millions of Chilean workers and students have been demonstrating against inequality, especially in education, for the last seven years. During 2013, mass strikes by miners and dockworkers took place, along with illegal walkouts by public sector workers and continuing student protests.

Chile is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America and the most unequal in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which has 34 member countries. The top 1% of Chileans get 33.3% of the country’s income, while half of the population lives on $500 a month or less. Thirty-eight percent of Chileans find it difficult, or very difficult, to live on their incomes, and close to 20% of Chileans live in poverty, the third highest rate in the OECD.

A University of Chile study calls the country “a nation with virtually no middle class.” The privatization of Chile’s education, medical, and transport systems mean that it is very difficult for most families to access proper education, competent medical care, or dependable transportation.

“The system is for the rich. Who knows how long I will have to wait to be seen,” laments Cristobal Ortiz, a 23-year-old student, “who was doubled up in pain and barely able to speak” as he waited for a doctor in an underfunded state hospital.

At the same time, 4,459 families in the Chilean élite have an average monthly income of $38,000 and comprise 0.1% of the richest families. These are “the owners of Chile” – of the banks, supermarkets, and the insurance, forestry, media, and mining companies.

The Chilean education system is the most expensive in the world after the U.S. Ninety percent of universities are private, as are 55% of secondary schools. Close to 40% of the income of middle-class families is spent on higher education, and tuition fees have increased by 60% since 2003. According to an OECD study, Chile ranks 64th out of 65 countries in the category of class segregation.

The undemocratic Chilean constitution protects such extensive inequality by requiring a 67% majority for constitutional reform, a 57% majority for educational changes, and a 60% majority to alter the electoral system. Under electoral rules created to impede progressive change, the losing party gets half the seats in each region if the winning party fails to obtain more than two-thirds of the votes.

Bachelet has won enough votes to pass a new tax code, which she has pledged will raise the corporate tax rate from 20% to 25% to pay for making higher education free. For changes in the education and electoral areas, however, she will need to get the support of independent leftist deputies, and for constitutional reform she will need the votes of the right-wing opposition which is loath to make any such change.

Chile’s massive inequality, élitist education system, and undemocratic constitution and electoral process stem from the bloody dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who took power in a military coup on September 11, 1973. Pinochet overthrew the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and ruled Chile with an iron fist until 1990. The coup was engineered by U.S. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.

Pinochet’s 17 years of terrorism killed more than a 100,000 Chileans in order to turn Chile from an increasingly egalitarian society into a low-wage neoliberal haven for multinational corporations. These include Canada’s Barrick Gold (prominent in Chile’s mining sector), whose chairman, Peter Munk, has expressed great admiration for Pinochet.

The Chilean upper class and U.S. multinationals International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) and Anaconda and Kennecott (copper companies whose Chilean properties Allende had nationalized) supported the CIA campaign to overthrow the democratically elected socialist president. Allende was redistributing income, reforming agriculture, and nationalizing important industries — steps that U.S. policy-makers saw as making Chile “independent of the priorities of U.S. foreign policy and the multinationals.”

In the year after the coup, the armed forces and police slaughtered up to 30,000 Chileans for their beliefs and associations. A quarter of the organized work force was dismissed for political reasons. Every labour right was suspended and most labour federations were demolished. The regime’s opponents were tortured, kidnapped, exiled, jailed, and sent to concentration camps.

With his opponents kidnapped, jailed, or in exile, and the union movement crushed, the General reversed 35 years of economic development. Pinochet’s monetarist model was supervised by Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago. Starting in 1975, the “Chicago Boys” reduced import duties, deregulated industry, eliminated limits on foreign investment, sold public enterprises at low prices, freed the prices of basic necessities, and privatized government services, including schools, universities, health care, pensions, parks, prisons, and utilities,

Pinochet’s policies decimated Chile’s manufacturing base and drastically increased poverty and wealth concentration. Whereas 20% of the population had been poor in 1970, fully 41% were poor in 1990 (when Pinochet’s dictatorship ended). In one decade, the richest 10% of Chileans increased their share of the national wealth from 37% to 47%. Chile gained the dubious distinction of having the second most unequal income distribution in Latin America, after Brazil.

Pinochet’s authoritarian 1980 constitution set up a political system that favoured right-wing parties and made it difficult for any party to win a significant majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

From 1990 to 2009, Chile has been ruled by elected governments of the Concertacion, a centre-left coalition which includes the Christian Democratic Party and the Socialist Party. Both accept and promote the neoliberal economic system set up by Pinochet, and the Christian Democrats even supported the coup against Allende.

Bachelet was first elected President in 2006 on a platform of reducing inequality and significantly redistributing wealth. There were great public hopes that Bachelet would reform the élitist political and economic system which she, given her coalition’s support for neoliberalism, at that time failed to do.

Bachelet’s father, Air Force General Alberto Bachelet, was arrested and tortured to death by the Pinochet dictatorship for supporting Allende. Bachelet herself was tortured as well and exiled. In 2006, Bachelet ran as a radical outsider to get progressive votes, but ruled as a guardian of the élite consensus on neoliberalism. She also lacked the parliamentary majority required to carry out major reforms. Bachelet expanded welfare programs, but her failure to follow through on promises of major wealth redistribution resulted in her coalition losing the 2009 election, which was won by the right-wing Coalition for Change led by billionaire Sebastian Pinera. (The Chilean constitution bars presidential candidates from running in two consecutive elections).

Pinera became highly unpopular, with many Chileans finding him “too abrasive and business-oriented.” His popularity rating was only 34% when he stepped down, the lowest for any President since Pinochet. In contrast, Bachelet ended her first term with a popularity rating of 84% due to her progressive social and economic stance, which got her re-elected. Voters appear ready to give her a second chance to implement this progressive vision with actual policies that carry out wealth redistribution.

It remains to be seen whether Bachelet will redistribute wealth significantly once in power, but this time she has the support of most of the legislature and so is in a much stronger political position. Also, the pressure of the workers, students, and other social movements on Bachelet to fulfill her progressive promises is much more intense now than it was in 2006. Failure on her part to do so is likely to ignite an explosion of social protest.

While Chileans again vote for an egalitarian country as they did when they elected Allende, this great socialist leader’s legacy has been realized by the Latin American Revolution spread by 10 left-wing governments in the region that have shattered U.S. domination there and implemented many progressive economic reforms for their people, including universal health care, free education, and major wealth redistribution. As the U.S. discovered in 2002 in Venezuela, it can no longer overthrow elected left-wing governments of major Latin American countries with military coups. The people and the armed forces of these countries will not allow such U.S. subversion.

“Forty years on, much of Allende’s dream of an independent Latin America has been realized,” says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C. “And the electoral road to social democracy (which Allende, like the current leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela called socialism) is now possible. This is a huge advance not only for the region but the world, as Allende knew it would be.

“Allende’s dream of social democracy that benefits working and poor people has also made major advances. [In] Argentina, poverty and extreme poverty have fallen by more than 70%, real social spending has nearly tripled, and the country achieved record levels of employment. Brazil has reduced poverty by 45% and hit record low levels of unemployment. Venezuela has reduced poverty by about half, and extreme poverty by more than 70%.

“Salvador Allende and the movement that supported him in 1973 showed great courage and integrity, but the U.S. government was still too powerful to allow for democratic choices in South America. But forty years later, the world has changed, and his dreams are becoming reality more and more each day.”

Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, February 2014

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent and author of the anthology The Latin American Revolution . This article is the 22nd in a series by him on the Latin American Revolution all of which are included in the anthology. The anthology can be ordered from the CCPA.