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Chile's New President
Washington’s Best Ally?
by JAMES PETRAS

On January 14, 2006 Veronica Michelle Bachelet was elected President of Chile, by a margin of 54 per cent to 46 per cent with 40 per cent abstentions, mostly from young people under 30 years. Heading a coalition of two nominally "socialist" parties, the Christian Democrats and Radicals, her electoral victory was hailed by a vast political spectrum ranging from the Bush Administration to President Chavez, including all the big business media (Financial Times, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal) and the major international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF).

As in their judgments of other recent elections, the progressives are wrong once again (or perhaps they have renounced their reformist agenda) and the right has reason to rejoice.

Progressives base their positive response to Bachelet’s election on very skimpy grounds. They proclaim that she is the first women president in Latin America (forgetting that Margaret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister of England), that she served a brief stint in Pinochet’s jail; that she was the daughter of a loyalist Air Force General who served under deposed Socialist President Allende and was tortured to death; and the fact that she was a leader in the nominally "Socialist" Party of Chile.

Progressives reliance on identity politics is in sharp contrast with the historical materialist approach adopted by right wing political regimes and the big business press, which focus on her political practice over the past 15 years, her role as a Cabinet minister (Health and Defense Minister) and her unconditional adherence to neo-liberal free market policies and US regional military doctrine.

To understand the meaning of Bachelet’s election and why the Bush regime is ecstatic one must delve briefly into the background of the so-called "Left-center" regimes, which have governed Chile over the past 16 years.

In 1988 the coalition called the "Concertación" defeated the dictator Pinochet in a plebiscite and the subsequent year defeated a pro-Pinochet candidate to win the Presidential elections. From 1989 to the present, Chile has continued to be governed by the authoritarian constitution imposed by the dictatorship in 1980. The Concertación Presidential regimes (whether Christian Democratic or Socialist) not only accepted the fraudulent multi-billion dollar privatizations which took place under the dictatorships, but extended the practice to all sectors of the economy, including health, pensions and education. A report by Congressional Investigators (July 20, 2005) revealed that over $6 billions’ worth of public lands and properties were illegally transferred to Pinochet functionaries. High military officials, involved in crimes against humanity, including Pinochet, continued in the highest positions for over a decade. Middle officers advanced to senior posts. Under the Concertación, Chile retained the dubious distinction of having the second worst inequalities of any country in South America.

The military continues to receive 10 per cent of copper revenues (off the top) right up to the present, a measure wholeheartedly supported by Bachelet when she war Defense Minister (2002-2004). Restrictive labor legislation prevents the trade unions and the labor movement from engaging in any industry-wide strikes, and most farm workers and loggers have few if any defenses against the predatory agro-business grape, wine and lumber producers. In contrast a new class of multi-millionaires dominates a highly monopolized economy in association with European and US multi-nationals, plundering the country’s fishing, forest, water and mineral resources, seizing Indian lands and criminalizing the Mapuche Indian movements.

The Concertación claim to have reduced poverty from 48 per cent to 18 per cent is largely a statistical sleight of hand: a result of re-defining the poverty line to bare subsistence levels. More realistic estimates, based on an adequate standard of living would raise the figure to at least 40-45 per cent.

Equally important, the "Concertación" has lined up with the US ­ and in opposition to the rest of Latin America ­ as the most loyal disciple of free market economic policies, signing on to a bilateral version of the Latin American Free Trade Area and voting with the US against Cuba at the annual Geneva Human Rights meetings. The Socialist Party, from whose ranks the last two Presidents have been elected, has not only renounced every single policy implemented by President Allende (nationalization of copper, agrarian reform, industrial democracy, social welfare and protective labor legislation) but has "confessed" to having followed "erroneous policies". The right wing and Christian Democratic partners of the military coup in 1973 have made no such "self-criticism".

Prior to the military coup, Bachelet supported the Popular Unity government to which her father, Air Force General Albert Bachelet was a loyal supporter. She was briefly detained along with tens of thousands of other Chilean progressives and eventually went overseas, receiving a scholarship to Humboldt University in Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), where she became a supporter of the Hoeneker regime. Following the return to electoral politics Bachelet returned to Chile, became a member of the Central Committee of the "renovated" pro-neo-liberal Socialist Party. From her return to Chile to her election as President Bachelet, not only has she never questioned the impunity of the military who tortured her father to death, but she has embraced their national security doctrine, promoted numerous middle range officers who worked in Pinochet’s CNI (the secret police) and is boastful of her intimate working relations with them.

Bachelet’s transition from the GDR to the USA was consummkated by her one-year stay at Fort McNair where she imbibed US "internal war" doctrine and counter-insurgency strategies. Unlike her father’s path of rejecting imperialism and embracing socialist redistributive policies, Bachelet followed a path of "convergence with the hegemonic power" (her words), which in essence reads: Servile submission to US strategic dictates. Her earlier stint (2000-2002) as Minister of Health saw no improvements in the decaying public health system, no significant programs for the 50 per cent of the Chilean population which could not afford the private health programs and no effort to improve the failed private pension system, once declared by Washington as the "model" for the world. The private pension plans are currently under-funded by $1 billion dollars, management fees and other overhead expenses take up to 20 per cent of pension allocations. The International Labor Organization has called attention to Bachelet and her predecessors that only 58 per cent of pensioners would receive $120 a month, the other 42 per cent virtually nothing.

During Bachelet’s stint as Defense Minister, Chile’s military spending reached new heights: per capita military spending easily exceeded that of every government in Latin America. With multi-billion dollars spending on a new fleet of fighter planes, helicopters, war ships and satellite photography spy system, Chile was prepared to "converge" with US in policing the turbulent Andean countries. Bachelet was the US most forceful supporter in sending a military expeditionary force to Haiti to relieve US military forces in repressing the supporters of Aristide. Over 400 heavily armed Chilean soldiers patrolled the slum streets of Port au Prince in support of the US-imposed puppet regime.

Bachelet welcomed every chance to engage in military exercises with the US ­ offering logistical support for the last UNITAS operations.

Bachelet went beyond the usual protocols of a Defense Minister’s relations with the military. Photo-ops embracing generals covered the front pages of the right-wing daily El Mercurio. Even more striking, Bachelet’s effusive exuberance for the Generals included many of the Generals who served in Pinochet’s secret police: 13 of the 30 Generals with whom Bachelet collaborated were members of the notorious CNI, infamous for their torture and murder of political suspects.

In an interview with El Mercurio (1/22/06) Bachelet stated her whole-hearted support for the neo-liberal model, the maintenance of the 19 per cent regressive value added tax, opposition to any progressive tax or redistributive policies, and no positive legislation to redress the abysmal inequalities. Apart from promoting "education" in the middle range, she claimed that there was no "magic formula" for overcoming the gap between the rich and poor ­ including reform of Chile’s workday ­ over 48 hours a week ­ the highest among 60 countries in the world, according to the rankings of the International Institute of Management. But to Bachelet passing labor legislation is an unattainable "magic formula".

With the returns of minerals breaking historical records, with a newly elected President high on military security, including "internal security", to forestall any social movements from below and rapid reaction battalions prepared to converge with US military interventions, it is no surprise that the Bush Administration and the US Embassy in Santiago call Chile Washington’s best partner, a model for Latin America, the perfect client: a foreign investors paradise. By the same token, a working persons’ inferno and a threat to Andean social movements.

Bachelet’s rise to power demonstrates that political power is stronger than kinship ties, class allegiance are more powerful than identity politics, that past leftist affiliation are no hindrance to becoming Washington’s best ally in its defense of empire.