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Chile Votes


Last September Chile marked the 40th anniversary of the coup, which brought the dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Despite the decades that have passed, the legacy of the dictatorship still holds a powerful grip on contemporary Chile. This legacy is reflected in the major candidates for the November 17 presidential election.

Michelle Bachelet, previous president from 2006 -2010, won over her main rival the conservative Evelyn Matthei. Initial returns signify Ms. Bachelet did not reach the fifty percent needed to avoid a runoff and will likely go head to head against Ms. Matthei again on December 15.

These candidates’ personal histories, like those of many in the country, are deeply entwined with the history the dictatorship.

Ms. Bachelet is the daughter of General Alberto Bachelet, who was tortured and died in prison during the Pinochet dictatorship. Ms. Matthei is the daughter of General Fernando Matthei, who was part of Pinochet’s governing junta.

Ms. Matthei’s conservative Alianza coalition has taken heat from its association with the farther right UDI party (Unión Demócrata Independiente) and its defense of the dictatorship. Ms. Matthai herself campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite in 1988, which would have kept Pinochet in power for 8 more years. It was the ‘no’ vote’s victory, which compelled Pinochet to step down in 1990.

In many ways the country has still yet to fully recover from the damage inflicted on it throughout the years of the dictatorship. The dictatorship, which kicked off with a US sponsored coup in 1973, resulted in a harsh military regime that killed and disappeared thousands, tortured tens of thousands, and engaged in terror against dissidents. During the dictatorship the country served as “an international terror center”, which played a role in bringing about similar brutal regimes throughout Latin America. As if that weren’t enough the “Chicago Boys” used Chile to experiment on with their dark vision of privatization. This led to an all too predictable economic collapse.

Despite the accolades from the U.S. business press calling Chile’s current day economy  “A Latin American Tiger” and an “economic miracle”, any reasonable look at both the economy and society shows major problems. Chile’s has the fifth-worst income inequality in Latin America, a region itself with extremely high income inequality. The income inequality is so severe that between 2000 and 2009 the richest 20 percent of the population received 58 percent of the country’s income, while the poorest 20 percent received just over 4 percent.

“Chile has the most neoliberal model in the world,” says Mario Waissbluth, head of Educación 2020, a non-profit organization. “The UK and the US, bastions of capitalism, look socialist compared to [Chile].”

The pension system is one example of policy with its roots in the period of the dictatorship. Chilean workers are also forced to pay into private pension funds, which ‘most people see as unfair’, and which provide huge profits for the companies that manage the funds. The current conservative president Sebastián Piñera evenconceded, “half of Chileans have no pension coverage, and of those who do, 40 percent are going to find it hard to reach the minimum level.”

But it’s the education system which has galvanized the population to participate in large scale protests first in 2006 and again starting in 2011 .The education system, which also fell prey to the destruction of the dictatorship, is the most expensive in the world after the U.S., and has low outcomes.

Ninety percent of university education and fifty-five percent of secondary schools are run by the private sector. Middle-class families spend nearly 40 percent of their income, per child, on higher education, and tuition has increased by 60 percent over the last decade. Yet during this same period the Chilean economy grew at an average of 4 percent a year. In a 2009 OECD Program for International Student assessment Chile scored 64 out of 65 countries in segregation across social classes.

As a result of these systemic problems in education the student protest movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and garnered the support of 80 percent of Chileans. The student movement was also instrumental in dramatically dropping president Sebastián Piñera’s approval ratings and forcing his policies to the left. Even The Wall Street Journal, in its typical over the top rhetoric, accused Piñera, one of the richest people in Chile, of “becoming a leftist”.

As the student movement gained power it brought in other progressive movements, which both deepened and broadened the movement’s goals. A multitude of issues became important elements of the movement. These issues included access to public healthcare, establishing a labor code to codify worker’s rights, ending the private pension system, raising wages, raising business taxes, and nationalizing the enormous copper mining sector. The student movement has played a large role in bringing about the resurrection of progressive civil society in Chile after it had been destroyed by the dictatorship.

But now as the “socialist”, Ms. Bachelet, is expected to take back the presidency and prominent figures from the student movement have been elected to congress are we to assume that “Chile is poised to move sharply left,” as The Wall Street Journal’s Mary O’Grady stated?

A glance at history should make one skeptical. During the 2006 student movement, known as the penguin revolution, Ms. Bachelet initially ignored the student’s demands stating the occupying of schools is unacceptable. When she finally did make concessions the student movement widely saw her proposal as vastly insufficient.

In fact, Ms. Bachelet is already scaling back her campaign promises, which had led many to assume her second term would be much more progressive than her first. She had proposed a new more democratic constitution, free university, a public pension system, a more progressive tax system, and more progressive social policies.

Patrico Navia of NYU stated,”Her program is much less ambitious than what she promised in the early part of her campaign. It’s calling for negotiations, commissions, dialogue, debate, but she’s not really committing herself to any dramatic transformations.” Ms. Bachelet has even said, “You can be popular without being populist.”

Lest anyone believe Ms. Bachelet is about to crackdown on corporations JP Morgan Latin American Equity Research released a report stating it was “positively surprised” by Ms. Bachelet’s “moderate” policy platform, and that she presents “a lot of pro-market ideas”.

Even if Ms. Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria coalition holds a majority in the senate, and even if Ms. Bachelet holds the political will to enact progressive changes, the electoral system, which was created by Pinochet, is designed to reach stalemate.

The only factor that could ensure Ms. Bachelet enacts the most progressive policies is outside of the official political sphere, namely the social movements. Should the student movement continue to mobilize as they have been doing since 2011 they could force Ms. Bachelet to listen to the will of the people. It’s up to the social movements to force the politicians to dismantle the neoliberal project in Chile. This is the only way the ghost of Pinochet can ever truly be laid to rest.

It took the CIA, the executive branch of the U.S. government, the Chilean military, and University of Chicago economists to bring misery and destruction to Chile beginning on 9-11-1973, but it was ordinary people in the social movements and especially the student movement, which played a large role making the “No to Pinochet” vote successful in 1988, thus bringing about the end of the dictatorship.

On November 17, Election Day, student protestors occupied Ms. Bachelet’s electoral headquarters holding a sign that said, “The change is not at the Moneda (the Presidential Palace), if not at the big Alamedas (Santiago’s main avenue). If the people of Chile hold on to this message the country could make significant strides in healing itself from the damage of the dictatorship and begin to lay the foundations of a more equitable and just society in Chile.

Paul Gottinger is a writer from Madison, WI. He edits and can be reached at

Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email:

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