Bachelet’s Victory


The resounding victory of Michelle Bachelet as Chile’s first woman president represents an important social advance in a country where women are often treated as second class citizens. But few observers see the Chilean elections as reflective of the leftward trend taking place in much of Latin America. Cristian Cottet, the editor and owner of a book publishing house that specializes in political titles, says: “Bachelet is nominally a Socialist, but it would have made little difference if her conservative opponent had triumphed. The truth is Chile’s political class is beholden to business interests and the neo-liberal economic model imposed on the country by the former dictator, Augusto Pinochet.”

Bachelet’s closing campaign remarks at a huge political rally in Santiago seemed to reinforce Cottet’s view as she did little more than sum up her mundane stump speech by declaring: “I will be the president of all Chileans.” Many in the crowd were more hopeful as some chanted “Allende, esta presente,” (Allende is present) referring to Salvador Allende, the Socialist president who Pinochet overthrew because of his radical social and economic policies.

To be sure there have been some modest reforms under the Christian Democratic and Socialist governments that have ruled since Pinochet’s downfall. During the current government of Ricardo Lagos public spending has increased in health and education. As Regina Perez, a primary school teacher at the Bachelet rally noted, “our lives have gotten better, we have more clinics for public health care, more educational opportunities for our children, and there are more jobs.”

Under Lagos the economy has improved and unemployment now stands at around 7.5%, down from the double digit figures of his early years of his presidency. But this is due in large part to factors beyond his control, as the price of Chile’s main export, copper, has jumped while income from Chile’s high quality agricultural exports has also risen significantly.

Real wage levels remain largely frozen. “The chant of ‘flexible labor markets’ is the economic engine of Chile’s ruling class as workers have low wages and few social benefits” says Crisitian Cottet “The category of sub-contracted workers is now a fine art of exploitation in Chile,” he adds. Corporations are free to subcontract as many workers as they please, with independent labor contractors providing workers for the corporations who receive no social benefits and can be fired at a moments notice. Even public employees are subcontracted, with about half of the public work force employed under these conditions.

A labor dispute in one of Chile’s few public enterprises, Codelco, underscores this reality. The country’s largest copper company, Pinochet opted to keep Codelco in the public sphere as he decreed that 10% of its revenue would flow directly into the country’s military coffers. Last month 28,000 of Codelco’s subcontracted workers went on strike, demanding many of the benefits that the regular work force receives. When the conservative presidential candidate, Sebastian Pinera, suggested that the government should make concessions to the subcontracted workers, Lagos initially agreed, but then backtracked, saying Codelco’s workers should not receive “special treatment” in comparison to other subcontracted workers.

Bachelet has not commented on the labor dispute. There is perhaps some hope she may take a more progressive stance, as she has incurred few political debts according to El Mecurio, the country’s dominant conservative newspaper. She may also take a more constructive position on the country’s privatized social security system, which is in a state of crises as she recognized in the campaign. Lauded by George Bush and neo-liberal economists as a model for the United States, the sad reality is that only about a third of Chile’s workers have adequate coverage for their retirement years under the private plans. Some of the private companies have gone bankrupt, with the state picking up the tab.

Bachelet may also advance the cause of human rights in Chile more than her predecessor. Her father Air Force General Alberto Bachelet died in Pinochet’s prisons because he supported Allende. Michelle was briefly detained and tortured in the mid 1980s.

Juan Guzman, the first Chilean judge to prosecute Pinochet for human rights violations, was pressured by the Lagos government to end his pursuit of the dictator because of Pinochet’s alleged “dementia.” After Guzman’s retirement from the bench in May, he went to work for Bachelet’s campaign. “I believe there will be a marked change with the new President,” says Guzman. He is one of the more hopeful Chileans as he adds, “Bachelet is a resilient woman whose victory will make a real difference for the lives of ordinary citizens.”

ROGER BURBACH is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is co- author with Jim Tarbell of “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire,” He released late last year “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.



ROGER BURBACH is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Pinochet Affair.