Bachelet and the Latin American left

Submitted by Anon on 29 January, 2006 - 10:54

The election of leftish governments in Latin America continues with the recent Presidential victories of Morales in Bolivia and Bachelet in Chile. Other left candidates are likely to win in Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela this year. The trend is largely a reaction to the neo-liberal polices pursued by Latin American governments for over two decades, which has led to huge increases in poverty and unemployment, and disillusionment with the formally democratic regimes that replaced military governments.

Not all these governments have the same political complexion or roots. Most still implement neo-liberal policies; all continue to manage capitalism, albeit a little more humanely than their predecessors. Bachelet in Chile is probably the least left-wing of them all — though her victory is symbolic in a country that pioneered “military neo-liberalism” under Pinochet.

The following article explains the limited significance of Bachelet’s election.

Paul Hampton

by Roger Burbach

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 owner of a book publishing house that specialises 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 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.

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 labour markets’ is the economic engine of Chile’s ruling class as workers have low wages and few social benefits” says Cristian Cottet “The category of sub-contracted workers is now a fine art of exploitation in Chile,” he added.

Corporations are free to subcontract as many workers as they please, with independent contractors providing workers who receive no social benefits and can be fired at a moment’s notice. Even public employees are subcontracted, with about half of the public work force employed under these conditions.

A dispute in one of Chile’s few public enterprises, Codelco, underscores this reality. It is the country’s largest copper company. Pinochet opted to keep Codelco in the public sphere. 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 dispute. There is perhaps some hope she may take a more progressive stance. She may also take a more constructive position on the country’s privatised social security system, which is in a state of crisis as she recognised in the campaign. 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.”

Abridged from Znet: www.zmag.org/content/
print_article.cfm?itemID=9536&sectionID=20

Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas based in Berkeley, California.