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Chile or Venezuela – Which is the Good Democracy?

Outsiders who are looking for democracy in Latin America, and in particular, interesting experiments in its expansion, may choose to visit Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. In Chile, thus far, you will find a President who calls herself a socialist, twinkles at the edges of the system with some reforms, but not much else. Rodrigo Acuña reports

June 20, 2007
12 min read

A glance at much of the media’s coverage of Latin America would suggest that there are two types of democracies in the region today: the good and the bad. Due to an almost pathological obsession by outlets such as the New York Times and the Economist, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have been categorised as places where democracy is being ‘eroded’ and freedom of the press ‘curtailed’, and where popular demagogues are happily marching their people towards dictatorial systems.

In its 19 April 2007 edition, the Economist provided a classic example. Its target was the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. Although the report noted that Correa takes many of his cabinet secretaries around the country with him ‘in an attempt to bring government closer to the people’; has doubled cash transfers to 1.3 million of the nation’s poorest people; provided a further $100 million to ‘housing subsidies for the poor’ and ‘increased substantially’ spending on education and health, unfortunately, it was hard to ‘find an independent political observer’ who thought Ecuadorians had something to be hopeful about.

To make matters worse, ‘the growing strength of the president’s grip on power … is giving cause for alarm’, stated the Economist in the most predictable fashion. Back in Venezuela, Simon Romero on 17 May filed a story for the New York Times titled: ‘Clash of Hope and Fear as Venezuela Seizes Land.’

With a combination of historical knowledge and imagination, Romero wrote: ‘For centuries, much of Venezuela’s rich farmland has been in the hands of a small elite. After coming to power in 1998, and especially after his re-election in December, President Hugo Chávez vowed to end that inequality, and has been keeping his promise in a process that is both brutal and legal.’

Charging the Chávez government responsible for the ‘largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history’, Romero notes that the ‘violence has gone both ways’ with ‘more than 160 peasants killed by hired gunmen’ and eight landowners also murdered thus far. The slight disparity in deaths between peasants and landowners however escaped Romero’s attention, as with the fact that the government has targeted landowners with non-productive haciendas who cannot prove documentation for their original titles of purchase – a wide spread problem in the region. In short, of course the conclusions one should draw from Venezuela are all too obvious.

So where can one find the good democracy in Latin America? Where is the ‘responsible’ government? For that, if we are to believe many commentators, one must travel across the Andes to Chile and meet socialist President Michelle Bachelet. As the second female President in Latin American history after Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997), Bachelet evokes a combination of admiration but unfortunately also disappointment due to the policies of her administration.

By now much of her personal story is well known. With a father, Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet, who served loyally with the Allende government (1970-1973), Michelle and her mother Ángela Jeria were imprisoned shortly after General Augusto Pinochet’s coup on the 11 September 1973. Having fled with her mother after her father died under torture, Bachelet lived for various periods in Australia, the former East Germany and the United States. Trained in paediatrics and military studies, Bachelet received much attention after she was made Health Minister, and later Defence Minister, under the centre-left Concertación government of Ricardo Lagos.

As a minister and now incumbent President, Bachelet must be given credit for certain achievements. Given the task as Health Minister of drastically reducing waiting lists in public hospitals within the first 100 days of Lagos’s government, Bachelet generally achieved these aims while making it mandatory for all primary-care facilities to provide emergency contraception to all females over the age of 14 who requested it.

Aiming to make good on her promise of breaking down gender barriers, as President she appointed the first-ever gender cabinet with roughly 50-50 men and women while extending the proposal to undersecretaries and regional governors, amongst others, whom she is personally allowed to appoint. In a country where the Catholic Church, right-wing politicians and deeply rooted chauvinism in society hold considerable sway, such initiatives by Bachelet must be commended. Likewise, the Chilean head of state’s government has seen 800 new childcare centres open while a low-cost health-care scheme has also been extended.

However, recognising Bachelet’s achievements, under scrutiny, her government is also riddled with disappointments while becoming somewhat of a hurdle for Latin American integration and the new push to expand democracy throughout the region. Thus far, on a national scale, the failings of her administration are all too noticeable commencing with the debacle of Transantiago – the government’s public transport system in the capital.

Originally aimed at providing people with a more efficient and environmentally friendly system, private companies ended up refusing to supply the amount of buses they originally promised leaving commuters to walk several kilometres to the nearest bus stops – if they have even been built as in some cases. For Santiago’s poor the debacle has been nothing short of catastrophic and thousands of people have lost their jobs due to lateness. As the public have became aware of the speculative gains by business and the fact that the state has been losing huge sums of money ($30 million in April alone according to one observer), many spontaneous protests have broken out. [1]

With the government initially sacking several ministers, including the transport minister Sergio Espejo, the measures were really a face-lift as Bachelet asked Congress for $290 million to give to a private company that did not fulfil its original contract. According to one analyst recently in La Jornada, such a lack of courage to take on local businesses for their failures even led some ‘Christian Democrat deputies [to] have questions about the state supporting business inefficiency’.[2]

But continuing the status quo, is essentially what the Bachelet government has been about and such policies to allow the private sector to eat out of the public coffers is a clear example of this. Likewise, the government’s reluctance to moderate in an industrial dispute between BHP Billiton mining company and employers at La Escondida mine last year, highlight that only after great public pressure is the Chilean government willing to side with workers who seek better wages. [3]

Even with the dispute resolved, after one of the longest strikes by Chilean miners in recent history, the Bachelet government could face more crippling industrial actions as large numbers of workers did not receive moderate wage increases – despite the fact that mining companies, due to the Chinese boom, are recording record-breaking profits.

In education and health, the government’s credentials have also come under question. Over the last year and a half, Chile has seen the growth of the Penguin movement by high students who demand that the archaic education system established under the military dictatorship no longer favour those with high incomes. After tens of thousands of students took to the streets early last year, and were often brutally repressed by police (someone has yet to tell the police force, Carabineros de Chile, that in a democracy one has a right to protest), the Bachelet government conceded that students’ grievances had a basis in reality. Studying in classrooms with leaking roofs and inadequate chairs and desks was going to change, according to the government, yet thus far, little actions have been taken.

Similarly, in health, Bachelet’s failures have angered many. Claiming to have established new hospitals all over the country, Dr. Juan Luis Castro – head of the Doctors Association (Colegio Medico) – recently stated, ‘things have to be called by their name and of the eight hospitals announced by the President, only five correspond to that denomination’. [4]Although stating that he believed that the President had been misinformed, Castro added that there has been ‘deception, an error which must be rectified’ adding, ‘It is clearly a euphemism to speak of hospitals without beds’.

Then there is the issue of Chile’s indigenous peoples who are the most marginalised.

While under the military dictatorship, their leaders suffered brutal repression and were pushed off their lands at the will of the General or local landowners, today the Bachelet government simply puts its head in the sand over the issue of indigenous land rights. Even worse, it has allowed repressive anti-terror laws established under the dictatorship, and strengthened by the Lagos government, to pursue Mapuche leaders whose lands are been threatened by foreign corporations in the forest industry.

As Carmen Curihuentro Llancaleo – an indigenous activist – recently explained at a conference in Sydney, Australia last year, she was under the impression that as a former victim of torture, Bachelet would surely have more sympathy towards her people’s plight and the human rights violations they have endured by the state. Currently, numerous indigenous activists languish in Chile’s jails on trumped up charges as local landowners in the south take the law into their own hands against indigenous organisations. The legitimacy of such a judicial system, and the lack of will by a government to see that its citizens receive fair trials, should be seriously questioned.

Likewise, the administration’s adherence to the 1980 constitution with its clause that curtails the role of the state in the market, and bans it from interfering in sectors of interest to private capital, highlight the government’s commitment to neo-liberalism. Although the high price of copper, profits from the forestry industries – at great ecological cost to future generations – and moderate social spending explain much of the so called ‘Chilean miracle’, the fact that the country’s resources are not infinite seems to escape many people’s imaginations inside Bachelet’s cabinet.

Hence why the regional integration today being promoted by the likes of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and to some extent Brazil, are so vital if Latin America is to modernise, establish political and economic unity, and (one day) negotiate with Washington on a more equal terms. In this process, Chile’s role has been quite embarrassing if not shameful. Since the Lagos government, Chile has been all too happy to sign bilateral free-trade deals with the United States, China, Singapore and Colombia. The latter is one of Chile’s largest trading partners in the region while it can also claim the title of worst human rights violator in Latin America.

During mid-2006, when many international observers noted the huge electoral fraud that robbed centre-left candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the presidency in Mexico[5], Bachelet, along with US President Bush, were the first in the region to recognised Felipe Calderón as the new President. Recently Bachelet visited Mexico and with her presidential counterpart declared that they wanted to ‘obtain in the shortest time possible results that favour the business area.[6] Although the militarisation of Mexican society continues as the country remains unstable from last year’s electoral fraud, and the abject poverty exacerbated by neoliberal policies, Bachelet does not seem to be too troubled with Calderon’s company.

Bachelet also further displayed her colours when Latin American countries had to choose last year between Guatemala and Venezuela for a seat at the Security Council in the United Nations. The dilemma of having to support Venezuela over US-backed Guatemala – whose decommissioned para-militaries are notorious for the country’s abysmal rate of rapes and murder of women – proved too much for the self-professed feminist President. Under pressure, her government abstained during the vote.

If one considers Chile’s experiment in expanding democracy under the Allende government and Bachelet’s past, the current developments in Venezuela, and Chile’s official position to them, of course seem ironic. Over a series of issues both countries have had diplomatic clashes while Chile thus far has chosen not to be part of regional projects such as TeleSur – a joint broadcasting initiative by Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba aimed at countering the cultural hegemony of US networks like CNN.

Recently, in an interesting article in the Washington Post on 17 May, Juan Forrero noted Venezuelans’ mass participation in community councils which: ‘In the neighborhoods, [is] hard to find anything but bubbling enthusiasm. [7] Ferrero wrote that:

Council members are elected, and each oversees a committee that concerns itself with an issue such as education or health care or youth services. When big decisions are made, they must be put before a neighborhood assembly of residents, representing on average about 400 families. The state provides funding for a wide range of projects.

Although one should certainly not idealise leaders like Hugo Chávez and fail to point out flaws in his administration, the above practises described by Forrero are certainly common in Venezuela. Last December in fact an extensive survey by Latinobarómetro – a polling firm based in Chile – noted that just after Uruguayans, Venezuelans held highly favourable views of their democratic institutions. Chile on the other hand ranked eighth, just above Colombia. [8]

In future, Chileans may well decide to expand their democracy as the failings of the Concertación government and its adherence to free market policies become all too apparent. For now though, outsiders who are looking for democracy in Latin America, and in particular, interesting experiments in its expansion, may choose to visit countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. In Chile, thus far, you will find a President who calls herself a socialist, twinkles at the edges of the system with some reforms, but not much else.

Rodrigo Acuña is a freelance journalist based in Sydney Australia. He specialises in Latin American affairs and in 2005, he was awarded the Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales. He writes regularly with New Matilda and has published in El Español en Australia, Eureka Street, On Line Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate and the New York Latino Journal, among others.[1] Raúl Zibechi, Chile: Crisis in Neoliberal Paradise, ZNET, 21 May 2007. First published in La Jornada, Mexico, on 18 May 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Makiko Kurosaki, Chile’s Mining Strike at La Escondida has Ended, but the Nation’s Labor Struggle Continues, Council of Hemispheric Affairs, 21 September 2006.

[4] Colegio Médico de Chile A.G. Desconcertantes anuncios de nuevos hospitals, 25 de mayo 2007.

[5] Rodrigo Acuña, Mexico: The Mystery of the Missing Ballots, New Matilda, 13 September 2006.

[6] Mexico, Chile fortify bonds, El Universal, Miércoles 21 de marzo de 2007.

[7] Juan Forero, Venezuela Lets Councils Bloom, Washington Post, 17 May 2007.

[8] Latinobarómetro Report 2006, Latinobarómetro, December 2006.

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