Chile’s Copper Lady and her detractors

The Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet is close to becoming the first woman elected to lead a major Latin American country, after winning more than 45 per cent of the vote in the first round of the country's presidential election on 11 December 2005. But some on Chile’s left are not rejoicing, writes Justin Vogler. He spoke to Thomás Hirsch, who was a presidential candidate for the left-green coalition Juntos Podemos Más (together we can do more).

January 1, 2005
5 min read

Michelle Bachelet’s progressive credentials look impeccable. Breaking with Chile’s conservative Catholic tradition, she is a single mother, an atheist and the daughter of an emblematic victim of Pinochet’s brutal regime. Michelle was tortured and exiled by the dictatorship, eventually working for the Socialist Party in exile in East Germany.

After returning to Chile in 1978, Michelle qualified as a paediatrician and worked for NGOs and in a public hospital. There are rumours that she was involved in the armed struggle against the dictatorship organised by the communist affiliated Manuel Rodriquez Patriotic Front.

Electoral democracy returned to Chile in 1990. In 2002, after two years heading the health ministry, Bachelet became Latin America’s first female defence minister. Her success in taming Chile’s reactionary armed services earned her a national following. By the time she left the government in 2004 the polls were showing her as favourite to win the presidency.

Isabel Allende – Socialist congresswoman, daughter of ex president Salvador Allende and cousin of the author of the same name – stresses how Bachelet’s popularity is derived from the affinity she inspires. “Michelle reflects a long hidden reality in Chile, not the fake image of the perfect family or the model politician. When she was health minister she used to laugh and tell people she was overweight and had high blood pressure.”

Still, despite her long association with the hard left of the socialist party, Bachelet failed to capture an important part of the leftist vote in December’s first round election. Thomás Hirsch is the candidate for Juntos Podemos Más (together we can do more), the left-green coalition. Hirsch won 5.3 per cent of the vote in December, probably depriving Michelle of a first round victory and thus keeping the right’s hopes alive. So why stand against Bachelet? I went to ask him.

“Michelle Bachelet has been part of the Christian Democrat and Socialist coalition government – la Concertación – that has ruled Chile for 16 years, privileging big economic interests, generating a despicable income inequality, allowing the destruction of our environment and facilitating the plunder of our natural resources,” says Hirsch, a mild mannered and articulate man in his early 50s who served as Chile’s ambassador to Italy in the 1990s.

The World Bank ranks Chile amongst the ten countries with the greatest income inequality between rich and poor. Taxes are amongst the lowest in the world, indeed the transnationals that exploit Chile’s lucrative copper mines effectively don’t pay tax. A series of high profile ecological disasters – the most recent involving contamination of a world heritage nature sanctuary in the southern city of Valdivia – highlight the environmental costs of Chile’s IMF sponsored “economic miracle”.

Even so, the Consertación governments have halved outright poverty in Chile, restored democratic rule and carried out extensive legal, health and educational reforms. Bachelet does represent a turn to the left and, maybe more importantly, a leap forward for woman in one of world’s most machista societies.

After Ralph Nader’s impact on the controversial 2000 US elections that put Bush in the Whitehouse, and the debacle of the 2002 French elections that saw Jospín eliminated in the first round, shouldn’t Juntos Podemos Más tread carefully?

“I think it’s very dangerous to attribute to the progressive left the responsibility of ‘opening the door’ to the right. This is the politics of fear that has blackmailed progressives into voting for the ‘lesser evil’. It is the centre-left that has paved the way for the right. In Chile they have done no more than administer a system designed by the economic right and implemented by force by the military dictatorship,” counters Hirsch.

With the left gaining ground throughout Latin America, Hirsch is in no doubt that it is Juntos Podemos Más that fits into the continental current, not Michelle Bachelet.

“We support Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s project to integrate the continent’s state energy and communications sectors. We particularly admire the agreements signed between Venezuela and Cuba to construct a Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas based on solidarity, cultural exchange and state participation in the regulation and coordination of economic cooperation.”

It is expected that most of Juntos Podemos Más’ votes will be transferred to Michelle Bachelet in January’s electoral runoff. It may be that the emergence of a bloc to the left of the Concertación helps Bachelet convince her Christian Democrat partners of the need for more progressive reform. On the other hand, there is the chance that Sebastain Piñera – the terribly well-funded right-wing millionaire businessman who stands against Bachelet in the second round – could snatch a last minute victory. If this happens, Hirsch will not be a popular man in Chilean Socialist circles.

The risk doesn’t faze him. Asked how he would be voting in the second round Hirsch replies: “I will not support a candidate who represents the neoliberal model, consequently I will nullify my vote.”


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’