Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.”

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament