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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.”

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