Santiago. The resounding victory of Michelle Bachelet as Chileâ€™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 editor and owner of a book publishing house that specializes in political titles, says: â€œBachelet is nominally a Socialist, but it would have made little difference if her conservative opponent had triumphed. The truth is Chileâ€™s political class is beholden to business interests and the neo-liberal economic model imposed on the country by the former dictator, Augusto Pinochet.â€
Bacheletâ€™s closing campaign remarks at a huge political rally in Santiago seemed to reinforce Cottetâ€™s view as she did little more than sum up her mundane stump speech by declaring: â€œI will be the president of all Chileans.â€ Many in the crowd were more hopeful as some chanted â€œAllende, esta presente,â€ (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 Pinochetâ€™s downfall. During the current government of Ricardo Lagos public spending has increased in health and education. As Regina Perez, a primary school teacher at the Bachelet rally noted, â€œour lives have gotten better, we have more clinics for public health care, more educational opportunities for our children, and there are more jobs.â€
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 Chileâ€™s main export, copper, has jumped while income from Chileâ€™s high quality agricultural exports has also risen significantly.
Real wage levels remain largely frozen. â€œThe chant of â€˜flexible labor marketsâ€™ is the economic engine of Chileâ€™s ruling class as workers have low wages and few social benefitsâ€ says Crisitian Cottet â€œThe category of sub-contracted workers is now a fine art of exploitation in Chile,â€ he adds. Corporations are free to subcontract as many workers as they please, with independent labor contractors providing workers for the corporations who receive no social benefits and can be fired at a moments notice. Even public employees are subcontracted, with about half of the public work force employed under these conditions.
A labor dispute in one of Chileâ€™s few public enterprises, Codelco, underscores this reality. The countryâ€™s largest copper company, Pinochet opted to keep Codelco in the public sphere as he decreed that 10% of its revenue would flow directly into the countryâ€™s military coffers. Last month 28,000 of Codelcoâ€™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 Codelcoâ€™s workers should not receive â€œspecial treatmentâ€ in comparison to other subcontracted workers.
Bachelet has not commented on the labor dispute. There is perhaps some hope she may take a more progressive stance, as she has incurred few political debts according to El Mecurio, the countryâ€™s dominant conservative newspaper. She may also take a more constructive position on the countryâ€™s privatized social security system, which is in a state of crises as she recognized in the campaign. Lauded by George Bush and neo-liberal economists as a model for the United States, the sad reality is that only about a third of Chileâ€™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 Pinochetâ€™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 Pinochetâ€™s alleged â€œdementia.â€ After Guzmanâ€™s retirement from the bench in May, he went to work for Bacheletâ€™s campaign. â€œI believe there will be a marked change with the new President,â€ says Guzman. He is one of the more hopeful Chileans as he adds, â€œBachelet is a resilient woman whose victory will make a real difference for the lives of ordinary citizens.â€
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas based in Berkeley, CA. His most recent books are â€œThe Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice,â€ and â€œImperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empireâ€ (co-authored with Jim Tarbell).