President Salvador Allende once again overlooks baroque Presidential Palace La Moneda in the heart of Santiago de Chile. This time his body is not made of flesh and bones but of stone – he is nothing more than a statue – but his head is still high, his eyes are fixed towards the future and it seems that he is marching forward surrounded by his stunningly beautiful country.
This very same palace – La Moneda – had been bombed on 9-11 1973 during the coup sponsored by the CIA, as well as several private companies including ITT and Chase Manhattan. President refused to leave. He died in the ruins and the legend says that when the first missiles penetrated the building, he stood up and walked towards the armor that was spitting flames and towards the roaring engines, because even they were operated by his people – by the people whom he swore to serve as President.
More than 4.000 people died in the orgy of terror that follower. Hundreds of thousands were tortured, raped or had to leave seeking asylum at distant shores.
When the dictatorship collapsed in 1989, previously egalitarian and middle class Chile had one of the most pro-business economies and social systems and some of the worst income disparities on earth. Some 40% of its citizens were poor.
What followed was often described as a miracle – two-digit growth, tremendous push forward. Changes were accompanied by remarkable lack of corruption in the government circles. For some 20 years Chile has been governed by technocrats united under the banner of so-called ‘Concertation’ – a coalition of parties mainly consisting of Socialists and Christian Democrats (in Chile Center-Left party).
From battered, insecure and traumatized nation Chile joined the club of rich countries. Its poverty rate shrank by more than half; its medical system, infrastructure and housing sectors are now on par with some of the most developed nations on earth. Its human development index (HDI) is basically the same as that of Czech Republic and above all other countries in Latin America.
It has been long and unspectacular revolution, but the revolution it was and continues to be.
Simultaneously and quietly, Chile became cultural powerhouse. Santiago now boasts first rate museums and opera house, symphony orchestras and avant-garde theatres. Art is mostly much more politicized (from the Left) than in Europe or in the United States. There is now a ‘mall’ under the Presidential palace – but the mall that consists of art galleries and art cinemateuqes. Some of the last stops of super-modern subway system host free (entrance is subway ticket) art cinemas. Literary and poetry cafes in the center of the city are offering free high-speed Internet access.
While reaching peace with the armed forces, Chilean governments managed to put on trial and indict dozens of men responsible for murder and gross human rights violations during the Pinochet fascist dictatorship. Chilean justice went much further than in Spain (where most of Franco’s crimes were never investigated).
As everywhere else, Chilean governments committed some errors but these were minor compared to successes that could have not been ignored even by the mainstream press in the West.
Just before the elections, The Economist praised President Michelle Bachelet (a doctor and a socialist who had been brutally tortured during Pinochet’s regime, later exiled and educated in East Germany) and admitted that her popularity was ‘north of 80%’.
Ms. Bachelet was not only adored in her own country – she befriended Left-wing politicians from all over the continent. She even opened discussions with Bolivia about giving this land-locked Andean country once again access to sea; an access it lost more than a century ago during the war supported by foreign colonial interests. Such talks would be unimaginable just a few years ago.
Then in December 2009 elections Pinera (billionaire and right wing candidate) gained more votes than other two candidates. That led to January run off when he gained 52% votes and was consequently elected the President. The first time in 52 years Chileans voted in the right-wing politician. Why?
"While the President continues to be very popular," explained Alia Sacca, Chilean architect who survived exiled during the Pinochet’s dictatorship right before elections, "the government committed many errors and managed to alienate voters."
"I will vote for Eduardo Frei", said Alejandro Wagner, her colleague and famous Chilean artist. "But I will only do it to prevent right-wing from grabbing the power. I am not impressed with Frei and I think he was some of the worst choices the Concertation could have made."
President in early 90’s, Frei was known for being a solid but uninspiring technocrat, Christian Democrat and son of another Chilean President who was later, during the dictatorship, murdered by Pinochet’s secret service. However, in accordance with the Chilean constitution, enormously popular and beloved Michelle Bachelett could not run in two consecutive terms.
The most important reason for Pinera’s victory was his impressive and expensive media campaign. As almost everywhere else, media in Chile is almost fully controlled by the right-wing business interests. While Frei’s team ran uninspiring battle promising continuity, Pinera and his professional advisers were promising "change". They even managed to take advantage of 2009 economic decline clearly caused by global recession, arguing that the slight decline in standard of living in that year was fault of the ruling coalition – logical absurdity but the one that went unchallenged. It is not surprising – well-packaged promises of ‘change’ lately became the rallying cry of many pro-business and pro-western right-wing movements, from Ukraine to Georgia.
"People were bored with the prospect of Frei once again becoming a president", explained Alejandro Wagner. "They had been bombarded with and finally convinced of the dogma that the change is necessary, even unavoidable. They don’t know exactly what kind change it will be, but they were told that the change is essential."
Change in which direction? Given Pinera’s family past and affiliations, it is clear that the change will not be benign – that it will bring Chile once again to the realm of market fundamentalism and maybe even to something worse.
The Wall Street reacted euphorically and Chilean stocks soared. There will be certainly a welcoming reaction from the White House and from the few remaining right-wing governments in the region. The real loser will be the Chilean majority – those who got accustomed to solidarity and to social nature of their state.
From now on many things will be in jeopardy: from almost entirely socialized medical care to housing projects for the poor, subsidies for arts and culture, even the future of public transportation. And the changes may come much sooner than anyone could imagine. Since collapse of the Pinochet’s regime, there was always a 5th column consisting of the old guard in the military and among business elites. Its members and their children were not very vocal, waiting patiently for their moment to come again. It finally arrived this year.
However, in the last 20 years Chile changed dramatically. Its people are well educated, well traveled and very vocal. It is hard to imagine that they would allow the return of thoroughly discredited regime, the one that sided with the foreign powers and murdered its own people for the sake of market dogma and fascist ideals. Pinera’s government will be watched and scrutinized by intellectuals, union leaders, members of opposition, artists and students, as well as by those who still belong to the ranks of progressive media.
The chances are that the new government will not last for its entire term. Given its nature, it is almost inevitable that it will attempt to re-introduce economic and social system suitable for only very few at the top. It is equally inevitable, given the nature of Chilean society, that such move would evoke counter-reaction and massive resistance.
In a way and in the long term such action and reaction may help to re-define the Chilean Left.
The Left in Chile had done too much good to simply lose power. Chileans are shy people – the country produces some great thinkers but most of them are not very good speakers. Reforms of the last 20 years were not accompanies by self-congratulating exclamations. The reality was actually even more extreme – some reforms were hardly noticed by the voters or their implications were taken for granted. It was suddenly also taken for granted that the hungry have to be fed, that those who were freezing in the winder had to be immediately housed, that sick people deserve compassion in a form of modern hospitals, not just in words.
Some time ago when President Michelle Bachelet was visiting the countryside, there was an accident. Without any delay she rolled up her sleeves and performed surgery, right on the spot. She was the only doctor around and it seemed to be a natural thing to do.
When earthquakes or other natural disasters hit the country, the Chilean air force takes off immediately and the same day those who lost their dwellings are housed, no matter what the cost. Then the state pays fully for rebuilding. Even abroad – almost no other country showed such immediate and full-hearted response to the tragedy in Haiti as Chile.
The tragedy of the last months was that the government of Chile could not put all this to words – it felt too shy to speak about its own achievements. For once this modesty will cost the country dearly.
For a while there will be no on-spot surgeries and no massive housing projects. The society will get once again polarized. However, as a result of this polarization could come unity of the majority of Chileans who, without any doubt, desire social justice and compassion and the kindness.
Their enormous country consists of the tallest mountains in Western Hemisphere, of endless and often brutal ocean, of driest places on earth in the north and frozen plains and fiords and glaciers in the south. Without compassion and kindness this nation can hardly survive the forces of nature. In the past it already did survive more than a decade of brutality and madness, but just about and at the tremendous cost that should never be repeated. In those years Pinera’s family had prospered.
Now, but hopefully just for a while, millions of dollars in propaganda and PR won over the common sense. It should be hoped that the common sense of the Chilean people would soon again reclaim the country.
ANDRE VLTCHEK – novelist, journalist, filmmaker and photographer. He presently lives and works in Asia and Africa and can be reached at [email protected]