A few months away from the 40th anniversary of the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup that led to the bloody overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, the coming presidential election of November 2013 in Chile has opened the deep wounds of nearly two decades of military dictatorship. As is well known—and has been amply documented—its sequels were brutal repression, suppression of political freedoms, exile, illegal imprisonment, assassination, torture, and state-sponsored terrorism whose reach led to the assassination of Pinochet’s opponents not only in Chile itself but as far away as Argentina, Italy, and Washington DC. The 1973 coup also inaugurated a neoconservative economic experiment, more popularly known as neoliberalism whose sequel was twofold: it brought about the most acute levels of social inequality in the country’s history, and it became the template used by world capital to restructure itself and its periphery so as to serve the narrowest of interests.[ii]
What has brought the traumatic experience under Pinochet into sharp relief is the fact that the two decisive presidential candidates have strong associations to the country’s political divide between pinochetistas and anti-pinochetistas. On the one hand, there is Evelyn Matthei, member of Union Democratica Independiente (UDI) an extreme right wing party, strongly associated with Pinochet’s dictatorship and Minister of Labour in the government of President Sebastian Piñera, and whose father was a member of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. On the other hand, there is Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile (2006-2010), member of the Socialist Party (Allende’s party), a strong supporter of Allende’s Popular Unity (UP in its Spanish acronym) government and whose father was a high level member of the UP’s administration.
The second partner of the current government coalition—Alianza—is Renovacion Nacional (RN), a less extreme right wing party than UDI, but also strongly associated to both the traditional parties of Chile’s oligarchy (Conservative and Liberal) and to the 1973 coup that overthrew Allende and the Pinochet dictatorship both of which they wholeheartedly supported.
Evelyn Matthei has become the de facto and the default right wing coalition’s presidential candidate after Pablo Longueira, elected in the Alianza’s primaries as the Right’s candidate, resigned a few days later after announcing he was suffering from severe depression. Longueira’s resignation threw the Alianza into confusion and uncertainty since RN has been reticent to endorse Matthei who was immediately declared the UDI presidential hopeful.
In fact, the Alianza has paradoxically been bedevilled by problems ever since they won the presidency in 2010. It was the first time the Chilean Right had won the government since the 1988-89 beginnings of both the restoration of democracy and the demise of dictatorship (neither of which has been fully accomplished). The then candidate Piñera waged a very defensive campaign counteracting accusations that he had made his millions illegally and corruptly (he has never been able to shake off the image of the corrupt politician who made his millions under Pinochet). Despite recent protestations to the contrary, Piñera was a solid supporter of the dictatorship and a high level member of RN. As a President, apart from trying to further privatise the already heavily privatised higher education system, his administration has been characterised by lack of initiative on any front, his popularity has plummeted, and he is broadly considered an inept politician who is prone to gaffes, lapses and errors which are in Chile known as “piñericosas” (equivalent to “Bushims”).
Since re-election is unconstitutional in Chile, the Right thought they had found a candidate to face the coming elections in the shape of Laurence Golborne, a highly popular minister of mining but who had to abandon his presidential aspirations in April this year when financial scandals in which he was involved broke out. Worse, when Longueira announced his resignation, Andres Allamand, the only other weighty politician of the Right, refused to become their candidate mainly because he is intensely opposed by the UDI.
At the Alianza primaries Longueira obtained 53.7 percent of the vote (over Allamand’s 48,62 percent) out of a total of slightly over 800,000 voters, whilst Bachelet obtained a whapping 73,05 percent out of 2,137,423 votes. (Bachelet’s votes—1,561,563—are greater than the votes of all the other candidates of both primaries taken together).[iii] The Economist described Bachelet’s victory as “crushing,” commenting “Bachelet trounces all comers” (July 7, 2013). Whereas, Matthei’s candidacy is pretty much a leftover of the messy situation Chile’s Right finds itself in. Additionally, she is perceived as unsophisticated and intensely arrogant and rude. Not a good starting point for the Right’s fortunes.
To add to the Right’s misfortunes, Bachelet has already publicised three highly attractive planks of her future government. Matthei and the Right have yet to announce what they plan to do.
Bachelet has announced that she intends to hold a referendum to change the 1980 constitution enacted under Pinochet’s rule and under conditions of military dictatorship. She also intends to carry out a profound tributary reform, anathema in neoliberal Chile. And, she intends to make education, including higher education, a universal and free-of-charge right. Additionally, being progressive as she is, she wants to legislate on abortion (abortion is outright forbidden in Chile even if there is danger to the mother’s life, or if it results from rape).[iv] Bachelet also wants to reform the country’s electoral system which is grossly in favour of the Right and which was instituted during Pinochet’s rule. Probably, Bachelet’s policies smack of Leninism to the extremely conservative Right in Chile. And Bachelet has established a new left-entre coalition, which is to the left of the Concertacion—coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists that have been in government ever since the demise of Pinochet’s rule in 1988 (except since 2010 when Piñera was elected). The new coalition is called New Majority and it includes the Communist Party and has the enthusiastic support of Camila Vallejo, who as student leader shook Chile’s neoliberalism to its foundations with the mass mobilizations against Piñera’s policy of further privatization of higher education.
What brings Chile’s ugly dictatorial past into sharp relief is the fact that both Bachelet and Mattei are the daughters of Chilean generals whose fate was inextricably tied to that of Allende’s government and the Pinochet dictatorship, respectively. But whereas Matthei’s father was a member of Pinochet’s military junta between 1977 to 1990, Bachelet’s father died whilst under detention and from torture for being a supporter of Salvador Allende. Gen Alberto Bachelet had been charged with state treason after he refused to join the coup on 11 September 2013 and died whilst in detention at the Air War Academy, directed by Gen Fernando Matthei. Human Rights lawyer, Eduardo Contreras “says new evidence shows that Gen Matthei knew about [Gen Bachelet’s] death” and is seeking murder charges against Gen Matthei over his death.
Thus, Michelle Bachelet is poised to take Chile’s presidency by storm and ceteris paribus nothing will be able to stop her. Thus, “her opponents are preparing to throw everything they have at Ms Bachelet.” Thus, for instance, “They have accused her of a clumsy response to the earthquake that hit Chile in 2010, at the end of her presidency. But the allegations do not seem to have stuck. Her support in Maule and Bío Bío, the regions worst affected, is as strong as it is elsewhere.” (The Economist, July 6, 2013).
The divisions in Chile, though through the specifics of domestic politics, mirror the existing divisions at a continental level. Henrique Capriles, leader of Venezuela’s Right was recently in Chile seeking support for their pretty deflated campaign to declare fraudulent the 14 April, 2013, presidential elections at which Nicolas Maduro was elected.[v] Unsurprisingly, he elicited immediate support from the UDI, the pinochetista party par excellence, from RN and from leaders of Christian Democracy. Capriles met with president Piñera at a ‘private meeting’ and was special guest to a dinner at the residence of Jovino Novoa, UDI Senator and former secretary of the Pinochet government. In other words, Capriles got the enthusiastic support of more or less exactly the coalition of political forces that, with the support of the Nixon government, actively created the conditions for the brutal coup that led to Allende’s overthrow. Michelle Bachelet, on the other hand, refused to meet Capriles through a press release pointing out that her agenda was too busy. Capriles’ campaign in Chile also got condemnations from the Socialist and the Communist parties.
Chile, like any other Latin American nation cannot escape or remain immune to the continental struggle for hegemony in the region: Monroism versus Bolivarianism. In short, what is posed at the coming presidential elections in Chile will have significance at the continental level. Voting for Bachelet at the coming presidential election would represent a step, however small, in the direction of Bolivarianism. Voting for Matthei is a certain vote for Monroism. The question is: do Chile’s electorate know that this is an important dimension of the stakes at the 17th November presidential election?
[i] Dr Francisco Dominguez, a former refugee from Chile in the UK, is Head of Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies at Middlesex University, London, United Kingdom.
[ii] Quite appropriately social and critical movements of many kinds have popularised the view that neoliberalism benefits 1 percent of the earth’s population whilst being detrimental to the reminder 99 percent.
[iv] In July 2013, President Piñera stunned the nation when he praised as “brave and mature” a pregnant 11-year-old rape victim, who was abused by her stepfather for two years, because she said she was happy to have the baby (Chile’s Pin stokes abortion row over rape victim, BBC World News, 10th July 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-23253296)
[v] In fact, Venezuela’s Right claim fraud every time they loose an election and have very rarely recognized adverse election results.