What is one to make of Juan Guaidó’s self-acclamation as the legitimate president of Venezuela? Certainly it was audacious and daring. Guaidó put himself in personal jeopardy by assuming the presidential mantle based on the support of the National Assembly, where the opposition to Nicolás Maduro’s “Bolivarian socialist” presidency commands an overwhelming majority. Other recent opposition leaders are either in jail under trying conditions or under house arrest.

His auto-election was clearly a startling political act, attracting national attention and international approval from a broad swath of foreign governments, including Canada as a member of the Lima group of mostly democratic nations of the Americas. Support also came from the United States and leading European Union members, including France and Germany. Mexico, a Lima group member, has chosen neutrality under the newly elected administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

On the other hand Cuba, which has provided security personnel to prop up Maduro, has condemned Guaidó’s move. Predictably, so have Bolivia and Nicaragua, with “socialist” orientations similar to Maduro’s. Also on Maduro’s side are Russia and China, which support his regime with loans backed by Venezuela’s oil sales. This drawing of lines between world powers has perilously thrust Venezuela’s crisis into a higher orbit of international geopolitics.

Still, Guaido’s declaration bolstered a resistance to Maduro that seemed to have faltered as Venezuela’s social and economic situation continued to decline unchecked. His move was a strategic parry to break a deadlock, inject momentum into the opposition’s campaign against Maduro’s authoritarian regime and clear a way forward to a resolution of Venezuela’s political crisis.

Perhaps all that needs to be judged is whether his move was feckless or strategically effective. But ultimately if it is to succeed, his interim presidency must be founded on some legitimate constitutional claim on which to chart a future course. For the self-acclamation to become a founding moment, it needs a credible narrative that calls on the historical continuity of Venezuela’s democratic traditions.

Venezuela’s Winding Constitutional Path

The development of Venezuela’s constitution has never followed a strictly evolutionary path. It enjoyed some mid-20th-century stability and then careened erratically into disruptive experimentation after 1998. The date on which Venezuela’s democracy was founded is clear: January 23, 1958, when overwhelming opposition forced military ruler Marcos Pérez Jiménez to flee the country. The ouster of Pérez Jiménez opened the way to national elections of December 5, 1958, and the victory of the social democratic Acción Democrática (AD) led by Rómulo Betancourt.

For the following three decades, and through successive elections, power was transferred with some regularity between AD and its rival, the centre-right, Christian democrat–inspired Comité de Organización Polítical Electoral Independiente (COPEI). The first two decades of this period were characterized by rising national wealth from oil income, which accelerated after 1973 with the international boom in oil prices. During this era, Venezuela was considered a democratic – and economically successful – exception among Latin American nations, most of which were governed by military dictatorships.

When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Venezuela was a founding member, lost its grip on world oil prices in 1982, the Venezuelan economy faltered. Petroleum exports were by far the largest source of Venezuelans’ income, and the oil price decline of more than 50 per cent had severe economic consequences for Venezuela. The Venezuelan government had launched major social spending and infrastructure programs which it found difficult to sustain in the face of the price drop. The relative hardship of the 1980s produced a deep disaffection with the two traditional governing parties and led to growing social unrest. This was the climate that led to the entry on the political scene of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez who memorably asked, “What good is a democracy that doesn’t let you eat?”

The constitutional line of continuity becomes contorted with Chávez, whose radical constitutional changes favoured executive powers over judicial or legislative checks and balances. The very act which brought the soldier to public attention was unconstitutional by definition: an attempted coup he led on February 4, 1992. The attempt failed, and Chávez was jailed for two years. During the 1993 presidential election campaign Rafael Caldera, who had served a previous term as president under the COPEI banner, won support from poorer Venezuelans by calling for the coup leader’s release. After winning the election Caldera made good on his promise and freed Chávez, who then organized his own political movement, capitalizing on public frustration with mainstream political parties.

Chávez was elected president on December 6, 1998, and promptly called a consultative referendum to establish a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. What followed until his death in 2013 was a series of constitutional initiatives and reforms in electoral laws that served to concentrate the president’s powers and undermine the ability of opposition parties to challenge Chávez’s authority. Yet throughout this period, it can still be argued that Chávez’s regime enjoyed formal legitimacy since it adhered to a constitutional path. In this context, what is key for the current state of play in Venezuela is Chávez’s 1999 constitution, which did away with a bicameral Congress in favour of a single National Assembly. That body has endured until today. We will return shortly to this in further probing Guaidó’s claim to the presidency.

Chávez was challenged consistently in his early years in power, barely surviving an oil strike led by the senior managers of the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), and winning a narrow majority in a recall referendum – a measure that was also part of the 1999 constitution. But with time, and particularly with the resumption of higher world oil prices, he was able to cement power through state spending and narrow the opposition’s manoeuvring room through, for example, increasing his control of the Supreme Court and the national election commission. The erosion of checks and balances in the Venezuelan system so discouraged the opposition that many parties refused to participate in elections in the early 2000s. But they returned to the field in the elections of 2006 and 2008, and although the results still massively favoured Chávez, opposition politicians maintained a space as official rivals to the Chávez regime.

The story of Chávez is much more than successful constitutional stratagems. Large expenditures that increased the poorest Venezuelans’ incomes through direct transfer payments were significant – and affordable during a period of high oil prices. They came not only from the state as such, but also were funded by the state oil company, to the point that in later years PDVSA drew down its own budget for maintenance, exploration and innovation. This would have serious consequences down the road.

Vital to Chávez’s power was the charismatic hold he had on many voters, especially among the country’s poorer sectors. In his 2015 novel Patria o muerte (Fatherland or Death), Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka captures the atmosphere at a rally in Chávez’s llanos, or prairie, home state of Barinas, at a time when it was known that he was being treated for cancer:

He was asking for his life … to keep struggling for the people. It was difficult to determine if he was making the most emotional and authentic confession of his existence or delivering a powerful election stump speech. Perhaps both … Everything he was saying appeared to be pulled from a detailed and rigorous program. Everything at the same time seemed to be utterly spontaneous … The people listening were deeply moved, tearful. What he was saying was the truth, an emotional truth, unblemished. That was charisma.1

While others were less impressed with Chávez’s oratorical skills (Spain’s King Juan Carlos famously interrupted him during the Ibero-American Summit in Chile in 2007 to ask “¿Por que no te callas?”, that is, “Why don’t you shut up?”), the chavista constitution worked when backed by the comandante’s charismatic glue. It became more vulnerable upon his death on March 5, 2013, and his replacement by the far less compelling and far less shrewd Nicolás Maduro.

The Maduro Regime and its Opponents

In establishing the basis of Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Venezuelan presidency, the result of the 2015 election for the National Assembly is pivotal. The opposition alliance won 109 seats with 56.2 per cent of the vote, compared to 55 seats with 40.9 per cent for the government. Voter turnout was 74.17 per cent. Maduro’s response to the government’s defeat prompted exceptionally devious detours in constitutional reform. He decided initially to strip the Assembly’s powers by giving them on an interim basis to the Supreme Court. He organized the election of a new constituent assembly, which was boycotted by the opposition, since the new body was intended to sideline the legitimately elected Assembly. And he banned opposition parties and leaders from participating in the 2018 presidential election. These measures were a clear attempt to circumvent the will of the majority of Venezuelan voters who had delivered a massive vote of nonconfidence in the regime.

All these circumstances now cohere to provide the basis for the constitutional argument in favour of Guaidó’s self-acclamation as president. Guaidó’s backers reference Chávez’s 1999 constitution to provide the grounds on which the claim is made. Article 233 obliges the National Assembly to name its leader as president where the president is wholly absent (“ausente en absoluta”) before the date of his swearing-in. Although it is clear that Maduro is not absent in any physical sense, he is in a constitutional sense, Guaidó’s supporters argue, since the Maduro-created constituent assembly that ordered the May 20, 2018, presidential election was in all respects illegitimate. By extension, so was the presidential election itself, boycotted by much of the country. The Maduro-appointed electoral commission reported that voter turnout was only 46 per cent. Of that total, Maduro won 68 per cent, against two opposition candidates who did not participate in the boycott and won 31 per cent between them. The low turnout, the opposition boycott and the eventual rejection of the results by the opposition candidates who did take part cast the presidential election into further disrepute. Ultimately, Guaidó claims, as Maduro, the victor of this unrepresentative ballot, stood on no well-constituted authority, the president-elect was clearly “absent” under the terms of the 1999 constitution.

Further support for Guaidó’s position is drawn from articles 333 and 350 of the constitution. Article 333 is a measure to plainly convey that this foundation document belongs to the people of Venezuela, not to its government. “Every citizen, invested with authority or not, has the duty to collaborate in the reestablishment of effective powers (efectiva vigéncia).” Article 350 is a broader statement of principle relating to the constitution’s support for human rights. Venezuelans “are not to recognize any regime, law or authority that contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees or impinges upon human rights.”2

President Maduro is hardly going to buckle in the face of constitutional arguments. The country’s growing ungovernability, runaway inflation, shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines and the flight from the country of millions of Venezuelans will undoubtedly be greater determinants of the Maduro regime’s future. It is also plain that constitutional niceties are easily cast aside in a brute struggle to preserve power. However, Guaidó’s assumed presidency is an important focal point for restoration of both effective government administration and a viable economy when Maduro eventually falters.

Maduro and his supporters have been unrelenting in their attacks on Guaidó, which are founded on their allegation that the congressman is a cat’s paw for “U.S. imperialism.” There is hardly a foot put wrong in Venezuela that is not blamed on this malign force, from the cancer that killed Chávez to the countrywide power failure in March this year. And so it is with Guaidó.

Guaidó is a 36-year-old industrial engineer from the coastal city of Vargas. He is a founding member of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), a party affiliated with the Socialist International, the umbrella association for world social democratic parties, including the British Labour Party and, until recently, Canada’s New Democratic Party. He was elected to the National Assembly as an alternate representative in 2010 and won a full seat in the pivotal election of 2015.

The way he is described by Maduro regime defenders is tendentious, to say the least. He is a “the product of more than a decade of assiduous grooming by the U.S. government’s elite regime-change factories.”3 Among his offences was that he was a student in the governance and political management program at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is also criticized for exercising the right to take part in street protests against the Chávez regime, including opposition to the government’s forced closure of the independently owned television station RC (Radio Caracas) TV.

Among his other offences is being closely associated with the Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo López, who is being held by the regime under house arrest. López was using his base as an elected mayor of a Caracas municipality to oppose the Maduro regime. (Voluntad Popular was the leading party in the Mesa de Unidad Democrática, or Roundtable for Democracy, the coalition that won the 2015 National Assembly elections). Among López’s suspect connections to the U.S. “regime change factory” are his having been educated at Princeton University and his involvement in National Endowment for Democracy (NED) programs. The NED is a U.S. Congress–funded agency that since 1983 has been involved in the promotion of democracy worldwide, part of the U.S. government’s “soft power” diplomacy under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Key in the narrative against Guaidó’s claim to the presidency is that a primary motive for opposition to Maduro is the desire of U.S.-based oil companies to take over Venezuela’s petroleum resources. That Venezuela ran a successful state-run oil company, PDVSA, without foreign interference from the late 1970s through to the early Chávez years rather contradicts the view that U.S. multinationals cannot abide state ownership. It is notable, as mentioned above, that PDVSA management sought to protect this national asset from the predations of the Chávez regime, which seriously damaged its profitability and ability to operate in the interests of its supposed owners, the Venezuelan people. It could very well be that PDVSA may need to work with private capital to restore its economic integrity in the future. But despite the vast petroleum resources that Venezuela possesses, it will face a long and difficult adjustment in a world in which international efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are major factors affecting the industry worldwide. Venezuela’s oil assets, large quantities of which are similar to the heavy oils and oil sands of Alberta, would not be first among the properties sought by international investors.

The assertions of the Maduro regime’s defenders that the country’s economic woes can primarily be laid at the feet of U.S. sanctions do not bear the least scrutiny. Sanctions starting under the Obama administration were primarily aimed at restricting the travel of individuals associated with rights violations and crimes and freezing their assets. The sanctions with greater economic impact, those that force U.S. refiners to refuse Venezuelan shipments, are of recent vintage.

Venezuela’s economy had been suffering for far longer than the imposition of sanctions, and most particularly since the crash of world oil prices in 2015. From 2015 until now, Venezuela’s gross domestic product shrank by approximately 40 per cent, from US$554.2 billion to US$331.0 billion. The fall in the value of the bolivar, the local currency, qualifies as hyperinflation, rising from 3,994 per cent in 2014 to 15,000 per cent in 2018.4

The huge loss of income has put deeper stress on an economy that was already hampered, among other things, by domestic price controls, rationing, shortages for important consumer products and a multilevel system of exchange rates that was encouraging capital flight and discouraging investment. All of these measures were introduced over time to mitigate the impact of both public and private spending, domestically and internationally, that exceeded even the once very lucrative oil industry’s ability to generate income. The spending spree that accelerated under Chávez had the corollary of reducing rates of domestic investment, which in turn lowered Venezuela’s ability to generate non-oil domestic income. Rising impoverishment has led to an exodus of an estimated three million people from Venezuela, whose population is currently estimated at 32.8 million.

The path forward in Venezuela is confoundingly uncertain. The level of public opposition manifest in the huge demonstrations against the regime has not resulted in any concessions by Maduro’s so far adamant regime. But as of this writing, these demonstrations still appear to have given Guaidó a degree of protection from Maduro’s security apparatus, although his advisers have not been spared. It has been claimed that there are several hundred political prisoners; Maduro’s recently arrested chief of staff has now joined them.

The international support for Guaidó does put a spotlight on any repressive move contemplated against him, although how the international community might react remains uncertain. Despite less-than-veiled references to possible military intervention by the United States, the perils of such a move in a country as large and deeply politically polarized as Venezuela should deter any folly of that nature. Venezuela is not Grenada or Panama – Libya may be a more pertinent example.

What largely peaceful transitions of power have shown us in exemplary cases, such as South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Poland or Spain, is that they must ultimately involve a controlled surrender by the occupants of power. There is yet little sign of this in Venezuela. But Guaidó’s assumption of the presidency, drawing on the authority of the National Assembly, the last remaining democratic institution in the country, provides a mechanism through which Maduro and his supporters can allow their morally bankrupt authority to be dissolved.

Continue reading “Venezuela’s Duelling Presidents”

The return of conservative businessman Sebastián Piñera to the Chilean presidency in March 2018 is best understood as a necessary course correction in Chile’s democratic development. The election of Piñera, who had been president from 2010 to 2014, was not the crushing rebuke of the left that his conservative backers had vainly hoped for or, as some might misconstrue it, a sharp turn to the political right. Piñera’s coalition may still harbour a diminishing coterie of supporters of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet, but this election, the seventh consecutive national vote since the end of the dictatorship, proved – if proof was even needed – the strength and durability of Chilean democracy today.

The “centre-right” Piñera, whose allies comprise big and small business, professionals, conservative workers and farmers and the above-mentioned pinochetistas, faces a left-leaning majority in Congress which will influence the direction of his government for his current – and unrenewable – four-year term. This majority is composed not only of his traditional “centre-left” opponents (the Socialists, Party for Democracy, Christian Democrats, etc.), but also a new, more radically inclined left faction, Frente Amplio, or Broad Front, which arose from a variety of student and citizen activist groups over the last decade.

Better economic management with more social equality

Piñera’s predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, championed an agenda that focused on combating Chile’s still deep-seated economic inequality. Bachelet’s opponents liked to characterize her hard-driving reform agenda as a bulldozer and wished to see a tough electoral repudiation. But today Bachelet’s political legacy in some respects appears durable. In effect, Chilean voters chose a more businesslike chief executive to manage the country’s ongoing social welfare agenda. The election can even be seen to counter trends elsewhere in the world. Rather than accentuating extremes, the election has produced a political alignment that balances improved economic management with a desire for more social equality.

From the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 to the beginning of Bachelet’s second term in 2014 (she had been president from 2006 to 2010), Chile’s economy grew an average of more than 5 per cent annually, and the numbers of those in poverty declined from 40 to approximately 8 per cent of the population. Chile has a growing middle class, but the gap between the richest segment of the population and its poorest, as reflected in the benchmark Gini coefficient, was still pronounced in 2014. Bachelet aimed to tackle what she and her supporters saw as longstanding inequity through education reform, tax restructuring and constitutional change.

None of this was going to be simple. The climate for introducing reforms was not helped by one of Bachelet’s senior ministers who announced intemperately that Bachelet was going to take a retroexcavadora (the marvellously descriptive Spanish word for a backhoe) to the foundations of the post-Pinochet polity. Education reform raised the ire of the owners of the deeply entrenched Chilean private school system. Tax changes, which aimed to shift taxes to the owners of companies rather than the companies themselves, cast a chill over access to capital for corporate reinvestment. And constitutional reform consultations bogged down in paranoia that Bachelet’s ulterior motive was to undermine property rights.

Complicating Bachelet’s difficulties further was the end of the commodities supercycle that had held primary materials prices aloft after the 2008–09 recession, largely fuelled by the continuing economic growth of China. Copper comprises half of Chile’s exports and, coinciding with Bachelet’s election, its price dropped from nearly $4 to about $1.50 per pound. Chile’s economic growth dropped accordingly, to well below 2 per cent annually.

The final deflation of Bachelet’s popularity came with a series of scandals. Her son and daughter-in-law were implicated in a real estate speculation and influence-peddling scandal, and a widespread political fundraising scheme was exposed in which one of Chile’s iconic companies, SQM, suborned virtually every political party with secret campaign contributions.

But for all the government’s travails, and despite the often improvisational manner in which it introduced reforms, the reforms began to take hold and won over important parts of the population. The Chilean primary and secondary school system has three tiers: public schools, which instruct 20 per cent of the student population; state-subsidized private schools, with 65 per cent; and wholly private schools, with 15 per cent. The chief aim of Bachelet’s educational measures was to convert the state-subsidized private schools into public schools and, critically, to remove the burden on middle-class families of the high tuition fees these schools charged. Moreover, lacking the budget revenues to fulfil its promise of free university and college education, Bachelet’s government settled on the interim measure of providing free postsecondary education to 50 per cent of the “most vulnerable” – that is, lowest-income – population.

Despite all manner of administrative upheaval, the upshot of these changes was to extend significant benefits to low- and middle-income Chileans. So well had these changes begun to take hold that Piñera promised early in his election campaign that he would not roll them back. It is a promise that he seems to be honouring.

A major plank of Bachelet’s reforms was to raise Chile’s level of taxation to that of the median in the OECD, of which Chile is the only South American member. Most political actors shared this objective but the controversy surrounding implementation seriously undermined her government’s reputation for administrative competence.

The main measure involved imposition of a tax on business intended to raise revenue equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of Chile’s GDP. But the effect was that the funds once earmarked to support new business activity would instead be used to pay personal income tax bills. This disincentive to investment was at least partly responsible for a sharp decline in Chile’s rate of capital formation during the Bachelet administration.

Piñera remains committed to tax reform but plans to ask Congress to approve a plan that will remove tax on income destined for reinvestment. Characteristic of the readiness in some business circles to ensure that tax adjustments are not seen as a sop to the wealthy, the head of Chile’s small business gremio (representative association) recommended an increase in the top rate of tax on higher-income individuals to 40 per cent from 35 per cent. The centre-left, as well as the centre-right, remains committed to a formal limit on the size of deficit the government can run. Although Bachelet’s finance ministers fiddled at the edges of that rule, allowing net public debt to rise, total government debt currently stands at about 23 per cent of GDP, among the lowest in the OECD.

Bachelet’s proposed major overhaul of the Chilean constitution is effectively a dead letter under Piñera’s administration. There appear to be few who regret setting it aside. Bachelet sought to wrest Chile’s central law from its association with the Pinochet dictatorship. The current constitution is part of the grand bargain that led to the reestablishment of democracy in 1990. Some of its political constraints have already been removed, most importantly rules that had favoured the forces of the centre-right. Elimination of the binominal system was indeed an important factor in the left attaining an effective congressional majority in the current Congress.1 Beyond this practical amendment, it was difficult to discern what concretely Bachelet wanted to achieve through a wider constitutional reform.

Astonishingly for some, Piñera has actually pursued a progressive social agenda of his own. Before the country went on holidays for the annual Fiestas Patrias (September 18 is Chile’s Independence Day), Piñera coaxed through Congress a law permitting Chileans aged 14 and over legally to declare their own gender. He announced plans to make all private employers offer daycare for preschool children aged two years and older. And he pushed through a law to increase Chile’s minimum wage and establish a schedule for regular raises.

These may represent quick wins in what is likely to remain a challenging social policy scenario. The issue that most mobilized the citizenry in the late innings of Bachelet’s term was the perceived low payouts to beneficiaries of the pension system. Chile’s main pension scheme comprises some six private funds, Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones (AFPs), to which Chilean workers are required to contribute, with their contributions supplemented by employer payments,. The system was established as part of the Milton Friedman–inspired economic reforms of the Pinochet era. The AFPs were to manage workers’ savings and generate an adequate pension income on retirement.

Workers’ disappointment over the size of pensions for which they are eligible has driven the demonstrations filling the streets of Santiago and other Chilean cities since 2015. On average, the funds are providing a pension equivalent to only about 38 per cent of preretirement earnings. But rather than being attributable to bad management as protestors claim, the low returns are more a reflection of the economic circumstances of the pension holders and of the country as a whole during the period of capital accumulation. Although Chile’s middle class has been growing since the reestablishment of democracy, this growth has been gradual and, for many individuals and families, sporadic. As a result, contributions to AFPs have been variable as well.

The depth of this expectations gap is one of the key challenges Piñera faces. On this issue there are parallels with the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). Initial actuarial projections made in the 1960s were wildly overoptimistic about the payroll tax required to underwrite promised CPP benefits. For many years, Canadian politicians avoided the politically painful choice of reducing benefits or increasing the required payroll tax. It is unclear at this time how Piñera will manage his pension problem. In the absence of a well-articulated plan to secure the livelihoods of older citizens, social unrest could severely damage his presidency in the same manner as student demonstrations demanding education reform did during his 2010–14 term.

Piñera’s economic managers have been quick to underline the resurgence of the Chilean economy since his reelection. Bachelet’s finance ministers denied that the tepid growth during her presidency had anything to do with poor management. As copper prices gradually rose throughout her four-year term, they eagerly pointed to las verdes brotes (the green buds) of imminent growth. But those buds never opened. From an average below 2 per cent, GDP growth in the last two quarters has surged above 5 per cent. Clearly, the arrival of Piñera in power has lifted business confidence and opened some investors’ coffers.

Unfortunately, unemployment rates have not begun to fall. The rate was 7.3 per cent in August, the highest since 2011. The persistently high unemployment rate in the face of GDP growth is partly attributable to more people entering the job market. There has been growth in numbers employed, but largely in self-employment, where average monthly income is $772, well below average salaried income of $1,047. Piñera is faced with managing a growing economy that nonetheless has weak formal employment growth, a phenomenon not exclusive to Chile. It is a worldwide trend in developed economies, the upshot of which is the worsening of existing earnings inequality.

To increase economic efficiency and spur growth in Latin America, democratic and market-oriented countries including Chile, Mexico, Peru and Colombia established the Pacific Alliance in 2011 providing for the free movement of capital and labour among member countries. Although Chile’s growth under Bachelet lagged the rest of the region, investors still point to Chile’s advantages over its partners. Mexico’s gangster-driven crime gives it one of the world’s highest murder rates, and its recent election of the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador has cast uncertainty over its future economic management. Colombia is now led by a government that is openly sceptical of the peace agreement with the once-revolutionary Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and has still not settled with another revolutionary group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Peru’s political class has been damaged by its association with the bribery scandal surrounding Brazil’s Odebrecht business conglomerate. The current president, Martín Vizcarra, is hampered by the congressional Fujimoristas, members of the populist authoritarian party created by ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who was convicted for crimes in office and remains in jail.

The challenges of Chile’s Pacific Alliance partners are exceeded by those of Chile’s larger neighbours. Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s market-oriented reforms have begun to run up against his country’s chronic indebtedness and limits to Argentinians’ patience for fiscal austerity. Brazil has been deeply torn by the cancerous corruption that has afflicted much of its political class. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro, it has cast its lot with a return to authoritarianism. Other external problems have induced a recent wave of immigration from Haiti and Venezuela, which carries the mixed blessing of increasing Chile’s labour force but also complicating social integration. Overall, Chile’s status as a peaceful, well-ordered and stable democracy committed to a market economy supported by social welfare and reform stands out in Latin America.

Moderating a difficult dialogue

Chile’s international brand has never escaped the negative aura associated with the military coup of September 11, 1973, and Augusto Pinochet’s subsequent murderous dictatorship. It appears that no news story about Chile can capture headlines in North America or Europe without a necessary reference to that period, which ended 28 years ago. For instance, this headline in Telesur on May 27, 2017: “Over 2 million people protest Chile’s Pinochet-era’s pension system.” It is not wrong to underline how Chile is still in some respects under the “shadow of the dictator,” to borrow the title of the 2008 book written by Bachelet’s exceptionally capable foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz. Hardly a day goes by in Chile without a pointed reminder of that era. One day a crowd may gather outside offices in Chile’s modern business district protesting that the company president was implicated in the torture and disappearance of political prisoners but has not faced justice. Elsewhere the families of imprisoned generals protest that their fathers or uncles have done enough time behind bars and should be allowed to live their final, infirm days in the family home.

What is perhaps misunderstood is the manner in which Chile has managed this legacy within a mostly open and frank dialogue that represents reconciliation in action – imperfect as it inevitably will be. Like all democratic presidents before him, Piñera carries the burden of playing the role of moderator of this dialogue. In this role, he does not carry Bachelet’s credentials. She was a leftist militant supportive of Salvador Allende’s government whose father, a pro-Allende military officer in an executive role, died after torture. Bachelet, after herself being detained, went into exile but returned during the dictatorship to serve as a doctor, administering often to regime victims, and work secretly with the underground resistance. Piñera, on the other hand, founded his business empire after the coup on the castoffs of Allende’s nationalized businesses. However, unlike many of his associates, he does have the redeeming attribute of having supported the No side in the vote against the prolongation of the dictatorship, which led to the negotiations to reestablish democracy.

As much as the torture and murder of the Pinochet regime are condemned by the vast majority of Chileans, they are still divided on the responsibility of Allende and his supporters in provoking the military reaction. Roberto Ampuero, who is now Piñera’s foreign minister, was a communist militant during the Allende regime and fled into exile first in Cuba and then East Germany after the coup. In 2015, along with another Allende-era militant, Mauricio Rojas, Ampuero published a book called Diálogo de conversos (A converts’ dialogue), in which they castigated their own and their compatriots’ rash calls for a violent overthrow of Chile’s wealthy classes.

In the book, Ampuero describes demonstrations in which he and others sporting helmets marched through residential neighbourhoods chanting “Momios up against the wall; their women to the mattress” (momios, or mummies, is Chilean slang for right-wing conservatives):

There were people frightened to death to see thousands of guys with flags, canes and nooses, shouting “Expropriate, expropriate. It’s the popular will.” … This was us as a country before the coup and because of this, what happened later, happened. And I say this without condoning a single violation of human rights suffered under the dictatorship. But we have to be honest till it hurts: we wanted to frighten the momios and the soldiers, and later we became aware that fear, resentment and hatred were accumulating on the other side. It’s clear today, many, on one side or the other, avoid responsibility; they prefer to assume the role of victims, and they prefer to paint the division and the polarization as though they fell from the skies the night after September 11.

In appointing Ampuero foreign minister, Piñera endorsed this perspective. He did backtrack slightly after appointing Rojas, and then accepting his resignation, as minister of culture.2 However, in his statement on the anniversary of September 11, Piñera effectively articulated the two writers’ point of view: “Our democracy was very ill; September 11 was not a sudden death.” The reaction of the left to Piñera’s statement was negative, its spokespersons pronouncing that they were not prepared to condone those who “relativize and justify” Pinochet’s regime. The debate will continue as long as there are living witnesses of that era, and undoubtedly even longer. But it is a free discussion and not suppressed.


On June 1, 2017, a bright autumn day in Valparaíso, then-President Bachelet gave her final presidential message to the Chilean Congress, her last opportunity to defend her government’s record before the November elections. By then it was clear that her would-be successor, Alejandro Guiller, would fail in his bid for the presidency. Nevertheless, she proclaimed, “Governments will change, but history driven by the force of an entire country cannot be held back.”

She was not wrong. The centre-left’s presidential candidate was repudiated, but the congressional leftist majority requires Piñera to be flexible. He seems to have taken on the challenge: while rebooting the economy, he seeks to satisfy the majority’s desire for more social equality.

Continue reading “Chile’s Voters Seek the Golden Mean”