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Bachelet; Two more weeks to the “Big Show”!

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet

So, the last time we talked about Chilean politics, Michelle Bachelet had just won handily the first election for president (November) and was campaigning again and headed for victory in the runoff election against her opponent Evelyn Matthei. And as we all know now, Bachelet also won that runoff by a respectable margin, leaving the Chilean public to contemplate what this second Bachelet government (she was president from 2006-2010) would bring.

The results of the December 15 runoff were pretty much taken in stride by Chileans, who had plenty of time to get used to the idea of Bachelet again running the country; her campaign was run very well, she is an excellent campaigner, and her opponent and her right wing backers were really not very prepared for this election. Internal dissention (not uncommon to the parties of her Alliance), the last minute choice of her as the candidate to oppose Bachelet, and a less-than helpful low level of popularity of the outgoing center-right president Piñera left the right in disarray, with the post-election long knives drawn in search of culpable parties of which there are many.

While Bachelet faced the challenge of putting together her government, the losers struggled to reorganize and more to the point, rethink the approach they will now take as the minority opposition in congress. Many also followed the path the outgoing president is taking, which is to settle into a think tank and position for the future.

The end-of-year holiday season in Chile is also the beginning of a two-month vacation period that is pretty much sacrosanct to Chileans; Santiago empties out to such a degree that for those of us who often stay in Santiago during January and February, it is a heavenly time in an otherwise chaotic and increasingly congested, stressful city. This year, besides the fact that Bachelet had to put her leadership team together to take over on March 11, the International Court in The Hague had announced it would send down on January 24 its legal determination on the case Peru had brought against Chile regarding the northern maritime border between the two countries.

Wanting to have the main appointments in place when the decision of the Court was announced, so they would be in a position to internalize and react to the implications of the decision, Bachelet announced she would have her cabinet ministers and under-secretaries, as well as the regional representatives of the national government, named intendentes,chosen and made public by January 24. She delivered pretty much as promised.

The decision of the International Court was a surprise. It would appear the court wanted a decision that satisfied Peru to some degree without injuring Chile economically, especially in terms of the effects on artisan and commercial fishing which, besides mining, is the main economic activity in the northernmost part of Chile.

In the face of what appeared to be a “split decision”, the Chileans, not known for their ability to compromise or to see the glass “half full” when it comes to their relationships with their neighbors, spent several days moaning and groaning about the decision, and leveling criticisms at their government for how it was handled.

Former Chilean president Sebastian Piñera

Former Chilean president Sebastian Piñera

But in an impressive show of statesmanship, President Piñera has traveled to international meetings where he was scheduled to meet with the President of Peru, among other meetings with heads of state, and invited the president elect to accompany him. In this way, even though she will surely approach relations with Chile’s neighbors somewhat differently than did Piñera, Chile presented a unified face with a firm implication that there is not much room for politicians in neighboring countries to try to take advantage of divisions in Chile as a result of the recent election and imminent change of administrations.

This is important because there are pending issues with Bolivia, starting with the claim that country is making, possibly also at the International Court at The Hague, for access to the Pacific Ocean they lost as a result of the War of the Pacific.

Besides wanting to name her team before the International Court decision on the Peru claim was handed down, she also probably wanted to get that task out of the way so she, and they also, could take a well-deserved vacation to recharge after a fairly long campaign period and before taking up what surely will be a very demanding agenda in her first year as President.

But, she probably hurried things a bit, so has ended up with several nominations that right off the blocks have been challenged, not by the opposition, but by members of her own coalition.  So Bachelet is immediately faced with the reality that broad coalitions are good for winning elections, but they become problematic for actual governing.

Most of her appointments are attracting a ho-hum response from the populace, although most are on vacation and many may not even be paying much attention to Bachelet’s actions so far. There are some important implications that are pretty obvious from the start. One of the daily newspapers printed a map of Santiago, showing where each of Piñera’s cabinet ministers lives, as well as those of Bachelet’s announced cabinet. It shows a revealing geographic differentiation between the two teams; Piñera’s almost entirely in the better off eastern side of the city, and Bachelet’s in the poorer and more middle class center and western side of the tracks (or Plaza Italia, to be more precise). This is indicative of the present state of affairs in Chile, and explains to some degree the divergent views of the two groups, and the two leaders, and reflects the electoral outcome of the last election.

Possibly the appointment best received is Heraldo Muñoz as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Seasoned and well connected throughout the region and beyond, and with strong experience and understanding of the United States and Europe, he seems like a good choice to guide Chile’s participation in the UN Security Council and lead Bachelet’s efforts to strengthen Chile’s relationship with her neighbors and especially with Brazil. Hopefully she will reconsider her early suggestion that Chile should turn it’s attention from the Pacific Alliance (with Mexico, Peru, and Colombia) more towards the Mercosur countries (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil); Chile should not have to give up one to have the other.

One of the most urgent and potentially explosive issues Bachelet must attend to is the state of education in the country. While well-publicized student strikes over the past two years focused on issues related to how higher education is owned, financed, and apportioned, the costs, quality administration, and accessibility of preschool, primary and secondary education should probably be of a higher priority for the incoming Minister of Education, since this is where the entire educational system can be strengthened, and needs to be.

However, this will take a huge amount of analysis, study, and increased funding and the effects of most action will be in the medium and long term, and the president-elect during her campaign clearly promised to move the country towards “free, high quality, public education at all levels, including the university”.

Her choice of Nicolás Eyzaguirre for this ministry is most interesting. He was very successful as President Lagos’ minister of hacienda, and at the time was responsible for putting in place the present system of public and private education credit for needy students, a system that has been criticized by Bachelet’s supporters who want free education for all. Bachelet’s choice for Eyzaguirre’s under-secretary, a seemingly well suited professional, was immediately and roundly objected to by the newly elected ex-student leaders, several of whom are members of the communist party, forcing her resignation and opening up strong criticism of Bachelet’s quick response to this kind of pressure. It remains to be seen how long Eyzaguirre survives as minister of education; the shelf life of this position is about six months.

Several of Bachelet’s other appointments for leadership positions are being openly questioned by members of her coalition, for various personal reasons such as financial irregularities. Apparently, the candidates were recommended by the leaders of the various parties making up her coalition, and there was insufficient review of personal histories by either those making the recommendations or Bachelet’s team, before she announced the appointments and went off on vacation. This issue is sizzling on the back burner right now, while the president-elect completes her vacation. She has promised to attend to all these “details” when she returns to her office in Santiago on February 24.

This may be the last time the President gets to appoint the regional executives, the intendentes, because there is general acceptance that these positions should be filled through popular election, not appointment. But that constitutional change has not yet been made, so Bachelet is chosing those individuals also. It is interesting to note that she will appoint Claudio Orrego as intendente of the Capital Region (Greater Santiago, essentially), a region that includes Santiago so in a way overlaps with the area administered by the elected mayor Carolina Tohá. At the same time, Bachelet is appointing a sitting senator, Ximena Rincón, to her cabinet. These three individuals, Orrego, Tohá, and Rincón are felt to be viable candidates for president the next time around; they will be playing in the same playground for the near future, something well worth watching.

The situation created by the appointment of Rincon is interesting in that it frees up a senator position that will most likely be filled by someone from the same party, Christian Democrat, to finish out her term. Her region is the southern part of Maule, the area affected by the earthquake in 2010. The Christian Democrats are very keen to hold on to this seat in the next elections in two years. Whom they choose as Rincon’s replacement, and how they make the choice (popular election of party members in the region or selection by party leaders) will determine if they can hold this seat beyond the end of the Rincon term.

These are issues that seem to be important at this time because they provide clues as to how Michele Bachelet will govern this time. However, as soon as she takes over on March 11, surely other issues will for one reason or another help define her agenda. One such issue she has said very little about is the high cost of energy. As this posting is being written, gasoline has risen to just short of 900 pesos per liter.

Do you recall the picture I included in my posting on October 7, at the end of last year, entitled Chile Today, showing Octane 95 gasoline at 794 pesos per liter? This is an increase of about 10% in four months. Will Chile go forward with planned hydroelectric plants in southern Chile, or make a deal with her Bolivian or Argentine neighbors to purchase natural gas, or decide to consider nuclear energy again? Maybe they will have to begin to harvest shale gas, which they have, like the US has done. But one thing is sure, Chile has to do something to bring down the price of energy, or for sure her economic growth is going to suffer.

And, to return to a concern I have mentioned in this blog before, the court in Temuco has just today found a young Mapuche spiritual leader (machi) guilty of arson leading to homicide (but not guilty of terrorism as the state prosecutor requested) in one case of many in which the issue of historical ownership of indigenous lands is being addressed.

But maybe we are getting too far ahead of things. Bachelet will be back in action in a few days, with about two weeks to get her team in place so when she is sworn in a president on March 11, she and her team will be ready to go.

We certainly wish her the best.

Posted in Santiago, Chile, on February 20, 2014.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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