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Left Revival in Chile?

Eric Tang
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    This January, Chileans elected the second Socialist Party candidate since the Pinochet dictatorship and the first woman ever to the presidency. Will the new administration be part of the shift to the left that is challenging neoliberal policies across South America, or will Bachelet bow to the economic and military demands of Washington?

On election day in Chile, throngs of women gather at the vote tally at the Estadio Nacional de Chile (National Stadium) to rally for socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet. Along with the rest of the country, they anxiously await the final results of Chile’s presidential runoffs. As I venture down a stadium tunnel, I am followed by the voices of the women as they sing, “Ole … ole, ole, ole … Mich-elle … Mich- elle.”

It’s an eerie thing—to stand alone in a stadium, staring at its pristine field, listening to the universal soccer hymn resonating from the outside. At the moment, the inevitable—if not opportunistic—cliché of the Stadium’s ghostliness comes to mind. Here, thirty-three years ago, thousands of Chileans loyal to the democratically elected and pro-socialist government of Salvador Allende were imprisoned, tortured, and in many instances executed in the days following the September 11, 1973 coup led by General Augusto Pinochet.

The open-air atrocities at the National Stadium would serve as kind of staged inauguration for Pinochet’s bloody, seventeen-year military dictatorship. The afternoon’s most profound inversion now comes into sharp focus. Bachelet, the woman for whom the chants outside are growing ever louder and more intense, was once a militant comrade of the stadium’s fallen. For her youthful, revolutionary politics, she, like so many of those imprisoned at the Stadium, was sent to the most notorious of Pinochet’s torture camps, Villa Grimaldi.

But in a few short hours, she would take the presidency with a commanding 54 percent of the national vote, accomplishing what once seemed the greatest impossibility for her generation.

Left revival

Who is Michelle Bachelet? Ask this question on the streets of Santiago and you are likely to get some very different answers—and all from a sampling of those who voted for her. To some Bachelet is a new hope for Chile and part of a popular left revival in South America. As the nation’s first woman president, her victory comes on the heels of several other “firsts” for the region. December 2005 saw the election of Bolivian president, Evo Morales, the first indigenous-identified head of state in South America. Meanwhile in 2003, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, became the first obrero (worker) to win a South-American presidency.

For others, Bachelet’s significance is strictly domestic, as she embodies the quiescent, though profound, political and cultural shifts taking hold of post-dictatorship Chile. She carries forth the vision of the Concertacion, a coalition of parties that—though in pre-dictatorship times were rivals—banded together in the late-1980s as a popular front against Pinochet.

After putting two presidents from the Christian Democratic Party in office from 1990 through 1999, the Concertacion successfully backed the presidency of Ricardo Lagos of the Socialist Party in 2000. The fact that the party of Allende had retaken the Chilean presidency was, at the time, cause for celebration among the country’s left. Now Bachelet, who served as both Minister of Health and Defense under Lagos, is viewed by many to be the next, ever more progressive, step forward.

Others support Bachelet with great reluctance—their hopes having been dashed by her involvement in a Lagos administration that, in their view, has betrayed the spirit of Allende and Chile’s broad left base. Under Lagos, Chile has become one of Washington’s safest bets in Latin America. Not only has Lagos, following in the footsteps of the Christian Democrats, executed with precision the doctrine of free-market liberalism, but he has also rapidly privatized national industries that were once the cornerstone of Allende’s socialist project. The Lagos administration aggressively sold off public lands to corporations and private investors, particularly lands belonging to the indigenous Mapuche.

Militarily, Lagos has supported US hegemonic interests in the region, at times even aiding strategies and policies that are unpopular with Latin American neighbors. Most notably, in 2004, Lagos—with Bachelet as his defense minister—sent troops into Haiti in support of a US-led strategy to pacify and repress the civil unrest following the most recent ousting of Aristide.

Vota nulo

Bachelet has also drawn fire from progressive forces in Chile. Viewed by many as a Lagos protégé, she has unambiguously stated her own abiding faith in the free market, while at the same time boasting an almost hawkish swagger as a former Defense Minister. Many who voted for her did so only to stave off a hungry and well-organized political right. Among her lukewarm supporters are members of Juntos Podemos Mas (JPM), a coalition that includes the Communist Party (CP), the Humanist Party, and the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, among others.

In the first round of this year’s presidential elections JPM ran their own candidate, Tomas Hirsch of the Humanist Party. Yet during the runoff, the coalition was split on whether or not to support Bachelet, ostensibly sending 5 percent of the national vote her way. In the end, the CP endorsed Bachelet after issuing five core demands to her that center on worker’s rights, indigenous rights, and human rights. It seems that her response to those demands, so far, has been satisfactory to CP leaders.

However, others, including Hirsch, refused to throw their weight behind Bachelet, stating that it would be “irresponsible” to elect a candidate whose polices are identical to that of Lagos. Instead, Hirsh and other leaders advocated that their base vota nulo—“annul” their votes in protest of both candidates. Although the Vota Nulo movement was hardly addressed by the Chilean mainstream media, its impact could not be discounted. At the National Stadium, approximately one out of every dozen votes tallied was for “nulo.”

Domestic platform

The disillusioned notwithstanding, one senses a degree of excitement about Bachelet among the poor and working people of Chile. It’s the excitement of wanting to be surprised by her. If Lagos at all strayed from the neoliberal blueprint, it was in his refusal to collapse vital social welfare and educational programs in Chile. Outside the National Stadium, two students—Juanita and Natalia— have just voted for Bachelet for one simple reason: “Before the Lagos government, we couldn’t afford college.” Now the two are third-year students at the Autonomous University of the South. “Bachelet will bring more of these changes,” insists Natalia.

So far, the presidenta’s bold domestic platform suggests as much, calling for the expansion of guaranteed health coverage, an increase in scholarships, subsidies to home-based caregivers, and the creation of Chile’s first Ministry on the Environment. Moreover, Bachelet, unlike Pinera, calls for an unhindered process of judicial accountability for those accused of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship, as well as for curbing the egregiously high salaries and other benefits that continue to be reaped by military officials.
Even those who voted for Hirsh in the first election, are intrigued by Bachelet. “Yes, she has a lot of contradictions,” says a JPM loyalist who went with Bachelet in the runoff. “But she also represents something new for us. She’s not like the other politicians. She has a certain independence that separates her from Lagos and the [Socialist] Party.”

Bachelet’s reputation for doing things her way dates back to her youth. Although she is the daughter of Alberto Bachelet Martinez, an Air Force General loyal to Allende who was tortured and executed in the wake of the coup, her family connection explains only part of why she was targeted by the dictatorship. She was “always politically independent,” says a former member of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria who is now a government official under Lagos. “As a member of the militant wing of Socialist Party she diverged to the left of her father.”

After the coup, Bachelet was affiliated with the revolutionary armed front before fleeing to Europe for five years, where she became a doctor. When she returned to Chile, she immediately picked up on her political activism, joining the effort to search for the country’s disappeared. Her affinity for the grassroots is echoed in her respect for the value of principle and process. “I want to be remembered not only for what I do [as president] but how I did it—the process,” says Bachelet in a very un-politician-like manner before an international press corp.
It is precisely her grassroots history and respect for inclusive process that has won her a strong base among a cross section of the population, while at the same time challenging the notion that she is just another Socialist Party hack, or worse yet, the “sexier choice” for a center-left that is growing ever more stale and institutionalized.

Finally, during the campaign, her independence was perhaps most strongly felt on the cultural front. In a country where divorce is still not on the books, Bachelet is a single mother of three—of different fathers. She is also agnostic in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. While Pinera attempted to exploit these personal facts by attacking her on a range of culture and values issues, Bachelet would make no apologies for herself. Her firm stance, it seems, won her the respect of new voters, as she exceeded the predicted margin of victory.

True tests

For the organized left in Chile, Bachelet’s independence is a slippery matter. While it could signal her departure from the policies of Lagos, it could also signal her refusal to be held accountable to the left. Much of this depends on how organized the movements become over the next period. Unfortunately, JPM seems to have unraveled as of late, with many of the groups falling away from the coalition as the core leadership was split on whether or not to support Bachelet. Therefore, unlike Evo Morales in Bolivia, Bachelet enters office without a powerful and well organized left operating as a critical pressure point.

The true test of Bachelet’s independence is the degree to which she can withstand the bullying of Washington. So far we know that she has openly rejected the Bush doctrine of an emergent “axis of evil” in Latin America. When asked during a recent debate whether or not Chile could afford to be lumped together with a Cuba, Venezuela, or Bolivia, Bachelet stood firmly against the unfair demonization of these nations.

Instead, she has expressed a willingness to establish cordial relations with a Bolivia under the leadership of Morales, as well as with an uncertain Peru—two countries that often view Chile in an almost imperialist light since Chile occupies land that both countries believe are rightly theirs. In a press conference on the morning after her victory she even stated that she is open to “any and all” discussions on providing landlocked Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean—a diplomatic move that not even Allende dared to make in his heyday.

It is too soon to tell whether or not these are merely the calculated risks of a very talented politician who is known for being a great conciliator. But as Bachelet delivered her victory speech to the crowds lining downtown Santiago, she gracefully crossed another fault line that her predecessors in the post-dictatorship era have all cautiously evaded. She reached for the specter of Allende.

In her closing remarks, Bachelet called for the Chilean people to once again occupy the “grandes Alamedas”—the grand avenues of Chile. Here, the presidenta-elect subtly referenced Allende’s famous last speech. Thirty-three years ago, while holed up in the presidential palace shortly before his death, Allende gave his final address over the airwaves: “May you go forward in the knowledge that, sooner rather than later, the grand avenues will open up once again.”

Eric Tang is a New York City-based writer and activist. He spent almost a decade as a community organizer in the Southeast Asian neighborhoods of the Bronx. These days he provides training and support to youth groups around the country while also involved in the creation of Refugio, a resource and training center for New York City grassroots activists and organizers.