Chile Leader Enters Changed Political Landscape
SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile’s powerful earthquake buried people and homes in a broad section of the coastal south, but it may also have given the country’s new right-wing coalition government a chance to entomb the ghosts of the former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
The Feb. 27 quake struck during a pivotal transition, just as Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman and former senator, prepared to assume the presidency as the first elected right-wing leader in Chile in 50 years. When he takes office on Thursday, he will be the first president from the right of any kind since General Pinochet stepped down in 1990, returning Chile to democracy after a bloody dictatorship.
Mr. Piñera, who campaigned on a platform of job creation and law and order, may now have a freer hand to crack down on delinquency and drug trafficking. He is already billing himself as the “reconstruction president,” embarking on an open-ended endeavor that could give him a lasting edge over the rival center-left Concertación coalition, which was viewed as responding slowly in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Benjamín Leal, 38, a psychology professor, survived the tsunami that barreled through the port city of Talcahuano, leaving close to half of its 250,000 residents homeless. Then he endured the riotous aftermath, as looters and vandals stole what they could while the government of the departing president, Michelle Bachelet, hesitated for 36 hours to call in the military.
“We were just shown a shameful example that delinquency was not being attacked well by this previous government,” Mr. Leal said. He stood nervously last week outside his apartment building, where truck-size shipping containers that had been blown onto the street by the tsunami were threatening to topple onto his building.
“Here there is extreme poverty, and sometimes it’s a jungle, where the law of the strongest rules,” he said. “We expect Mr. Piñera to change that.”
The political climate has changed since Mr. Piñera was elected in January. Then there were pressing questions about his vast business holdings and ties to former military and cabinet officials from the Pinochet era.
Now, Mr. Piñera appears to have a fresh opportunity to be seen as the tough, modernizing force that voters were clamoring for when they elected him over former President Eduardo Frei, the candidate for the Concertación coalition, which had held power for two decades.
Mr. Piñera’s 22-member cabinet is composed almost exclusively of technocrats from the corporate right. Most are economists from the conservative Catholic University in Santiago who hold master’s degrees and doctorates from prestigious American universities. Mr. Piñera himself has a doctorate in economics from Harvard. (Los Chicago Boys gonna ruin your economy again Chile!)
“He has the business management experience that we need now,” Claudio Torres, an oil refinery subcontractor, said last week in Talcahuano, while pushing a grocery cart up a hill after filling a cooking pot with potable water from a municipal truck.
Marta Lagos, who runs a polling agency here, said that after decades during which the right was not in power, Mr. Piñera “has the chance to modernize the country, to make it something better than it was before.”
“If the right is smart and does at least a decent job, it will be around for a while,” she said.
For the first time since the Pinochet government, the military was patrolling Chilean streets last week, swiftly restoring order and winning praise from residents for its benevolence and professionalism. Mr. Piñera has said he would like to see the army stay in the earthquake zone beyond the 30-day limit imposed by law.
Despite the military’s best efforts to avoid clashes, news broke late Wednesday of a possible deadly episode. Five members of a navy infantry patrol were detained by the navy on suspicion of participation in the death of a civilian in Hualpén early Wednesday morning, during the military curfew, Rear Adm. Roberto Macchiavello told Radio Cooperativa.
Most Chileans under 35 years old are too young to remember the brutally repressive role the military played under General Pinochet. Many soldiers on the streets of Concepción last week were toddlers when the dictatorship was coming to an end.
But its conduct during the quake’s aftermath underscored that the military is no longer a political actor in Chile. Generals no longer make political statements, offer opinions on public issues or try to intervene in public affairs as they did in the past.
“What is important right now is that the army is on the side of our compatriots,” Gen. Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba said Tuesday during a ceremony in which he took over as commander in chief of the army.
The quake has been less beneficial to the left, at least for now. Ms. Bachelet originally surged onto the national political scene in 2002 after a famous incident when, as the minister of defense, she jumped atop a tank in the rain during an operation to help flood victims. But after last month’s quake Ms. Bachelet, who herself was imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship, hesitated to send in troops to keep peace on the streets.
“Her term began with criticism that she didn’t know how to lead and ended with that same criticism,” Ms. Lagos said. “At the end she showed weakness. For her the earthquake will be like Chappaquiddick was for Ted Kennedy.”
One of those terms was that the new civilian government would not abolish the 1978 amnesty law for military officers that covered human rights abuses from 1973 to 1978.
Right-wing political leaders and the corporate right — of which Mr. Piñera was a part — were protégés of the Pinochet government and benefited generously from its economic model and the privatization of state industries.
While campaigning in November, Mr. Piñera met with about 500 retired military and police officers, at their request. He said he would make sure human rights trials were accelerated and laws would be “correctly applied” (FFFUUUUU THIS BITCH) — a clear reference to the amnesty law and the statute of limitations on investigations, both of which judges have failed to apply over the past decade.
Some analysts said Mr. Piñera’s honeymoon could be short-lived if he appeared to favor private business interests in the reconstruction effort, estimated to cost at least $12 billion. His choices for governors in Santiago and Maule, in the quake zone, were chief executives of engineering and construction companies.
His refusal to leave the management of his business affairs to others had already drawn comparisons to the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Since the earthquake, Mr. Piñera, the fourth-richest man in Chile, has said he will delay his promised divestment of his remaining 11 percent stake in Lan Airlines until April 30 because of the “serious consequences of the earthquake and tsunami,” according to a press release from Bancard, one of his investment groups.
“All of this has put the issue of Piñera’s business interests and possible conflict of interest on the back burner, but not for long,” said Robert Funk, academic vice director at the Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Chile.
“If reconstruction efforts start leaning toward the private sector, many people will start to question what ties members of government have with companies involved in reconstruction projects,” he said. “People will be on alert.”
Gawd...I hope people now won't be like "Pinochet is in the past, let's forget about him and move on and ~look toward the future~" Because when people still don't have bodies for their missing loved ones (because they were probably dropped into the ocean from a helicopter), "moving on" is not an option.