[News] Chile's New Right

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 20 11:28:31 EST 2010

January 19, 2010

The Future of the South American Left

Chile's New Right


For those who believe that South America is in 
the grip of some kind of left revolutionary 
fervor, this week’s election in Chile may have 
come as a surprise.  With partial results from 
60% of the country’s polling stations now 
available, it appears that conservative 
billionaire Sebastian Piñera has ousted the 
ruling center left Concertación, 52% to 48%.  It 
is a stunning upset in light of the fact that the 
right has not won an election in Chile for fifty years.

It’s an ironic and difficult pill to swallow for 
the governing coalition, made up of Socialists 
and Christian Democrats.  Current president 
Michelle Bachelet, herself of the Concertación, 
is enormously popular. Chile’s first woman 
president, she enjoys an approval rate of nearly 
80%.  Unfortunately, Chilean law prevents 
immediate reelection and so Bachelet will have to 
wait until 2014 if she wants to run again.

As a result of the legal restrictions, 
Concertación ran lackluster candidate and former 
president Eduardo Frei who pledged to uphold 
modest continuity of Bachelet’s welfare 
programs.  It’s a big setback for the 
Concertación, which has ruled Chile since the end 
of the Pinochet military dictatorship in 
1990.  Despite Bachelet’s personal popularity, 
the coalition has become synonymous with corruption.

Piñera, a kind of Chilean Berlusconi who owns a 
television channel amongst other business 
holdings, and who piloted his private helicopter 
around the country to make campaign stops in 
isolated regions, is one of the word’s 700 
richest people.  The politician opposes human 
rights prosecutions for military and police 
officers implicated in abuses during the Pinochet 
military dictatorship, and as such represents a 
political step backwards for Chile.

Piñera also stands against reform of the Chilean 
constitution, a relic of the Pinochet 
era.   Moreover, some members of Piñera’s 
coalition served in General Pinochet’s cabinet, 
and Piñera’s brother was the general’s labor 
minister and an architect of the dictator’s neo-liberal economic strategy.

A much better electoral outcome for Chile would 
have brought Marco Enríquez-Ominami to power.  An 
intriguing and novel figure on the Chilean 
political scene, Ominami is an independent who 
broke away from the Concertación.  A youthful 
36-year old filmmaker and son of a leftist 
revolutionary leader killed by Pinochet’s army 
during a 1975 firefight, Ominami resigned his 
position as a socialist congressman to run for 
president.  Memorably, he called his opponents 
“dinosaurs ... who kidnapped democracy” and 
called for scrapping Chile’s bicameral Congress 
in favor of a single chamber of parliament 
elected by proportional representation.

Though Ominami got the endorsement of Chile’s 
newly formed Ecologist party and benefited from 
voter fatigue with the Concertación, he was 
eliminated in the first electoral round after 
garnering 20% of the vote.  Particularly 
unfortunate was Ominami’s failure to electrify 
Chilean youth disaffected with the political 
establishment.  In recent years youth has shown 
some signs of engagement, and could constitute a 
potent political force for change in future.

In 2006 during the so-called “penguin 
revolution,” tens of thousands of high school 
students, many wearing uniforms with little dark 
ties on white shirts, protested throughout Chile 
to demand educational improvements.  Shocked by 
the protests, Bachelet wound up negotiating with 
student leaders and actually gave in to most of youth’s demands.

* * *

Though disappointing, the electoral turn of 
events in Chile should not come as an incredible 
shocker.  With the exception of students and 
Mapuche Indians who have been fighting for land 
rights, Chile has not seen the emergence of 
dynamic social forces in recent years which could 
move the political agenda forward.

It’s a reality sorely bemoaned by veterans of 
Chile’s historic political struggles.  Manuel 
Cabieses is a journalist who I interviewed in 
Santiago for my book Revolution! South America 
and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 
2008).  During the 1960s, Cabieses was a reporter 
with the Communist party paper and was picked up 
the military two days after General Augusto 
Pinochet took power in a coup d’etat.  Cabieses 
was later imprisoned but made his way to Cuba 
after being released.  Astonishingly, he later 
returned to Chile and worked with the underground 
Revolutionary Leftist Movement (known by its 
Spanish acronym MIR) against Pinochet.  Today, he 
publishes a political magazine called Punto Final.

The media environment in Chile has proven 
challenging for the likes of Cabieses.  Unlike 
Venezuela for example, Chile has no television 
station that espouses the views of the 
left.  There are two left-wing bi-monthlies, El 
Siglo of the Communist Party and Punto 
Final.  Both have notoriously low 
circulation.  The Communist Party owns a radio 
station, and there are a few other progressive 
leaning stations.  On the internet there is more 
political diversity than in TV and print, but 
digital media is still incipient in Chile where 
most people lack internet access.

Without a vibrant progressive media, progressive 
forces have had difficulty getting off the 
ground.  The Mapuches, Cabieses said, were 
“atomized” just like the rest of society and the 
most radical Indians had been beaten back and 
repressed by the police.  Labor unions meanwhile 
had suffered a severe decline since the 
1970s.  “The dictatorship,” Cabieses remarked, 
“through repression and imposition of its 
economic model, were able to fracture social 
movements and almost succeeded in liquidating any 
kind of left political movement.”


Just a few years ago it seemed as if the left was 
sweeping across South America, but the question 
on many observers’ minds right now is whether 
this tide may be turning.  Already, the 
mainstream media is salivating over the prospect 
that Hugo Chávez and his ilk may have hit a road block.

In a recent Newsweek feature entitled “Latin 
America isn’t tilting left, it’s tilting right,” 
Mac Margolis writes that many voters throughout 
the region are experiencing incumbent fatigue 
coupled with the fallout of the economic 
downturn.  In this sense, what is happening 
politically in South America might bear some 
resemblance to the United States where voters 
have become dissatisfied with Obama and the Democrats in Washington.

“Another explanation,” Margolis writes, “might be 
that the Latin American left is no longer what it 
used to be. Or rather, it was never what it was 
made out to be.”  “Make no mistake,” he 
writes.  “Beating the gringo devil and bashing 
capitalism can still make pulses race in much of 
the hemisphere, but, when it comes to casting 
ballots, what appears to move the majority is pragmatism.”

Juan Forero, no friend of the Chávez regime in 
Venezuela, has also chimed in.  Writing in the 
Washington Post, he remarks that while the right 
is not making a comeback pragmatists are on the 
upswing.  “Voters,” he says, “are showing a 
preference for moderates rather than firebrand 
nationalists who preach class warfare and state intervention in the economy.”

There’s a bit of smug self satisfaction here 
though Forero’s argument is worth 
considering.  Take a look at Chile’s major 
political figures and it’s clear they hardly 
differ in the nature of their 
proposals.  Bachelet has pumped money into social 
programs and publically criticizes neo-liberal 
economics and the Washington 
Consensus.  Fundamentally however she never 
rocked the broad consensus around free trade and 
Chile’s fiscal conservatism.  So ingrained is 
free trade in Chile that even had the 
Concertación won, the country would not have 
shifted its adherence to this underlying economic ideology.


Such pragmatism and political conservatism is bad 
enough in Chile, but what is really distressing 
is the possibility that such a trend could spread 
into neighboring countries and thereby derail the 
left within the wider region.  Indeed, 2010 is 
fast shaping into an anti-incumbent year which 
could water down and dilute many recent political gains.

Take for example the case of Brazil.  Though Lula 
of the Workers’ Party has promoted important 
anti-poverty programs, Brazil boasts one of the 
most conservative monetary policies on 
earth.  After he rattled financial markets during 
his first presidential campaign in 2002, Lula won 
over skeptical investors by embracing economic 
pragmatism.  Brazilian labor may not care for 
such economic policies, but the fact is that 
Lula, like fellow pragmatist Bachelet, is enormously popular.

But now the Brazilian left, such as it is, may be 
headed on a similar collision course to 
Chile.  Like Bachelet, Lula is barred by law from 
running for a third consecutive term.  He has 
backed his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, to be 
his presidential successor and to run in the 
October, 2010 election.  However, Rousseff has 
little political savvy and none of Lula’s charm 
and charisma. In polls, she trails centrist São 
Paulo governor José Serra of the opposition 
Brazilian Social Democracy Party or PSDB.

Regardless of who wins, neither candidate is 
expected to undertake dramatic changes to Lula’s 
market friendly policies.  Investors meanwhile 
are enchanted by a race between two mainstream 
candidates.  For its part, the left is placing 
its hope in either Ciro Gomes, a former governor 
of the state of Ceara, or Marina Silva.

Lula’s former minister of the environment, Silva 
has said she might run on the green party 
ticket.  A remarkable woman whose personal story 
I recount in great detail in my upcoming book, 
Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate 
Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 
April 2010), Silva could appeal to women voters, 
amongst others.  However, she trails in 
popularity and polls show that voters are more 
interested in jobs, crime and other concerns more 
than the environment --- Silva’s signature 
issue.  Moreover, the green party has little clout and is viewed as fringy.


With pragmatism on the rise, South America needs 
to foster the creation of a solid bloc of left 
leaning countries that can counter Brazil’s huge 
political influence throughout the region.  The 
problem however is that within the immediate 
neighborhood there are very few candidates which could fill this void.

Across the border from Chile in Argentina, the 
Peronist party stands for the political and 
social status quo and President Cristina 
Fernández de Kirchner’s political fortunes have 
waned as of late.  Uruguay and Paraguay have 
progressive leaders but have been rather centrist 
and politically quiet.  In any case, neither 
country carries much economic weight.  That 
leaves the perpetually convoluted Andean 
region.  The problem here however is that 
Colombia and Peru still have right wing, pro-U.S. 
regimes in power and the future does not bode well for the left.

“To the Latin left,” remarks Mac Margolis of 
Newsweek, “there is no leader more reviled than 
the Colombian president [Álvaro 
Uribe].”  Nevertheless, there is no denying that 
Uribe, who has clamped down on FARC guerrillas 
and revamped bullet-ridden cities like Bogotá, 
Medellín and Cali, enjoys huge popularity.

If Colombia’s constitutional court rules that he 
can run for a third term in the May, 2010 
election Uribe would probably win.  Even if the 
change is not put into place, experts anticipate 
that Uribe’s handpicked successor Juan Manuel 
Santos would prevail in the election.  In Peru 
meanwhile, disgraced former President Alberto 
Fujimori’s daughter Keiko is a political 
frontrunner for the 2011 election and wants to 
pardon her father for past human rights abuses 
and crimes against humanity.  Ollanta Humala, a 
dubious left populist, trails in polls.

At least Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia don’t 
seem to be moving towards pragmatism.  But more 
than ten years on, Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution 
remains a bundle of social and political 
contradictions.  The ALBA barter program, 
creation of an alternative Sucre currency and 
Bank of the South are all positive and innovative 
initiatives which stand to foster alternative 
economic development.  If they are designed in 
such a way as to encourage radical democracy and 
not top-down decision making, the communal 
councils ought to continue and to be strengthened.

In other ways however Chávez has conducted 
himself as a rather conventional populist 
advocating for classic resource 
nationalism.  There may be a ceiling on the 
Chávez model, however: if oil prices surge again 
expect Venezuela to gain new 
adherents.  Otherwise, one might expect the 
Bolivarian alliance to lose traction.  If the 
opposition can unite for legislative elections in 
December, 2010, it could win a majority as 
recession, inflation and mismanagement erode Chávez’s support.

In any case, Chávez has already lost some ground 
in Central America with the toppling of ally 
Manuel Zelaya.  In El Salvador, the new left 
under Mauricio Funes seems more partial to 
Brazilian pragmatism than any kind of populist, 
Chávez-style populism.  Chávez himself meanwhile 
seems to have become mentally unhinged and 
recently remarked that former Ugandan dictator 
Idi Amin was a “patriot.”  Such comments suggest 
that the South American left should look elsewhere for a new standard bearer.

Andean populists confront other contradictions 
and problems, chief amongst them the extractive 
model of development.  Across the region, leaders 
have been pushing boondoggle infrastructure 
projects in order to facilitate the export of raw 
resources.  Historically, this extractive model 
has not fostered equitable economic development let alone social harmony.

As I’ve been writing on my blog Senor Chichero, 
Ecuador is enmeshed in oil extraction and this 
has sparked deep social and environmental 
unrest.  Apprehensive about oil development 
proceeding on their lands, Indians recently 
protested the Correa regime by blocking Amazonian 
roads. Condescendingly, Correa called Indians 
“infantile” for objecting to legislation which 
would deny them consultation on mining and oil drilling projects.

Tragically, protests along the blocked roads led 
to violence. The Indians claimed that 500 police 
attacked them which resulted in two deaths and 
nine wounded by gunshots. The Correa government, 
the Indians declared, had “blood on its hands” 
and pledged to carry out international legal 
action over violations of their collective and human rights.

Because of these inherent contradictions, the 
most politically and socially hopeful country 
right now in the Andean region is not Venezuela 
or Ecuador but Bolivia. That’s not too surprising 
given the nation’s long tradition of grass roots 
indigenous mobilization.  Indeed, it was the 
Indians who propelled Evo Morales to his recent 
and second electoral victory which has solidified 
the president’s desire to proceed with his socialist program.

Less demagogic and messianic than Chávez, Morales 
has also pursued resource nationalism and has a 
compelling vision of Bolivia as a 
“plurinational,” multi-ethnic state.  However, 
unless electric cars take off and Bolivia becomes 
an energy powerhouse by developing its lithium 
deposits, Morales won’t have nearly as much cash to throw around as Chávez.


South America is no longer following a right wing 
political trajectory or extreme economic 
neo-liberalism. However, as Chile demonstrates, 
the region could easily fall into uninspiring pragmatic leadership.

 From the United States, it’s easy to romanticize 
South America as being in the throes of dramatic 
political upheaval and a move towards some kind 
of radical left.  The reality however is that 
right now social movements, with the possible 
exception of Bolivia, are not powerful enough to 
truly effect deep seated change or to transform 
the intrinsic, fundamental structures of society.

If Chile becomes a trend and Brazil elects more 
uninspiring pragmatic leadership, the South 
American left will have to reinvent itself if it 
wants to remain relevant in future.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the upcoming 
Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate 
Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave 
Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, 

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/news_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20100120/dda8be59/attachment.html>

More information about the News mailing list