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Chile’s newly inaugurated president Sebastian Pinera attempts to move the country to the right, but faces important constraints from social movements that vow to resist his government, explains Prof. Rene Rojas

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Chile’s billionaire conservative Sebastián Piñera was inaugurated to his second non consecutive term as president on Sunday. Already on his first day in office on Monday, he was greeted by widespread protests from students and from pensioners. Students demanded tuition-free higher education. Pensioners demanded improvement in Chile’s Pinochet-era pension system. Meanwhile, President Piñera presented his cabinet which includes two far right supporters of the former dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Concerns are mounting in Chile that Piñera will reverse many of the more progressive policies of his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet.
Joining me now to analyze the incoming Piñera presidency is René Rojas. Rene is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is a frequent contributor to Jacobin Magazine. Rene, I thank you so much for joining us today.
RENÉ ROJAS: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you again.
SHARMINI PERIES: Rene, let’s begin with Piñera’s Cabinet appointments. I mentioned off the top that two people in the cabinet, Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick and Justice Minister Hernán Larrain, are considered to be supporters of Pinochet. Tell us more about these ministers and what we can expect from them being in key positions in the cabinet.
RENÉ ROJAS: Yeah, that’s a good point. These two politicians are important figures in the far right party called UDI. UDI, they’ve traditionally been strong supporters of the Pinochet regime, and they’ve always been the kind of rightmost end of the coalition that just when our, with Piñera as it’s head. Now, it’s kind of frightening that these two particular politicians were placed at the head of the two ministries where they landed. The Interior Ministry which is responsible for internal order is really one of the central centers of power in the government, and they’re going to be dealing with, they’re going to be responding to the new wave of mobilizations that has characterized Chile over the last five or so years.
RENÉ ROJAS: The second appointment which you mentioned is actually, I think, more than frightening, it’s ironic. It’s not just justice, the Justice Ministry. It’s Justice and Human Rights. So, it says a lot when that party is given those two posts. They have, UDI has a third party which is also quite, a third post I should say which is also quite ironic which is Gender and Women’s Issues, I believe. They brought in a very, very reactionary woman to head that ministry as well.
Overall however, I think it should be pointed out that UDI’s presence in the cabinet is quite weak at least numerically speaking. Most of the cabinet members and most of the central ministries were given either to…which is Piñera’s kind of center-right party or independent figures, scholars like pro-market scholars, people from think tanks and multinational, multilateral, I should say, institutions like the World Bank. In that sense, I think there’s a lot of continuity with respect to the Bachelet governments. Having said that however, I do think that being in charge of the Interior Ministry is something to worry about.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now Piñera himself is, of course, a billionaire who has been president before in 2010 to 2014. Now, based on that experience, do you expect Piñera to pursue the same policies as he did back then? You mentioned particular interest in terms of his cabinet and appointments having sort of people from the markets and expertise in certain areas like the IMF and so on. Will he move more sharply to the right as a result?
RENÉ ROJAS: Well, it’s an interesting question. The first thing to point out if we want to compare to his first term between 2010 and 2014, he actually wasn’t able to enact a sharp turn to the right for a number of reasons. One of them was just the natural disaster. There was an earthquake that hit early on in his presidency, and he had to kind of promote interventionist policies to deal with the aftermath. But more importantly during his presidency, the country saw the emergence of very, very powerful social movements, foremost among them the student movement.
So, he was not able in fact to push a very hardline pro-market agenda. I should say, since the return to democracy in Chile in 1990, Chile has been the poster child as it were in South America and Latin America for pro market policies, extreme neoliberal policies. That certainly was in place, but he wasn’t able to push dramatically beyond the status quo that the center left governments had established up to 2010. So, that’s the first thing to point out.
This time around, I think he’s going to face similar constraints. As a matter of fact, when he campaigned for the runoff election, one of the things that characterized his, kind of what he was putting on offer electorally, was actually a slight shift to the left. This is, I think, in response to the results of the first round of elections where, though he did gain a plurality, he didn’t gain a majority, and more importantly, a new fairly radical left coalition, the Frente Amplio won a whole 20% of the vote. It was very unexpected. It’s a brand new coalition, and they managed to get 20% of the vote, I think indicating to both him and …and his center left rival in the runoffs that you really had to tack to the left in a more progressive direction to win the runoffs.
So, that’s the first thing. I think it’s going to be very, very hard for him to seriously push back and roll back the reforms which were, I should say, quite timid, quite tepid that his predecessor Michelle Bachelet was able to achieve. In the background, as you said in your opening, are the potential for the return to the mass mobilizations that plagued, plagued from his perspective, his first term. Again, I think he’s facing severe constraints and it’s going to be hard for him to undo the package of reforms that Bachelet was able to achieve as mild as they were without creating a lot of instability.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, two key issues that Piñera at least campaigned on was abortion and terrorism. Let’s take each of these. First of all, let’s take terrorism. During his campaign, he said he would toughen Chile’s anti terrorism laws and Chile’s indigenous population, the Mapuches, are among those considered terrorists because many of them have been charged under the Terrorism Act. What would changes to the anti terrorism laws mean that he was talking about in his campaign? And how would it affect the Mapuche population here?
RENÉ ROJAS: Yeah. It’s interesting to point out that, it’s important, I should say, to point out that one of the first kind of movements that got off the ground after the return to democracy, which again, the return to democracy, it’s very important to understand this, was predicated on the collapse of movements, on the demobilization of protest movements. One of the first movements that we saw get off the ground was the Mapuche movement. This was a movement of an internal indigenous nation that suffered centuries of oppression that largely aimed to recover natural resources, land in particular.
Under the Pinochet regime, the Mapuche lost a lot of land either through legal means or not so legal means to large multinational corporations, largely forestry interests and some others. They placed some faith in the new center left governments after the dictatorship. When they did absolutely nothing to restore land that the communities had lost, they started mobilizing. And the response from the government and I’m talking here the center left governments that dominated the state between 19, I’m sorry. Yeah, yeah. 1990 and 2010, was to use a Pinochet era anti terrorism legislation to attack and persecute these movements.
I think what, toward the end, the middle and the end of Bachelet’s second term, there was a reactivation of the Mapuche movements and they were targeted with this law, and they were targeted quite unfairly. There was the planting of evidence, falsification of evidence to unjustly go after these activists. So, I think what Piñera is proposing is to continue down that line but do it perhaps even more harshly because there has been a backlash. He proposes, the strong law and order guy, to revamp that type of approach. And I think that’s really just intended to shore up his far right supporters, right? As he has the seat on other issues, he wants to shore up their support so he’s trying to project himself as a very hardline anti terrorist politician. But in practice, I think it’ll just be more of the same of what we saw for 20 years under the center-left governments.
SHARMINI PERIES: Okay. So René, in regards to abortion given that Michelle Bachelet being a woman, being a physician at that, could have pushed harder to secure abortion rights for women.
RENÉ ROJAS: I do think she could have and should have pushed harder. Abortion had been illegal up to her second term and her legislation, the legislation passed under her second government, allows for what is called therapeutic abortion, abortion in three very limited cases, among them in case of rape, also when the fetus’ viability is risk, and one other condition. I think she could have and should have pushed beyond that. The reason I think that is because, again, there was strong mobilization during these years, and there were young women out on the streets that were very active in demanding this. In my opinion, even if Chile is culturally speaking, quite conservative or at least it’s labeled that way, the tide is really shifting. So, that’s why I think combined with the general cultural changes that are taking place, that combined with the mobilization of young women on the streets should have led her to push further.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, René. I thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News Network. And I welcome you back anytime.
RENÉ ROJAS: Okay. Thanks a lot. It’s good talking to you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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René Rojas is an assistant professor in the department of human development at SUNY Binghamton. He is on the editorial board of Catalyst.