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Latin American Revolution: Chile’s New Government Wants To Open Up TPP

By Glyn Moody | Techdirt | March 28, 2014

Last year, the US government was adamant that TPP would be finished by the end of 2013. And yet here we are, well into 2014, with no sign that things are anywhere near completion. That slippage is more than just embarrassing: it could have major implications for the treaty. TPP has dragged on for so long there’s a new President in Chile, Michelle Bachelet, and she’s more doubtful than her predecessor about the value of TPP to her country and its people.

Those doubts are starting to make themselves felt. In a recent speech (original in Spanish), Bachelet said that she wanted Chile to regain its role as a promoter of Latin American integration. That would represent a turning away from TPP, which is based on the Pacific Rim, and only includes two three other countries from Latin America — Mexico, Colombia and Peru. In an interview with El Mercurio, Bachelet’s new Minister for External Relations, Heraldo Muñoz, echoed this policy shift by emphasizing the importance of improving his country’s relations with Brazil and Argentina. He also revealed some of Chile’s new thinking on TPP (original in Spanish):

“In my meeting with [USTR] Michael Froman, I expressed Chile’s position, which is to examine the content of the [TPP] negotiations with care, and to act transparently. We are going to consult with businesses, with civil society, so that these aren’t closed negotiations. In addition, I said to Froman that Chile has sensitive areas where we are not prepared to go beyond the FTA [free trade agreement] with the US. There are areas such as intellectual property, the regulation of state-owned companies, or the Central Bank, which are red lines for us.”

The theme of transparency was picked up in another interview, this time with the new director of Chile’s Department of International Economic Relations, Andrés Rebolledo, which appeared in La Segunda (original in Spanish):

“We received some criticism (for how the [TPP] negotiations were conducted previously) and it appeared to us that there’s an important opening for creating greater transparency with the various stakeholders who are involved and who are interested in the negotiations.”

Rebolledo aims to do this by creating a new advisory group, which will include not just business interests, but also NGOs and other civil society groups:

We will establish a dialog with them and we are going to hand over elements of the negotiations — those which are on the table, and of interest.

For us, as the government, it’s beneficial from the perspective that we will obtain inputs that will help us better conduct the negotiations.

For TPP, whose negotiations have been some of the most secretive ever, with almost no real transparency, the plans of Chile’s new President are not just a breath of fresh air, they are little short of revolutionary.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Economics, Solidarity and Activism | , , , | Leave a comment

Resurgent Chilean Social Movements Advance Cross-Border Solidarity

By Emily Achtenberg | Rebel Currents | March 14, 2014

On March 11, newly elected President Michelle Bachelet began her inaugural speech by acknowledging her debt to the social movements that propelled her center-left New Majority coalition to victory, on a radical platform that has transformed Chile’s political landscape. Even as they continue to shape the domestic political agenda, activist students, trade unionists, and other civil society and political organizations are also mobilizing to build cross-border solidarity, pressuring Bachelet to ally with other leftist governments in the region.

On February 15, the militant University of Chile Student Federation (FECH)—fresh on the heels of forcing the ouster of Bachelet’s newly-appointed education undersecretary and her replacement with a more politically compatible designeeissued a strong statement critical of Venezuelan students who have spearheaded ongoing protests against the Chavista government of Nicolás Maduro. “We don’t feel represented by the actions of Venezuelan student sectors that are defending the old order, in opposition to the path that the people have defined,” the statement read in part.

Demonstrating at the Venezuelan embassy, representatives of FECH and other student federations emphasized that the middle-class Venezuelan students, unlike their Chilean counterparts, are not demanding educational or other social reforms. Rather, student leaders explained, they are mobilizing against the Chavista government which has advanced the goals of free, public education and democratization of the university, the very issues that Chilean students are fighting for.

To be sure, FECH’s stance is opposed by Chile’s Young Christian Democrats (JDC), student organizations from some private universities, and other dissident factions, who have urged support for the protesters. Some groups, such as the Student Federation of Catholic University (FEUC), have called for protection of Venezuelan students’ rights, while stopping short of endorsing their demands.

The split mirrors divisions within the New Majority coalition itself. Under pressure from FECH and allied student organizations, Bachelet has publicly supported Maduro and the people of Venezuela, calling on all sides to seek a peaceful and democratic resolution to the conflict, while leading Christian Democrats accuse the Venezuelan government of criminalizing and repressing dissent. The recent assassination of a 47-year old Chilean citizen in Venezuela, a Chavista supporter and mother of four, has heightened domestic tensions over the issue. Still, the majority of student organizations continue to emphasize (to both Chilean and foreign media) that their movement has little in common with Venezuela’s student protests.

Following Bachelet’s inaugural ceremony, some 5,000 representatives of student, trade union, community, indigenous, and other civil society organizations assembled at the Teatro Caupolicán in Santiago to welcome Bolivian President Evo Morales with the slogan “Mar para Bolivia!” (“The sea for Bolivia!”). The issue of regaining coastal territory lost to Chile in the 1879 War of Pacific, which left Bolivia landlocked, has long been a rallying point for Bolivia and is now a crusade for the Morales government.

Last year, Morales filed a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, demanding that Chile negotiate in good faith to provide Bolivia with sovereign access to the Pacific. Morales argues that the 1904 Peace Treaty signed by the two countries was imposed under duress, and should be scrapped or modified. On economic grounds, Bolivia claims that its landlocked status has reduced its GNP by more than $30 billion since 1970, while the mineral-rich ceded territory (now the site of some of the world’s biggest copper mines) has made Chile the wealthiest country in South America.

The dispute has strained relations between the two countries for decades. Ironically, former dictators Augusto Pinochet and Hugo Banzer were on the brink of an agreement in 1975, which derailed when Pinochet demanded territorial compensation from Bolivia in exchange for granting it a sea corridor. A 13-point bilateral agenda developed by Morales and Bachelet during her first term in 2006 was sidelined by her conservative successor, Sebastián Piñera.

Recent efforts to resume dialogue with Bolivia have been spearheaded by Chilean social sectors and political activists. Last April, 57 civil society groups, including the Workers United Center of Chile (CUT, the major national trade union federation) and indigenous Mapuche organizations, signed a letter demanding that Piñera offer Bolivia a constructive proposal. Former Progressive Party presidential candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami, who placed third in the first-round election, visited Morales last month to convey Chilean solidarity and pave the way for the post-inaugural encounter. 

Former student leader and newly elected Communist Party congressional deputy Camila Vallejo has been a leading voice pressing the Bachelet government to re-engage with Bolivia. “It’s not about giving away a gift,” she emphasizes. “Bolivia has significant energy (gas) resources and we are, supposedly, in an energy crisis. Why not have a politics of integration and mutual solidarity?”

To the consternation of many, Bachelet—bowing to conservative pressures—announced the day after her inauguration that Chile will not negotiate Bolivia’s sea access while the matter is pending before the International Court. For his part, Morales has refused to abandon Bolivia’s legal claims, leaving civil society activists with a significant role to play in the continuing controversy .

Finally, last December more than 50 Chilean civil society leaders, 15 senators, and 37 congressional deputies signed a public declaration demanding a halt to negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led trade initiative involving a dozen Pacific Rim nations. Activists are demanding increased transparency, as well as protections from trade rules that could undermine national sovereignty over intellectual property rights, access to medicine, capital flow management, and other crucial matters. Bachelet, a strong supporter of free trade, is also an advocate of national sovereignty. Her campaign manager (now finance minister) Alberto Arenas has indicated his support for civil society’s position.

As Bachelet struggles to manage competing ideological tensions within her own New Majority coalition, continuing pressure from Chile’s resurgent social movements on these and other cross-border issues will be critical in positioning Chile within Latin America’s growing political divide.

March 19, 2014 Posted by | Economics, Solidarity and Activism, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elections in Chile: Confronting the Enduring Legacy of Dictatorship

By Emily Achtenberg | Rebel Currents | January 16, 2014

On Election Day in Chile, students occupied and hung a banner outside front-runner Michelle Bachelet’s campaign headquarters, proclaiming: “Change is not in the Presidential Palace, but in the ‘wide avenues.’” It was a powerful reminder of how student mobilizations have transformed Chile’s political agenda during this election year, at once invoking the past (through the final words of martyred socialist President Salvador Allende), and laying down the gauntlet for an anticipated future when the country might finally move beyond its 20-plus year “transition to democracy.”

The promise of structural reforms to address the deep divide between rich and poor in Chilean society propelled Bachelet and her center-left New Majority coalition to a landslide victory in December over Evelyn Matthei, candidate of the center-right Alliance. While Chile has the highest rate of economic growth among 34 developed countries, it is also the most unequal. Bachelet campaigned on a radical platform of educational, tax, and constitutional reform to redress the injustices of a political and economic system inherited from the dictatorship era, that largely favors the wealthy.

After failing to gain a majority on the first ballot in November (in a field of nine candidates, including seven to the left of center), Bachelet handily won the run-off election with 62% of the vote, the biggest presidential victory in eight decades.  Despite this seemingly broad mandate, she now faces formidable obstacles in seeking to deliver on her campaign promises, as Chile’s undemocratic institutions and alienated electorate—both enduring legacies of dictatorship—conspire to discourage change.

Electoral Context

Most of Chile’s problems today have their origin in the anti-democratic structures established by the 17-year dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet and left largely intact by successive democratic governments (of the center-left and center-right) since Chile’s “return to democracy” in 1990. These include a constitution (imposed after a fraudulent referendum conducted under a state of siege) and a set of organic laws that enshrine the power of conservative elite minorities, an electoral system that perpetuates their disproportionate representation, and a deregulated economy affording wide latitude and subsidies to the private sector.

As the intense electoral campaign converged this past fall with the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Allende, the election seemed to be as much a referendum on Chile’s tormented past as on its future direction. The dramatically contrasting but intertwined family histories of the two presidential candidates—Bachelet’s father, an Allende loyalist general, died under torture in a military school run by Matthei’s father, a member of Pinochet’s junta—kept the past front and center despite the candidates’ efforts to refocus on the future.

In the run-up to the 40th anniversary, Chileans were bombarded with graphic images of the coup, repression, and resistance though previously unseen documentary footage, dramatizations, and debates widely broadcast through the mainstream media. The avalanche appears to have captured the popular imagination, especially among the 60% of Chileans born after the coup (and others who “saw but did not see”). Polls show that only 16% of Chileans now think the coup was justified, down from 36% a decade ago.

Even the most conservative institutions have recently offered at least symbolic gestures of remorse, such as the official closing of a luxury prison resort for high-ranking officials convicted of human rights offenses, the public apology issued by the National Association of Judges, and the National Education Council’s recommendation to substitute the term “dictatorship” for “military government” in school textbooks.

But it is the highly mobilized Chilean student movement that has genuinely challenged Pinochet’s legacy by catalyzing popular demands for institutional reform. Through massive protests and school takeovers beginning in 2011, and continuing to this day (with widespread public support), students have highlighted the inequities of a dictatorship-era educational system that features private sector subsidization, vast discrepancies in the quality of municipally-controlled primary and secondary schools based on social class, and the highest university student cost burden of any developed country. Joined by trade unions and other popular sectors, they have articulated transformative demands that governing political elites (including Bachelet herself, in her first term) have not dared to address during 20 years of democratic transition. These include a return to universal, free, high-quality public education (which students had under Allende), a revival of the public pension and healthcare systems, progressive tax reform to finance social spending, and a refounding of the Chilean state through a new constitutional assembly.

While the student organizations did not endorse a presidential candidate, Bachelet sought and won the support of several prominent ex-student leaders running for Congress on the Communist Party and other splinter left tickets, including popular activist Camila Vallejo. In exchange, the New Majority partially incorporated the students’ demands in its platform, pushing the electoral agenda substantially to the left. For the first time since the return to democracy, the Communist Party joined the center-left political coalition, giving Bachelet the opportunity for a sufficient Congressional mandate to push through her promised reforms.

Electoral Outcomes

The campaign raised high expectations for systemic change, as well as the political cost of failing to deliver. In the end, the New Majority picked up slim majorities in both houses—55% in the Senate and 56% in the House—thanks in part to the election of Vallejo and other student and activist candidates. But the coalition did not achieve the super-majorities required by Pinochet-era laws to reform the educational system (57%), the electoral system (60%), or the constitution (67%).

One reason is the binomial electoral system itself, which awards the losing coalition half the seats in each Congressional district unless the winning one secures more than two-thirds of the votes. This may explain why both the New Majority and the Alliance ended up with similar numbers of deputies despite the lopsided presidential results (in November’s first-round presidential race, when the Congress was also elected, Bachelet nearly doubled her conservative rival’s vote).

A record-low voter turnout, in the first presidential election since a 2012 rule change made voting voluntary, also likely worked against the New Majority’s Congressional aspirations.[1] Only 51% of the voting age population cast ballots in November, with the highest abstention levels reported in the economically-depressed northern and southern regions and among youth. An estimated 60% of those in the 18-34 age group, arguably among the most likely progressive voters, stayed home.

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Four student leaders elected to the Chamber of Deputies. Credit: @paula_benedit, Twitter; Santiago Times.

While the voter abstention phenomenon—especially among youth—is certainly not unique to Chile, the sustained level of participation achieved in recent student mobilizations suggests that it is more a function of alienation from traditional politics than apathy. Surely, an electoral system that distorts votes by design and furthers minority vetoes is not conducive to voluntary participation. Melissa Sepulveda, newly elected leader of the University of Chile’s student federation, explained that she would not vote because “the possibility for change isn’t in the Congress.” Chileans, she argues, are disillusioned by the manner of conducting politics since the return to democracy.

With this mixed electoral outcome, New Majority initiatives such as tax, pension, and healthcare reform, which require only a majority vote, should be achievable. Radical educational reform may also be within reach, if independent delegates can provide the critical swing votes. But political and constitutional reforms, if attainable at all, will require bargaining, negotiation, and compromise with more conservative factions, at the risk of alienating progressive popular constituencies.

In a sense, this represents a political victory for the Alliance, which has succeeded in preventing the institutional left from carrying out its proposed reform program unobstructed. The low voter turnout, used by conservatives to question the legitimacy of Bachelet’s reform mandate, may make these issues even more contested. (Bachelet actually received fewer votes in the run-off election than any of her predecessors since 1990, including herself in 2006.)

Within the New Majority coalition itself, there are diverse party factions ranging from Christian Democrats (many of whom originally supported Pinochet) to Communists, with significantly different visions, strategies, and timetables for reform. Internal conflicts are intensified by continuing pressure from the social movements. In the area of education, Bachelet (a member of the Socialist Party) has promised to institute tuition-free public higher education and end state subsidies to for-profit institutions within six years. But students and their elected representatives want to abolish private schools completely, and are impatient for quick results.

A Constitutional Assembly?

A key split has also arisen over the issue of how constitutional reform might be accomplished. While the Christian Democrats and Bachelet support the institutional strategy of “change from within,” relying on the undemocratically-elected Congress to produce a new constitution, students and other popular sectors, supported by the Communist Party, are calling for a constitutional assembly to be convoked by referendum.

Under a grassroots initiative called “Mark Your Vote,” more than 10% of Chilean voters voluntarily marked their ballots “AC” in the December election, to evidence support for this strategy. Given the initial confusion as to whether the marked ballots would be accepted as valid, the difficulties in tallying them, and the requirement that only ballots clearly designated for a presidential candidate would be considered, organizers believe that the results significantly understate the proposal’s appeal. In a recent national opinion poll, 45% of those surveyed expressed support for a constitutional assembly.

As a strategy that offers the possibility of re-engaging a civil society that is profoundly alienated from the consensus model of post-dictatorship duopoly politics, the constitutional assembly is an intriguing option. It could provide an opportunity for Chileans to reconnect with their own deeply democratic traditions, illustrated by the unprecedented levels of political and social awareness and participation achieved through  poder popular (popular power), the touchstone of Allende’s Popular Unity government.

Despite the new discourse of remorse evidenced during the 40-year coup anniversary, many Chileans feel that this aspect of their past has been largely excised from official historical memory. Even in the otherwise outstanding Museum of Memory and Human Rights developed by Bachelet in her first term, there is little reference to the participatory institutions of the Allende era (such as workers’ councils and collective neighborhood organizations) that Pinochet systematically destroyed. A revival of this deeply democratic tradition through the constitutional assembly could be an important step in genuinely challenging the legacy of dictatorship.

[1] The same rule change also made voter registration, which had previously been voluntary, automatic. For this reason, it is preferable to measure voter turnout over time as a percentage of the voting age population rather than as a percentage of registered voters, which is distorted by the rule change.

January 17, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Economics | , , | Leave a comment

Chilean congress approves tax reform to provide funds for education

Relief for Piñera

MercoPress – September 5th 2012

Chile’s Congress approved on Tuesday major changes in tax laws aimed to provide funds for an overhaul of the nation’s protest-hit schools, handing unpopular President Sebastian Piñera a welcome victory a month from municipal elections.

The approval comes ahead of municipal elections in October The approval comes ahead of municipal elections in October

The tax overhaul driven by Piñera’s conservative coalition will increase state revenue by some 1 billion dollars per year – about 0.4% of GDP in the world’s biggest copper producer.

Businesses in Chile will face a higher tax rate of 20% and fewer loopholes to evade them, though the tax rate remains well below Latin America’s average rate of 25.06% in 2011, according to accountancy firm KPMG.

Hefty tax cuts planned for the wealthiest were removed from the bill after months of jostling in Congress. Tax rates for lower income earners drop on a sliding scale.

Billionaire Piñera, rated the most unpopular leader since the return of democracy in 1990, unveiled the proposed reform in April in response to massive student-led protests demanding free education and greater equality.

While Chile has long been held up as an economic model in Latin America, it was rated the most unequal country of the 34-member-state Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

The reform is not expected to calm student protests for free and improved education.

The approval of the tax lands right before local elections on Oct. 28, which will give an indication of how the right and the left – both struggling with low approval ratings – could fare in the 2013 presidential race.

The reform could give his conservative bloc a small boost in next year’s presidential election, when leftist former President Michelle Bachelet is widely expected to try to stage a comeback.

“This is undoubtedly going to help the right more than Michelle Bachelet,” said Ricardo Israel, professor of law and political science at the Universidad Autonoma de Chile. “The right is taking away a flagship part of Michelle Bachelet’s campaign … she’s going to have to move even more to the left.”

September 5, 2012 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Economics, Solidarity and Activism | , , , , | Comments Off on Chilean congress approves tax reform to provide funds for education