Piñera has not had the Presidency he dreamed of…

Column originally published on Chileno.co.uk, United Kingdom, on January 19, 2013.

Four publishing companies with global reach have focused their attention on the case of Chile in the last few years. Of these media, all have dealt in some way or another with the Chilean student movement of 2011-2012 (which is still active) and, by extension, with the problems of political management in Sebastian Piñera’s government. Now added to this in recent months is the Government’s controversial decision to use the full force of an anti-terrorist law against Mapuche activists accused of acts of violence in southern Chile. Piñera has chosen a military rather than a socio-economic approach to the complex situation of the Mapuche people, who are engaged in a struggle to recover their lands. The Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) José Miguel Insulza, who is also a Chilean, has recently stated that the policy of applying anti-terrorist laws against indigenous activists “has a complicated international image,” and should be eliminated. Furthermore, he stated that the way the law is being implemented by the Piñera Government makes it appear that it only applies to Mapuche people implicated in acts of violence.

The topic of the student crisis has received worldwide coverage. First, The Guardiannamed the leader of the Chilean student movement Camila Vallejo “Person of the Year” at the end of 2011. Shortly afterwards, The New York Times described Vallejo as “the world’s most glamorous revolutionary.” In April 2012, The Economist called Piñera “inept,” a strange adjective for a conservative publication to use when, in reality, he should be a “favourite son” according to their editorial line. The same month The Wall Street Journal accused Piñera of being “weak and incompetent” and of becoming a “leftist”. The newspaper considered the implementation of social policies as a sign of weakness against the student movement which enjoyed legitimacy both internationally and at home. The student reform movement and the activism of hundreds of thousands of young people has lead to a new wave of political leaders who, despite their youth, have started political careers to be elected to the Chilean Congress, amongst them Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson and Camilo Ballesteros.

Piñera, defending the role of the State?

The country, thought to be a miracle of macroeconomics, is an illusion of development which owes a huge debt: to clean up the high levels of inequality in income, the workplace, and education and, in general, to address the issues that the Concertación [centre-left coalition] did not or could not remedy. The consequences are very clear. After the aggressive assertion of The Wall Street Journal against the “leftist leanings” of Piñera’s public policies in response to the student movement, we encounter a historical paradox of huge proportions, stemming from the words of the former Secretary General of the Presidency and current Minister of the Interior, Andrés Chadwick. The leader, who defected from the radical left under the Unidad Popular party to become the most committed Pinochet devotee, is a central figure of the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), the party that represents the most conservative values in Chile, with a strong presence of Opus Dei in their ranks. When the strong criticism was published in The Wall Street Journal, Chadwick came out before the television cameras, defending the social policies of Piñera. “The State has to play a role to create equal opportunities,” he said as a defence to the criticism of the US newspaper. And he suggested that the critique coming from the newspaper of Piñera’s government “was not surprising” since the publication is “very committed to economic freedom and the business world” — odd statements from one who provides advice to a President whose fortune is one of the four greatest in Chile.

The words of justification from a conservative like Chadwick defending the role of the State are interesting. They demonstrate, first, that The Wall Street Journal is indeed correct, the Piñera Government has had to move its strategy of public policies to the left. But the main issue goes beyond that: it demonstrates that, 20 years after the end of the dictatorship, there is an accumulation of progressive values in the political and economic spheres in Chile about which there is consensus in all sectors. Chilean society has learned from the debacle caused by years of aggressive neoliberal policies in the 1990s and profound inequality. The Frei Government in the Nineties had a worse distribution of wealth than the dictatorship. This process of progressing towards a more constructive role of the State as regulator and protector of the most vulnerable sectors of society opened the door to a paradigm more focused on equal opportunity as a basis for the great dream of all the political groups: to achieve the socioeconomic level of a developed country. Piñera has no other option but to continue on that path.

Popular approval: historical lows

I personally met the then Senator Piñera in the Nineties, whilst working as a reporter on the right wing parties for the now defunct newspaper La Época. I do not agree at all with the adjective “inept” offered by The Economist. I remember him as an intelligent leader who took a hard line in the political game with internal adversaries within his party, Renovación Nacional, and especially with the UDI, although he was open on social issues and values. However, at that time, the scandal that had produced audio recordings of Piñera instructing a journalist friend to ridicule his opponent in presidential primaries in a television interview, Evelyn Matthei, his current Minister of Labour, was still fresh. It never crossed my mind that the Chilean people would honour him with the Presidency. His race for the presidential seat seemed stained forever after that scandal.

Piñera now governs with a very low level of approval, which fell to a historic low of 26% according to an Adimark survey in April 2012. In the Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP) survey of May 2012, Piñera’s popularity fell even further to a mere 24 percent and, in January 2013, he was still polling at 31 percent. Furthermore, 61% believe that the government has acted “without skill or ability.” 52% disapprove of Piñera’s economic management, and 63% stated that the President “does not give [them] confidence.” A full 72% considered him “distant”.

The errant President

President Piñera has cloistered himself in a political realism that he wasn’t accustomed to. He has had to abandon all the business acumen and entrepreneurship that he surely would have wanted to use to thrive as President, and instead has had to invest all his political capital in a series of political and social crises which he has been unable to dispatch completely. This lack of proper tools in the political game can be appreciated from Washington DC. He has worn out the recurring theme of the impressive rescue of the 33 miners trapped underground in the north of Chile in October 2010 — the only noteworthy message coming out of the Chilean Embassy in the US city for two years — as a communicational strategy for promoting Chile. That President Obama mentioned the rescue in his State of the Union address to Congress was enough for Piñera to cling to the issue, repeating it as a monothematic message in the U.S. capital. It must be remembered, however, that Obama mentioned the Chilean rescue, on that occasion, primarily to draw attention to the US company and workers who built the evacuation tunnel that managed to reach the miners first.

Furthermore, in an incomprehensible act of political strategy last year in the aftermath of the student crisis of 2011, President Piñera appointed the former Minister of Education, Felipe Bulnes, Ambassador of Chile to the United States, perhaps the most important diplomatic post on the planet for a Chilean to hold. During Bulnes’s administration as Minister, the Government exercised tough police repression against young people in the streets, with the conflict ending in deadlock, without a concrete solution. In the same Adimark survey last April, a year after the beginning of the student demonstrations, there was still a clear 72% disapproval in the way the government handled the issue of education.

In another example of his lack of connection with political reality, Piñera still keeps Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter in the government, another politician responsible for strong police repression against the students during 2011. The police are now under the command of the Ministry of the Interior, which was directed by Hinzpeter during that period. In addition, Hinzpeter failed on the subject he had declared to be the most important of his tenure as Minister of the Interior: crime. This area was evaluated as the worst of all in April 2012, with an 82% rate of disapproval. In the CEP survey of May 2012, Hinzpeter managed to reach 30% approval. Recently, in November 2012, rather than removing Hinzpeter from the Government, Piñera appointed him Minister of Defence…

Similarly, in the case of ex-minister Bulnes, President Piñera appears to betray his own business past. “Successful management” is based on managerial responsibilities and should be directly related to results. Performance failures have consequences, and successes, rewards. But for two Ministers in key posts, Education and the Interior, with abysmal performances, far from being asked to relinquish their posts and being replaced, they have been rewarded. On Bulnes, Piñera declared that he was accepting his resignation from office and appointed Harald Beyer because the Ministry required “a person who can calm tempers, bring more temperance, rationality, dialogue,” — that is to say, a clear listing of the fundamental characteristics that Bulnes lacked. In November 2011, Bulnes was the worst Minister evaluated with only 34% approval according to Adimark. It is incomprehensible, then, that Piñera again risked his political capital by giving an enviable consolation prize, an Embassy with global influence, to the person who lead the handling of a crisis in education that most affected the popularity of his Government.

A trap of his own making

Piñera has fallen into a peculiar pattern, the same trap that the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia fell into. The centre-left coalition had to administer and maintain part of the institutional legacy of a previous Government — in this case, Pinochet’s dictatorship — to maintain a minimum level of governability in the country. A comparable situation now keeps the Piñera government in a similar condition: a terrible earthquake and tsunami near the beginning of his Government, and the subsequent social unrest over an educational system in deep crisis, caused Piñera to postpone more aggressive market policies and exercise instead a political realism favouring an urgent social agenda. In that sense, he has had to maintain the protective role of the State, in some ways obliged to continue the spirit of the social-welfare-state under President Bachelet, who is still extremely popular (the first female President in Chile leaving power with a historic high of 84% approval, according to an Adimark survey in March 2010). Likewise, Piñera has had to endure strong tensions with militaristic and radical sectors of his own right-wing coalition in order to preserve the progress on human rights policies promoted by Bachelet. That is, Piñera has been forced by the still precarious circumstances of the social situation in Chile to advance Bachelet policy and many of the values that his own sector opposes.

If there had been no earthquake in 2010 or social crisis over education, Piñera would have followed the script that he had prepared during his entrepreneurial career. Concepts such as “modernisation”, “technology”, “generation of markets”, “forward-thinking vision”, “foreign investment”, and “innovation” would have been the key words of his discourse during his term. He has had to replace them with “social crisis”, “earthquake and reconstruction”, “educational reform”, “poverty”, ” population in need”, “protective role of the State”, “inequality”, “human rights”, “street violence”, “indigenous claims”. It is not the Presidency that he dreamed of. It is not the country embodied in his socio-political ideal. Perhaps that explains his errant way of behaving on many key issues, and the criticism from the population, including a large segment that voted for him, but gives him very poor ratings in the polls.

In that sense, Piñera has not been inept in his government. Strictly speaking, he has not been able to govern. Or rather, to be fair, he has not had the Presidency he dreamed of…