Books Chile slider — 09 February 2012

Reviewed by George Allen

When Eugenio Tironi wrote the book “¿Por qué no me quieren?” or “Why don’t you love me?” about Chilean President Sebastián Piñera in July of 2011, President Piñera’s approval rating was hovering around 25 percent. Five months and several cabinet member changes later, over 60 percent of the country disapprove of the President’s government. What should we make of Piñera’s low approval rating, and how does it relate to the student movement that engulfed Chile last year? Tironi argues that the student movement was fueled by Piñera’s ascension to the presidency, but would have happened had another candidate won. Tironi’s book is short (150 pgs.), easy to read (even for intermediate Spanish speakers), and ultimately not very polemical. Chileans just aren’t happy with Piñera, and to understand why you don’t need to look any further than the President himself.

Before elected president, Piñera served as senator from 1991-1998. He received a PhD. from Harvard and has been a wildly successful businessman—Forbes puts his worth at 2.4 billion dollars. He owned majority shares in Chilevision, a television channel; LAN, an airline company; and Colo-Colo, the most popular soccer team in Chile until when elected President he had to sell them. Piñera is a member of Chile’s National Renewal (RN), a center-right party that often partners with Chile’s more conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI). In 2005 Piñera surprised many in his own party as well as UDI when he announced his run for the presidency. He lost to Christian Democrat Michele Bachelet (the first female president in Chile’s history), but set himself up to be the candidate in 2010. In the 2010 elections Piñera defeated former president Eduardo Frei in a tightly contested run-off that ended the center-left Concertación’s twenty-year hold on the Chilean presidency.

Tironi argues that Piñera was elected almost on accident. He didn’t represent a new brand of right-wing ideology, but rather something slightly different from the Concertación government that he replaced. He ran against two weak opponents, Eduardo Frei and Marco Enriquez-Ominami–who together split the voters on the left–guaranteeing Piñera at least a spot in the election run-off (in Chile presidents must win by a majority). It’s true that Piñera wasn’t only different as a person, his success in business and politics provoked awe and admiration from Chilean voters. He owned perhaps what Chileans fantasize about most: television, travel, and soccer. But despite his call for “la nueva forma de gobernar” or “the new form of governing”, Piñera didn’t put forth any new ideas from the right or left. If anything, Piñera reflected himself, a perennial winner, and voters, tired of the Concertación thought perhaps he could instill his success in business into the government.

The same qualities that made Piñera electable made him completely foreign to the mainstream Chilean. How many Chileans could relate to owning several businesses or receiving a Phd. from the most prestigious university in the United States? This didn’t matter during the election because different was exactly what many Chilean voters were looking for. However, since settling into la Moneda, Piñera has been unable to connect to voters. His successes are viewed cynically: his decision to join the RN party despite his ties to the Christian Democrats, and his unexpected run for the presidency in 2005 are seen as opportunistic; his business savvy, as capitalist greed; his publicity of the successful rescue of 33 miners in San José, desire for the spotlight. Even his frequent public speaking gaffes—like when he claimed the poet Nicanor Parra was dead (he’s not, he just won the most prestigious literary prize in Chile), or when he wrote “Deutschland über alles”— are frequent fodder for harsh criticism. In other words, Piñera can’t get anything right with the Chilean voter.

That Piñera can’t find any love with Chilean voters is even more surprising considering the state of the economy. Chile is widely considered one of Latin America’s economic “success” stories. It’s economy is growing at a consistent six percent, per capita gross domestic product is the highest in Latin America, and unemployment has reached decade lows. It’s hard to imagine another President who would have such low approval ratings with similar economic numbers. Perhaps then, dislike for Piñera comes from the unfavorable legislation that he has passed.

In March 2010, just twelve days after an 8.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Chile, Piñera was inaugurated as the President of the Republic. That same day another massive earthquake (6.9 magnitude) shook the congressional building where Piñera was to give his inauguration speech. Some took it as an ominous sign of the return to power of a right-wing government. What would this mean for the progress made by liberal groups in the last twenty-years? Would Piñera, the multi-billionaire business tycoon begin dismantling government programs in favor of de-regulation and privatization? Two years into his Presidency it would be hard to make that argument.

If anything, Tironi argues, Piñera has passed more left-leaning government programs than most thought he would. For example, Piñera passed a law that extends benefits for women after child-birth, he increased taxes on businesses, and passed a royalty tax for large copper mining companies. Certainly he could do more, but raising taxes on businesses (he recently proposed to do so again) is hardly what one expects out of a billionaire financier. That is not to say Piñera has been an anti-capitalist President—far from it. The neo-liberal economic project begun during the Pinochet regime is still firmly in place, but Piñera has done little to further it—at least no more than the center-left governments that preceded him anyway. What Piñera has presided over has not been the undoing of the welfare state or the dismantling of the liberal accomplishments made in the last two decades. Instead, Piñera has maintained the status quo.

What has changed, according to Tironi, is the people—in particular the students (whose recent protest movement was approved by 75% of the country)— who are no longer content with status quo. Despite positive macro-economic numbers, disgruntled Chileans point to rampant inequality, such as the GINI coefficient, that measures distribution of wealth, showing Chile as one of the most unequal countries in the western hemisphere. At the center of the debate on inequality is the education system. In general, quality education is a luxury for the elites, while public education languishes with scarce funding. The education system, privatized under Pinochet, is seen as a key inequality indicator. So long as the education system privileges the elites and ignores the poor, the argument goes, the system will continue to perpetuate inequality.

While educational inequality has existed for decades, if not the entire history of Chile, it has become the defining problem of Piñera’s government. For Tironi, it is no coincidence that the student movement erupted during Piñera’s government. The generation taking to the streets is better prepared than previous generations to confront this problem. Unlike their parents who grew up in Pinochet’s shadow of political and social repression, they only know democracy and are unafraid to exercise their rights; they are better connected, organized, and informed through the internet; and, like the student movements in the US and Europe during the 1960′s, many of this generation are growing up in a post-material world—that is, they are not starving, and thus can seek to sate other desires or beliefs.

For Tironi this new generation of Chilean students were like a pile of dry wood just needing a spark to erupt into wild, passionate flames. Piñera was that spark. For voters he represented something different from the Concertación, but for the students he represented the perfect example of an unequal system. What types of interests would a billionaire, owner of media, travel, and sports companies protect?

In some ways then, Piñera was elected at a moment historically prepared to be unfavorable of him. That explains part of the youth disapproval of Piñera, but he has simultaneously lost the support of the people that put him in office. After all, he was elected to do something different, and he’s only presided over much of the same.

Was it worth it to elect Piñera? Even though many results are yet to be seen, Tironi says absolutely it was worth it. Piñera has awoken a sleeping giant of a student movement that has empowered other causes like environmental conservation and LGBT rights, and has placed educational reform at the center of any debate about inequality. Piñera in his own way has contributed to these movements. Here’s to hoping that he starts actually acquiescing to some of the movements demands. Who knows, maybe then his approval ratings would improve.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. Soy chilena, a Piñera no lo quieren porque es parte de una generación llamada ” los chicago-boys” que se educo bajo el amparo de Pinochet en Harvard, para luego regresar e instaurar la economía de libre mercado, él es y será siempre un empresario.

    Pertenezco a la generación de los 80s, época en que nuestro único propósito era poder votar en elecciones libres y sacar a Pinochet del poder.

    Los estudiantes pueden marchar y protestas en forma libre porque ahora vivimos en democracia. Finalmente Piñera administra nuestro país bajo la modalidad muy conocida en latinoamérica, es decir como “patrón de fundo”.

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