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Chile: the good democracy?

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Thursday, 5 July 2007

A glance at much of the media's coverage of Latin America would suggest there are two types of democracies in the region today: the good and the bad. Due to an almost pathological obsession by outlets such as the New York Times and the Economist, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have been categorised as places where democracy is being “eroded” and freedom of the press “curtailed”, and where popular demagogues are happily marching their people towards dictatorial systems.

In its April 19, 2007 edition, the Economist provided a classic example. Its target was the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. Although the report noted that Correa takes many of his cabinet secretaries around the country with him "in an attempt to bring government closer to the people"; has doubled cash transfers to 1.3 million of the nation's poorest people; provided a further $100 million to "housing subsidies for the poor" and "increased substantially" spending on education and health, unfortunately, it was hard to "find an independent political observer" who thought Ecuadorians had something to be hopeful about.

To make matters worse, "the growing strength of the president's grip on power … is giving cause for alarm", stated the Economist in the most predictable fashion. Back in Venezuela, Simon Romero on May 17 filed a story for the New York Times titled: "Clash of Hope and Fear as Venezuela Seizes Land." With a combination of historical knowledge and imagination, Romero wrote:


For centuries, much of Venezuela's rich farmland has been in the hands of a small elite. After coming to power in 1998, and especially after his re-election in December, President Hugo Chávez vowed to end that inequality, and has been keeping his promise in a process that is both brutal and legal.

Charging the Chávez government responsible for the "largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela's history", Romero notes that the "violence has gone both ways" with "more than 160 peasants killed by hired gunmen" and eight landowners also murdered thus far. The slight disparity in deaths between peasants and landowners, however, escaped Romero's attention, as did the fact the government has targeted landowners with non-productive haciendas who cannot prove documentation for their original titles of purchase - a wide spread problem in the region. In short, of course the conclusions one should draw from Venezuela are all too obvious.

So where can one find good democracy in Latin America? Where is there “responsible” government? For that, if we are to believe many commentators, one must travel across the Andes to Chile and meet socialist President Michelle Bachelet. As the second female President in Latin American history after Nicaragua's Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997), Bachelet evokes a combination of admiration but unfortunately also disappointment due to the policies of her administration.

By now much of her personal story is well known. With a father, Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet, who served loyally with the Allende government (1970-1973), Michelle and her mother Ángela Jeria were imprisoned shortly after General Augusto Pinochet's coup on September 11, 1973. Having fled with her mother after her father died under torture, Bachelet lived for various periods in Australia, the former East Germany and the United States. Trained in pediatrics and military studies, Bachelet received much attention after she was made Health Minister, and later Defence Minister, under the centre-left Concertación government of Ricardo Lagos.

As a minister and now incumbent president, Bachelet must be given credit for certain achievements. Given the task as Health Minister of drastically reducing waiting lists in public hospitals within the first 100 days of Lagos's government, Bachelet generally achieved these aims while making it mandatory for all primary-care facilities to provide emergency contraception to all females over the age of 14 who requested it.

Aiming to make good on her promise of breaking down gender barriers, as president she appointed the first-ever gender cabinet with roughly 50-50 men and women while extending the proposal to undersecretaries and regional governors, among others, whom she is personally allowed to appoint. In a country where the Catholic Church, right-wing politicians and deeply rooted chauvinism in society hold considerable sway, such initiatives by Bachelet must be commended. Likewise, the Chilean head of state's government has seen 800 new childcare centres open while a low-cost health-care scheme has also been extended.


However, recognising Bachelet's achievements, under scrutiny, her government is also riddled with disappointments while becoming a hurdle for Latin American integration and the new push to expand democracy throughout the region. So far, on a national scale, the failings of her administration are all too noticeable, commencing with the debacle of Transantiago - the government's public transport system in the capital.

Originally aimed at providing people with a more efficient and environmentally friendly system, private companies ended up refusing to supply the amount of buses they originally promised: leaving commuters having to walk several kilometres to the nearest bus stops - if they have even been built.

For Santiago's poor the debacle has been nothing short of catastrophic and thousands of people have lost their jobs due to lateness. As the public have became aware of the speculative gains by business and the fact that the state has been losing huge sums of money ($30 million in April alone according to one observer), many spontaneous protests have broken out.

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First published in Red Pepper in June 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Rodrigo Acuña is a educator, writer and expert on Latin America. He has taught at various universities in Australia and has been writing for over ten years on Latin American politics. He currently work as an independent researcher and for the NSW Department of Education. He can be followed on Twitter @rodrigoac7.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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