Perhaps the greatest barrier to Chile’s rapid ascension to the ranks of leading small global economies is a lack of domestic energy resources. Lingering rancour over the end of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) means that the nationalist voice in Bolivia blocks any exports of gas to heat the homes of Santiago. Argentina has repeatedly proven to be an unreliable energy integration partner, frequently shutting of trans-Andean gas supplies to meet domestic demand. Hydro projects are being developed, but demand still outstrips supply, even with the implementation of green energy sources like wind and solar.
It is thus not too much of a surprise to hear that Chile is again looking at building a nuclear power plant. According to UPI, Chilean Energy Undersecretary Sergio del Campo flagged this as a real possibility at a recent Australian-Chile Chamber of Commerce meeting. Others in government suggested that a plan for nuclear power development will not be ready until the end of the Piñera presidency, possibly in late 2014. Critics are worried about the frequent seismic activity in Chile and what this might mean for the safety of a mooted plant. Expect a rush of interest from the big international nuclear power companies seeking another contract in what is currently a rather stalled industry.
The lead editorial in the Friday 19 October 2012 edition of Chile’s leading daily El Mercurio took careful aim at Piñera’s plan to present a new deal for Chile’s indigenous peoples. Not surprisingly, the conservative paper is deeply skeptical and a bit alarmist.
The first concern raised is that it won’t be easy to find a way of satisfying the aspirations of the country’s indigenous that will also be compatible with the maintenance of the rights of other Chileans. Mercurio goes on to talk about the challenges of multiculturalism and how difficult this is to encode in constitutional form. (An interesting point for bilateral discussion with Chilean partner countries such as Australia, Canada and the US, let alone Peru and Ecuador.)
Cost is also raised as a significant barrier with complaints about the cost of translating documents and providing services into indigenous languages.
The fear factor is brought in at the end of the piece with a warning that nothing will be possible with this putative ‘New Deal’ unless something concrete is done about the violent minority of indigenous in La Arauncanía and the damage they have done to the local economy.
Such a reaction from a conservative newspaper like El Mercurio is hardly surprising. More to the point, it likely reflects the opinion of many movers and shakers in Chile. One of the interesting reactions to informal discussions about Piñera’s ‘New Deal’ that I have had on the margins of the Chilean Political Science Association is that a right wing president is showing a remarkably reformist streak. As a couple of senior experts on Chilean politics have noted, the ‘conservative’ Piñera has done more to undertake badly needed reforms and push major shifts towards inclusiveness in Chilean society than took place in twenty years of centre-left Concertación government. Keep in mind that it is generally very difficult to find anybody with right-wing leanings at political science academic conferences. Whether or not these off-the-cuff observations over drinks hold water is an interesting question for further research.
Chilean president Sebastian Piñera used a Monday, October 15th OpEd in El Mercurio (reprinted here) to launch a ‘new deal’ for Chile’s indigenous peoples. This is a fairly substantial step given that there remain important constituencies on the right in Chile who don’t believe that the country has an indigenous population and that these peoples are simply trying to manipulate the system.
Piñera’s new deal is built around four pillars:
1) Amend the constitution to formally state the Chile is a multicultural nation, which would require full recognition of the cultures of the country’s native peoples;
2) Replace the strategy of ‘assimilating’ indigenous peoples in Chile with one of integration that not only tolerates but appreciates and promotes the culture, history, worldview, languages and ways of life of Chile’s indigenous peoples;
3) Promote a more dynamic social and economic development indigenous communities; and
4) Ensure peace, security, public order and the full observance of the rule of law in indigenous areas.
Presidential memoirs are funny creatures that often leave the critic less than satisfied. There never quite seems to be enough detail or careful explanation of why thorny decisions were made. The story told inevitably appears to be a tad self-serving and focused on self-justification. But, if you dig a bit a deeper in successful memoirs a more interesting narrative appears, providing the contextual grounding needed to really understand the detail that can be found through patient archival research. The successful memoir gives a sense of how the author thinks and how their thinking changed.
The Southern Tiger: Chile’s Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future is former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos’s English-language memoir. Perhaps borrowing a page from former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s decision to given a separate accounting to the English-speaking world, Lagos has released what at first glance appears to be a justification for decisions that appeared to contradict the socialist ideals he held in the 1960s and 1970s, moving instead towards the more neoliberal-flavoured version of public policy that he implemented as president from 2000 to 2006. At one level this sharp critique sticks and he frequently appears to be engaged in an exercise of mea culpa for his turn to market-based solutions to problems that were formerly the preserve of the state. But there is more to the book than this.
The persistent ghost haunting the text is the savage Pinochet dictatorship. Lagos’s account admirably explains his part of the story of how this democratic rupture was overcome. The recounting of his own experiences with Pinochet’s security forces gives a sharp sense of the personalized viciousness of the dictatorship and the deep sense of personal insecurity it imparted on most of Chile. His own arrest and detention are presented in a context of members of the police working within existing structures to ensure that Lagos was not disappeared by elements operating outside the supposedly extant legal system. This episode provides an important background for the account of Lagos’s central role in seeking to not only overturn the dictatorship through a long and patient process of door-to-door campaigning throughout Chile, but also for why the constitutional perversions implemented by the exiting Pinochet-regime were permitted.
One of the things that miffed critics of Chile in the 1990s was how the pro-democracy forces could accept a constitution that effectively ensured that the ‘right’ would always have a veto on constitutional change, that the military would be kept largely apart from direct civilian discipline, and that perpetrators of atrocities such as Pinochet were allowed to retire to prosecutorial immunity in the Senate. Perhaps the most significant parts of this book are devoted to providing a clear explanation of how fragile Chile’s democratic transition was. Lagos gives an eloquent account of just how divided the country remained in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps more importantly, he clearly explains the level of fear that dominated politics in the country. The right was terrified that it would be subject to political reprisals. More generally, the population was terrified that there would be a return to the hyperpolarized politics of the early 1970s. As Lagos explains it, these were critical issues that had to be managed to restore Chile to a path of democratic certainty.
Those interested in contemporary events in Chile will also find this book interesting because it provides a window into the thinking that led to the ‘left’ adopting market-based approaches to public policy after the return to democracy. Considerable attention is given to explaining why public-private partnership policies were used in such diverse areas as road construction and prison building and operation. Underlying this shift in policy approaches was an abiding concern that Chile build and maintain a reputation for being an internationally credible country, which meant fiscally rational and responsible per international market dictates. As discussion of the reaction to the start of the Iraq war makes clear, assuaging US political demands mattered far less than ensuring that investment continued to flow into Chile.
This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand where Chile has come from and where it is going. Whether or not the explanations provided are found convincing stands a secondary to the fact that they are a public accounting from someone who has undeniably been one of the most important political figures in Chile over the last forty years.