Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Icons of Santiago

La Tercera publishes a nice list of Santiago's top 50 iconic things, everything from La Moneda to a lomito.

In case you were thinking of visiting.

Coming to grips with reality

A week after election day in the US and there are more and more signs that the Republicans know they must ditch the crazy, populist, dumbed-down version of conservatism that was the Tea Party and return to a principled, intellectual conservatism that at least stands a chance of appealing to more than a group of retired white Church ladies from Omaha. Today's Politico has a piece on Bobby Jindal saying just that.

Another aspect of reality has to do with listening to dissenting voices and understanding that criticism is not treason. There have been reports that the Romney campaign simply didn't believe the poll numbers and chose to believe outliers like Gallup.

There are some parallels, as usual, with Chile, which I point out here. In highly polarized societies people don't want to be challenged by views which differ from their own. Each side operates in its own reality and has little contact with the outside world. Such it was with the recent electoral results in places like Providencia, where the mayor was so convinced he would win, he did not see the demographic changes taking place right before his eyes. He saw no need to campaign as hard as his opponent or to show up to televised debates. He lost.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Deep Thoughts for Elections Day

Inevitably, attention gets shifted towards the EEUU today, even in Chile (although government officials here keep honking their own horns about how FABULOUS yesterday's cabinet shuffle was, but that's another kettle of blogs).

So, in keeping with our good relations with our hemispheric overlords, here are some Deep Thoughts for Election Day:

1) The closeness of the race has been one of the stories of this campaign. But this is a function of just how divided the country is. Obama was supposed to bridge some of the divisions of the Bush years. Didn't happen. Perhaps the greatest of the unkept promises of his Great Promise.

2) Watch for how different constituencies behave. If the minorities continue to vote en masse for the Democrats, this will contribute even more to the country's historic divisions. While this is obviously true for the afro-american and latino communities, it will be interesting to see if the jewish community sticks with Obama. And what happens with women. This leaves...

3) The Republicans as the last, great, white hope. Much ink has been spilled on the Republicans demographic problem: that the country no longer looks like the constituency they appeal to. If they lose,  will they branch out to seek more voters, or retrench with lots of guns into their bunker in Alabama? In other words....

4) What happens to the Tea Party? Is it the future or the undoing of the Republican Party? Clearly the party has been taken over by the right - even though Romney represents the middle. Will a loss convince party elders that they need to take back the party from the Tea Party, or will they conclude that the problem was choosing a centrist candidate?

5) What happens if it is really, really close? I am talking, Florida 2000, or worse. There is no doubt in my mind that if the Republicans feel the election has been stolen from them, they won't take it as easily as Gore did in 2000. It could be uglier than anything we have seen so far.

6) What happens in Congress? It seems that the Democrats will keep the Senate. This is important for Obama, but crucial if Romney wins. It is in Congress where we will also be able to measure how successful the Tea Party has been.

7) How will the markets react? No joke. They don't like Obama.

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Day After

Last night's municipal elections were unusually interesting. First, they took place in the context of social unrest and mobilization. Second, polls aside, they were a real test of the government's popularity. Third, they were the first elections to take place under a new system of automatic registration and voluntary voting.

I wrote this piece as I was being flooded with data and ideas, from the TV, from Twitter, from emails from and to friends. It is still hard to take it all in, and the piece reflects that piecemeal attempt at digesting the magnitude of the results. In a nutshell, no one expected the government and its candidates to receive quite the slapping it got. We always suspected that the Concertación would do OK, but winning Santiago was a real - dare I say it? - coup.

Much of the media attention is centred on the low participation rates. I think that a) the rates are actually higher than the 40% being quoted, probably closer to 45, which is, in comparative terms, not unusual. Second, in many parts of the world municipal elections get less attention and participation than national elections. I don't know how to make my compatriots stop panicking.

Also noteworthy was the defeat of the mayor of the wealthy suburb of Providencia. Cristian Labbé is a former army colonel, close to Pinochet, whose style and politics closely resemble those of his mentor. He had been mayor of Providencia since 1996. Labbé's authoritarianism inspired a public movement, spearheaded by neighbourhood groups, not political parties. Primaries were held. Debates were organized to which Labbé - who called his opponent 'a housewife' - did not show up. His defeat is symbolic of how politics should be done in the new Chile, to get rid of the old Chile.

In the suburb of Ñuñoa, in a result no one expected, Salvador Allende's granddaughter defeated another old-style politician. That result, and Carolina Toha's success in Santiago, made me think last night of just how much the weight of history is still present in Chile. An Allende and a Toha. Is this the new politics or the old? Will young people be inspired by the possibilities of change offered by democracy, or be lured to the streets to keep marching? Will the parties learn the lessons necessary to attract the voluntary votes of the millions of new voters, or keep playing by the old rules?

Too many questions for the day after.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Start up - Shut down

In this post a couple of days ago I tried to be magnanimous, pointing out that for the first time in a long time an international media outlet actually decided to give Piñera some good press. But I didn't catch the small print, which apparently appeared in the print edition of the Economist, which highlights some of the problems that some have had with the Start Up Chile programme.

I also have a sinking feeling that this Sunday's municipal elections, which will be the first ones featuring the new automatic voter registration system, will lend itself to another round of critical reviews. Hope not.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Timelapse tour of Chile

As my friend Adam likes to say, Chile is a long, thin country. Here's proof.

Chilean goofballs

Startup Chile

Regular readers will know that I get frustrated with the bad press that Chile gets in the international press, not because I think we don't deserve it, but because we do. It wasn't so long ago that Chile was the darling of the international media, either because of its stable economy, its democratic transition, its impressive leaders. Today the international media is more likely to underscore mass demonstrations against government policy or government fiddling with official statistics à la Kirchner.

However, there are glimmers of hope, as this Economist piece highlights. The government has spent $40 millon on 1000 new firms, attracting bright young things, mostly American, to Santiago. It's a good program, but I fear that for those who do not qualify for the programme, the average Chilean wanting to start a new business still has to deal with outdated bureaucracy, labour laws and bankruptcy rules.

Oops, there I go criticizing again.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The most boring earthquake in the world

We just had a fairly major tremor, measuring 5.7 on the Richeter scale. It felt strong, and this video shows just how dramatic the whole thing was:

The paradox of tolerance

One of the many characteristics of the various social movements that have emerged in Chile is that they call for more and better democracy, yet there is little consensus on what this actually means. I suspect that many emerging groups, from youth to environmental groups, have pretty deep misconceptions of democracy. As a result, it has become fashionable to 'take' public buildings as a form of protest. This basically involves invading public space, sometimes not allowing work to continue. The University of Chile's emblematic building was thus occupied for many months last year and for a short period this year. It was damaged from within and covered with graffiti from without.

Another form of protest is the 'funa' which may be a boycott or a form of public shaming. One student activist, counterintuitively thinking it would bolster Chilean democracy, called for a 'funa' of the upcoming municipal elections.

Funas were used in the past to protest the presence of human rights abusers, but more often than not is now used to impede academic or political discourse, and can sometimes turn violent. This was the case last week when a professor was hit in the face with a bottle filled with paint, suffering possibly permanent damage to the eye.

All this reminded me of Popper's Paradox of Tolerance, which I reflect upon here.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Why Obama wasn't great

I find myself writing more on the US than on Chile recently. The elections are beginning to attract interest in Chile, which has led to quite a bit of media work for me, and to me thinking about what is going on in the US. For economies of scale, then, I end up writing on the US elections.

Here is something I wrote last week, after the debates. Some of the post-debate spin from the White House seems to confirm what I suspected. Obama didn't want to seem aggressive, wanted to look presidential, and was playing it safe. Strangely, playing it safe was the unsafest move of them all.

Friday, 5 October 2012

24 years

Today is the 24th anniversary of the plebiscite which ended the Pinochet regime. A reminder of how it was won:

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


Ok. So again this column is not really about Chile. It is about a businessman turned candidate who is running for president in order to fulfill some unresolved father issue, who has made millions in business dealings which many suspect as having been unscrupulous, who has zero empathy and is therefore having a hard time gaining in popularity. It is about a candidate who, every time he opens his mouth, seems to commit a gaffe, to confuse the public and private spheres, to underline how out of touch he is with the common folk, to offend someone, and to alienate even those in his own party.

No, it's not about Chile.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Gaddafi's Revenge

This morning I woke up to two pieces of terrible news. The first was that a police officer was shot and killed in Santiago during the "traditional" night of rioting which follows the 11 September anniversary. He wasn't killed in the course of any political demonstration, but basically by young, probably underage, looters with guns. Totally senseless.

The second was, of course, the death of Christopher Stephens, the US ambassador to Libya, in the course of an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. In a way, both events share that they represent uncontrolled, mob violence masquerading as political protest. In both cases, although to varying degrees, the killings were more about societal disintegration than about any meaningful protest.

In any event, I have written a little column for La Tercera on events in Libya. My point is basically that with this event the presidential campaign enters dangerous territory. The last thing Obama needs is to have a Carter moment, and having Muslim extremists threaten embassies overseas is as close to a Carter moment as he can have (especially as there is a slim chance that the Russians will be invading Afghanistan any time soon), So how Obama handles this has the capacity of making or breaking his campaign.

So far, more so because of Romney's tin ear on foreign policy than because of anything Obama has done, the signs are good. But if pressure building within the US for him to actually DO something, the game could change very quickly.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Guardian on Chile

The Guardian published this piece last week on Chile, claiming that the country is shedding its post-authoritarian fear. The general argument is sound, except that it could be argued that more than shedding fear, young people never actually felt it.

That being said, there are several details in the piece which are not quite right. The Confech was led by a Communist, Camila Vallejo, not by a Socialist. I would also question whether "worker's struggles" are all that relevant. In fact, student leaders often been put in an uncomfortable position precisely because union leaders have tried to hitch their wagons to the student movement. Hardly a sign of resurgent labourism.

And finally, the attempt to draw parallels with other movements around the world ring rather hollow. Each context is vastly different. In Chile, if one needs to draw broader conclusions about what is going on, these are to be found in the attempt to move beyond the political restrictions of the transition years (which is much more in line with the 'abandoning fear' argument of the title), and not with class struggle, which the Guardian tries to hard to rehash.

Monday, 20 August 2012

My take on Ryan

Well, it's not about Chile, but here's my take on Romney's choice for VP. In a nutshell, I suggest that it was much more about maintaining the unity of the Republican Party than about winning the election. In fact, barring some unknown unknowable popping up between now and November, it may almost guarantee defeat.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Tomas Gonzalez and the OECD

Twice in the last few days Chile came to a virtual standstill as everyone watched (or in my case, tried to watch on the Internet from work) Chilean gymnast Tomas Gonzalez aim for an Olympic medal, and fail. By this much.

He came in fourth. This led to much discussion, as most things in Chile do. Should we celebrate this achievement, or lament that we were celebrating having lost something? Twitter was aflutter.

So I wrote this.

The argument is that it all depends on whom we are comparing ourselves to. Just as in the OECD our numbers are often awful, at the bottom of most rankings, our Olympics results are usually unimpressive as well. That is because in both cases we're playing in the big leagues. When you think of the state funded gymnastics programs that exist in countries like Russia, Ukraine or China, Gonzalez' achievement seems huge. 

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Waltz of the Useless

This seems to be a documentary about last year's student movement. It is moving, not least because it recalls a time when the students had purpose, were peaceful and creative. Most of that is gone now.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Mel Brooks and the Student Movement in Chile

There is a classic double entendre in a Mel Brooks movie where Harvey Korman tells Brooks, in a Marie Antoinette setting, that 'the people are revolting'.  I have borrowed the line for an extended piece published by the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, here I have been Visiting Fellow this year. I try to explain (in English, for a change), some of the causes of what is happening in Chile.

It is not easy, as the back and forth with my editors will attest. Each point requires further explanation, especially to a foreign audience. Why must universities be non-profit, but not schools? Why are undergraduate programs so long? If 70% of tertiary students are first generation, why are they complaining about access? If they are in favour of public education and against high fees, why do they shut down public education for six months, but keep paying their fees during all that time? Why did they keep demonstrating once two education ministers resigned and the government agreed to several demands? Why do they tie in very specific demands, such as interest rates, with the electoral system or tax policy?

This is a complex issue, but here is my attempt to explain it. For now.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Politics and the Age of Acceleration

When the University of Toronto Nobel Prize winner John Polanyi was asked what age we live in, he responded, ¨The Age of Acceleration". And he wasn't talking about CERN.

One of the big problems that political parties all over the world face is that those raised in the age of instant messaging expect quick answers. Political parties, like most political institutions, don't move quite as fast. So while there are many reasons why voters may feel disenchanted, one big one is that they live in the age of acceleration, but political institutions don't.

And, as I point out in this column published in El Mostrador today, we've been taught for years that maybe that's not a bad thing. Institutions are not supposed to be easy to change. So it may well be that highly institutionalized political systems (good) are the least equipped to respond to a rapidly changing world (bad).

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Chavez no se va

The subtext here is interesting. It's a reelection slogan and a farewell at the same time:

Siempre te voy a amar
Chavez no se va

Monday, 11 June 2012


                                                                                                      Source: Publimetro

The Caupolican theatre in Santiago is symbolic. It was the site of antigovernment rallies during the Pinochet dictatorship. It was were President Frei Montalva rejected the institutionalization of the regime following the fraudulent constitutional plebiscite of 1980.

And on Sunday it was the site of a tribute to Augusto Pinochet. The event attracted about 1000 die hard Pinochetistas, including former members of his government and some family members.


1) Is it worth banning such events? Would it not be better to let these people fester in their own memories of torture and general mayhem?

2) This is the second such tribute in less than a year. Why is it that Pinochet supporters suddenly feel emboldened to hold such public displays of affection for the dictator? Is there something this government is doing, or not doing, that is contributing to this renewed sense of pride?

3) Is the presence of 1000 people, most of whom are the same mix of former government members and older, middle class women who took to the streets when Pinochet died, a signal of a renewed Pinochetismo, or the last gasp of a dying breed?

4) Why did the police arrest the anti-Pinochet demonstrators but escort the Pinochet supporters out a back door and then supply buses to transport them away from the theatre?

5) Why is no one pressuring the owners of the theatre? In North America, it seems to me, when these types of events occur or threaten to occur, the first recourse is to pressure the venue.

6) Is reconciliation possible? Is it even desirable? Yesterday, government spokesman Andrés Chadwick, a cousin of the president, a member of the UDI, and, together with fellow ministers Lavin, Longueira and Dittborn, one of the 'stars' of an infamous picture with Pinochet, declared he regretted his support for Pinochet in light of what he now knows of the human rights abuses committed under the regime. Perhaps events such as the Pinochet tribute provide valuable learning opportunities, no matter how painful the process may be.


Saturday, 12 May 2012

Hollande-Latin America Line

What Francois Hollande's victory means for social democracy in Latin America, and vice versa. A comment by yours truly and Francisco Javier Díaz.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

WSJ on Chile: Not Bullish, but it sounds similiar

The Wall Street Journal published a column this week by someone by the name of Mary Anastasia O'Grady. They could have splurged on plane fare, because clearly she doesn't know much about Chile. That has not stopped El Mercurio from hanging on to every misinformed, distorted word, or from Camila Vallejo from falling into the trap and responding with equally vigorous ideology.

According to Ms. O'Grady, the social movements that have taken to the streets over the last year demand “free university education, nationalization of the copper industry, and the end of the liberal economic model”. Well, yes, there are some who stick to those slogans, but they are a minority, even amongst the demonstrators. For the most part, students want to pay reasonable fees with low interest on student loans, and receive a quality education that will serve them in the workplace. The copper industry is already partially nationalized – something which was not only not rescinded by the military regime, but was used, and continues to be used, to fund military spending and just about everything else. This enables Chile to maintain ridiculously low tax rates. And nobody really expects a radical shift from the neoliberal model, although people do expect some degree of protection from its more negative effects.

O’Grady berates President Piñera for not defending liberty – if what is meant by liberty is low taxes. She is aghast that the flat corporate tax was raised to 20%. In the US the average corporate tax rate is in the mid 30. In all, the total tax take as a percentage of GDP in Chile is about 18%, roughly half of what it is in neoliberal Britain.

But the Wall Street Journal makes it sound like the heyday of neoliberalism is over in Chile, thanks to populist demands and a weak president. I suppose they yearn for the days of the Concertación, when higher education expanded exponentially (although with minimal regulation, leading to the problems of quality control we see today), when industries like salmon helped to diversify the economy (although lack of environmental oversight almost led to its collapse), and when mining was opened up to the private sector (again, with the lack of regulation that led to the miners’ saga in 2010).

The WSJ should just come out with it and declare itself in favour of a Concertación government for 2013.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Sorry Ricky

You may recall that a couple of months ago America's Quarterly published a review I wrote of Ricardo Lagos' new book, Southern Tiger. You can reread it here.

Now the Economist has put out its own review, and it is probably even harsher than mine. In both cases, we find that the book, as a memoir, is very light on details. It is not really a memoir, but a kind of review of recent Chilean history and the very important role that Lagos played in it.

All in all it seems like a missed opportunity. What a shame.

Monday, 16 April 2012

More on The Economist's view of the Piñera government

I don't know why Chileans care so much about what the rest of the world thinks about them, but somehow when The Economist says what everyone else in Chile is thinking, it's a big deal.

So here's my latest column on what The Economist says.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Economist slams Chile, again

The Chilean model is, presumably, a model because a) other countries have decided to model themselves after it (some countries, like Russia, have attempted to copy Chile's private pension system, for example) and b) because international business and policy elites have decided that there was something in the Chilean case to be emulated.

The Economist -- a fairly good barometer of these elites -- has for some time been wary of where the Chilean model was going, and this week devotes a long essay to the current state of things. And it ain't pretty.

There are lots of interesting data in the piece, but I suspect that what it comes down to is Carlos Peña's final quote -- it's a crisis of expectations. 

I have long felt that the Chilean model was built on a kind of Chilean Dream, analogous to the American Dream, where the citizen-consumer accepted a kind of Faustian pact of neoliberalism in exchange for improving living standards. When Peña speaks of a crisis of expectations, he is referring to how Chileans perceive those standards of living. It is no longer enough to have a fridge or a flat screen TV, if you feel the cable company is ripping you off. It is not enough to get a university degree if your family goes into debt for years to fund a degree which will not offer much in terms of employment.

That's the current model, and The Economist doesn't seem so eager to have others emulate it.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Kayaking in Chile

Ok, so this post is not about politics. But this short film is very beautiful, and shows Chile at its best (I'm afraid many of my posts do quite the contrary). And apparently it won some prize for Best Short Film of 2012.


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Alcohol, Aysen and Zamudio: No enforcement

The recent implementation of new and draconian blood alcohol levels is, on the one hand, a sign that, as far as personal conduct and public safety, Chile is making efforts to move into the 21st century. However, as my column published today in La Segunda points out, there are many laws on the books which are barely enforced at all. It is illegal to ride one's bicycle on the highway, but people do it all the time.

So reducing the legal blood alcohol limit will be meaningless unless it is properly enforced.

So far, it must be said, at least the people I know are observing the new law. Social gatherings have got much more boring, either because people aren't drinking, or they are leaving early in order to catch a cab.

Underdevelopment had its privileges.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Money and Politics

Today in Chile is is practically impossible to know who is financing whom in politics. For this reason a group of (mostly) prominent academics and politicians are circulating a petition demanding that the laws governing campaign and party financing be modernized, allowing for greater transparency.

If you live in Chile and wish to sign, here's the link.

En Chile, los vínculos del dinero y el poder económico con el poder político constituyen una amenaza para la creación de políticas públicas que promuevan el interés general. La legislación actual es insuficiente para evitar que intereses particulares presionen a la autoridad ejecutiva y legislativa, a través de donaciones a campañas políticas, lobby sin regulación, financiamiento de los partidos, y conflictos de interés de las propias autoridades. 
Es urgente transparentar más y mejor la relación entre política y dinero en Chile. En la actualidad no conocemos quienes financian las campañas electorales ni los partidos políticos, por lo cual la ciudadanía no tiene información para evaluar si sus representantes son cooptados por grupos de interés o actúan promoviendo el bien común. 
Es urgente transparentar quiénes financian las campañas y los partidos. Como quienes votan son los ciudadanos, los financistas privados de la política deben ser exclusivamente personas naturales. El Estado debe proveer un financiamiento público transparente y auditable. 
Los abajo firmantes solicitamos al Gobierno y al Congreso Nacional que en materia de reformas políticas se incluya el financiamiento de la política como un eje primordial para fortalecer la confianza de los ciudadanos con nuestras autoridades. 
Concretamente, proponemos: 
1.- Aprobar una ley que regule, sin excepción, a todos aquellos que representan intereses privados frente a los poderes públicos, registrando las reuniones que realizan las autoridades con grupos de interés. 
2.- Transparentar absolutamente los orígenes del dinero privado que financia las campañas electorales, permitiendo que la ciudadanía pueda conocer esos orígenes y exigiendo que las autoridades se inhabiliten de participar en el proceso de toma de decisiones cuando exista un conflicto de interés por este motivo. 
3.- Aumentar de manera importante el financiamiento público de los partidos y campañas políticas, de manera transparente, con auditorias que impidan el uso de los fondos públicos por parte del gobierno para favorecer a candidatos y partidos de su coalición. 
4.- Crear una institución autónoma, a similitud de lo que hoy es el Consejo para la Transparencia, que cuente con los recursos y atribuciones necesarias para fiscalizar el cumplimiento de la ley y monitorear los gastos durante las campañas. 
5.- Introducir multas y penalidades más altas y efectivas para quienes debiendo declarar su patrimonio o conflictos de interés, no lo hagan y reglas más comprensivas y detalladas para alcanzar la máxima claridad y transparencia en ellas. Lo mismo para candidatos que vulneren la ley en materia de topes al gasto electoral, u origen de los aportes a sus campañas. 
Sin una reforma profunda en materia de financiamiento de la política y regulación del lobby, nuestras políticas públicas seguirán debilitándose, y aumentará el rechazo de la ciudadanía hacia las instituciones y el poder político. 
FIRMAN:Ximena Abogabir, Manuel Agosín, Claudio Agostini, Matías Asún Hamel, Pepe Auth, Mariana Aylwin, Jaime Baeza, Cristóbal Bellolio, José Miguel Benavente, Eduardo Bitrán, Vivianne Blanlot, Jorge Bofill, Sebastián Bowen, José Joaquín Brunner, Álvaro Bustos, Edmundo Bustos, Víctor Caro, Pamela Caro, Lidia Casas, Jaime Casassus, Luis Felipe Céspedes, Dante Contreras, Jorge Correa, Jaime Couso, Javier Couso, Miguel Crispi, Genaro Cuadros, Fernando Dazarola, Gabriel De La Fuente, Gloria De La Fuente, Juan Carlos Délano, Antonio Delfau, Alejandro del Pino, Adriana Delpiano, Francisco Díaz, Marcelo Díaz, Norberto Díaz, Eduardo Dockendorf, Jorge Dominguez, Nicolás Dormal, Marcelo Drago, Mauricio Duce, Rodrigo Echecopar, Gregory Elacqua, Álvaro Elizalde, Eduardo Engel, Luis Eduardo Escobar, Cristina Escudero, Alejandro Ferreiro, Ricardo Ffrench-Davis, Claudio Fuentes, Robert Funk, Eugenio Figueroa, Francisco Gallego, Cristóbal García, Ana María Gazmuri, Pedro Glatz, Andrés Gómez-Lobo, Nicolás Grau, Davor Harasic, Felipe Heusser, Daniel Hojman, Carlos Huneeus, Cristóbal Huneeus, Federico Huneeus, Sebastián Iglesias Sichel, Giorgio Jackson, Alfredo Joignant, Ricardo Lagos-Weber, Oscar Landerretche, Fernando Larraín, Guillermo Larraín, Sara Larraín, Hugo Lavados, Diego Luna, Francisca Márquez, Jorge Marshall, Pablo Marshall, Patricio Meller, Alejandro Micco, Sergio Micco, Davor Mimica, Alejandra Mizala, Jorge Navarrete, Patricio Navia, Marco Antonio Núñez, Claudio Orrego, Ernesto Ottone, Sebastián Pavlovic, Guillermo Pickering, Patricia Politzer, Karen Poniachik, Carlos Portales, Andrea Repetto, Marcela Ríos, Jorge Rivera, Ximena Rincón, Patricio Rodrigo, Pilar Romaguera, Andrés Romero, Fulvio Rossi, Guillermo Scallan, Ricardo Solari, Juan José Soto, Agustín Squella, José Tessada, Carolina Tohá, Marcelo Tokman, Juan Pablo Torres-Martínez, Juan Trimboli, Teresa Valdez, Juan Enrique Vargas, Andrés Velasco, Eugenio Vergara, Mario Waissbluth, Andrés Zahler, Roberto Zahler, José Zalaquett.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Rodrigo Alvarez leaves

Another minister has resigned from the Piñera cabinet. This resignation was unusual in that the president was out of the country when it happened. Reports are that Piñera asked the outgoing energy minister to await his return to discuss Alvarez' complaints, but Alvarez was unwilling. Following the resignation, Alvarez gave an astonishing press conference, in which he complained that he was given a set of instructions on how to deal with the uprising in Aysén, and the government changed those rules in order to reach an agreement, leaving him completely out of the loop.

Here are some further thoughts on the resignation and what it means for Piñera, published today in El Dínamo:

Es normal que en un gobierno que dura cuatro años haya ministros que vengan y ministros que van. Lo curioso de este gobierno en particular es que las personas que han dejado sus cargos generalmente lo han hecho por voluntad propia. El presidente se ha mostrado reacio a echar a miembros de su gabinete. Es posible que él vea la integridad del equipo como una señal de la salud de su gobierno, y las partidas como una muestra de debilidad. La renuncia voluntaria de un ministro más representa un golpe fuerte. Pero este ministro no es cualquiera. 
Rodrigo Álvarez goza de altos niveles de popularidad entre sus colegas y es bien visto por el público. Miembro de la UDI, su partida ha reabierto una herida latente ya que ese partido se siente víctima y marginado del centro del poder. Las palabras del ministro saliente dejaron en claro su decepción y sospechas de que alguien le hizo la cama, y que, para colmo, se la hicieron mientras el presidente andaba de gira en el exterior. Todo esto deja una impresión de desorden que le hace daño al gobierno y a la política en general.
Si la oposición cree que sacará ventaja del ocurrido, se equivoca. Estos casos solo sirven para confirmar el desapego de la política y los políticos. Los ciudadanos esperan que los ministros renuncien – o que sean despedidos, lo que en la política muchas veces es prácticamente lo mismo – por razones de incumplimiento o ineptitud. No evaluará bien la partida de un hombre honesto y competente por haberse sentido excluido de un momento clave, y mirará con repugnancia el ciclo de acusaciones y recriminaciones que sigue. 
Tal vez lo más preocupante es que la historia se repite. Primero, en el sentido en que el gobierno transforma un triunfo (acuerdo en Aysén, rescate de los mineros) en una derrota para la opinión pública (salida de Álvarez, salida de Bielsa). Es un error comunicacional que contribuye directamente a los bajos niveles de aprobación. 
Segundo, hay un patrón de buenos ministros que parten del gabinete por razones perfectamente evitables. Con los ministros Fontaine y Bulnes, el gobierno comenzó a perder a los mejores, personajes que lo hacían bien, que eran bien preparados, pero que se sintieron víctimas de las operaciones políticas de la Moneda. Hoy muchos culpan al ministro del Interior, pero se equivocan. Esto no ha sido el duelo de los Rodrigos. Es un patrón de conducta, basado en el hecho que éste es el gobierno del presidente Piñera, no de una coalición de dos partidos. Frente a ese tipo de liderazgo, no hay cuoteo que aguante. 
Ahí radica una diferencia importante con la Concertación. Por todo lo feo que era el cuoteo político,  éste permitió construir un proyecto, involucró a los socios de la coalición de manera que incluso hoy, después de una dura derrota y un difícil período de ajuste, sigue habiendo algo que se llama Concertación, con identidad propia. Como contraste, este gobierno buscó su identidad en una nueva forma de gobernar, en que la eficiencia impuesta por ‘los mejores’ traería su propia recompensa. Pero los mejores se están yendo, y al hacerlo dejan en evidencia un proceso de toma de decisiones que pone en cuestión la eficiencia. No hay ni eficiencia, y los mejores se van.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The leader of the Aysén movement talks

Ivan Fuentes is the leader of the movement which has emerged in the extreme south of Chile. He has proven to be an adept spokesman and negotiator and has earned the admiration even of government ministers. Here is a clip of how he expresses himself, simply, intelligently, slightly longwindedly. But the student movement would have benefitted from having a spokesman with this degree of cohesiveness and humility.

The best line: "There should be a law which punishes political ineptitude."

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Elections in Mexico and Venezuela

Francisco Diaz and I have written a piece for Policy Network on the two important elections coming up in Latin America.

I will try something new for this blog, and in addition to linking to the original, I am including the entire text here, for easy reading.

here goes

The Big Latin American Elections of 2012
There are years in which the electoral stars seem to align, where a series of elections bring with them the capacity to revamp the political map. This is not one of those years. However, two Latin American countries will hold elections that have the potential to alter the regional landscape. 
Together with Brazil, both Mexico and Venezuela are amongst the most politically and economically relevant countries in the region. Each, at different times in their history, have sought to play the role of regional leader, and each have a natural resource – petroleum – which makes them key economic players and important trading partners for the United States. In recent years, however, Mexico and Venezuela have chosen different paths towards development. The upcoming presidential elections will place those paths to the test, or at least to the ballot.
In Mexico, the ruling right wing PAN will be represented by Josefina Vasquez Mota. In a country where politics remains strongly dominated by men, the female candidate has a certain appeal, but also very real challenges. Not least of these is that her party has ruled Mexico in the decade during which it has descended into drug cartel-fuelled violence. One of the ways in which the PAN is attempting to divert attention from its disastrous record on security is to remind voters of the corruption under the PRI, which ruled the country as a quasi one party state for much of the twentieth century. However, the PRI’s candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, is clearly leading the polls (casting around 50%, over 20% Vásquez). Peña has been able to present a politically centrist position which is enhanced by his good communication skills.   
Where does this leave the leftist PRD? Pretty much where it was after the 2009 presidential elections; divided between those who desire a forward-looking, modern social democracy on the one hand, and the firebrand leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who has barely got over his razor-thin electoral defeat last time around. AMLO ranks third in every poll, almost 5% below PAN.
If AMLO’s performance is somehow beholden to his past record, the same can be said, only more so, for Venezuela’s opposition, which will face Hugo Chavez in presidential elections in October. Since Chavez came to power he has faced virtually no organised opposition, thanks in part to his own institutional reengineering, but in large measure to the opposition’s internal division and ineptitude. With the selection in February of Henrique Capriles Radonski as its candidate, it appears the opposition has finally got its act together. Not only will Capriles represent a united opposition, he also presents a very different face of the sector. Unlike previous opposition to Chavez, which was tied to traditional parties and interests, Capriles represents a young, modern kind of social democratic vision much more along the lines of a Lula or Lagos. He has actually said that he wants to emulate the Chilean centre-left coalition, the Concertacion. It is a vision that veers away from a state-dominated economy but also seeks an active role for the state in the provision of public services such as health care. All the while, there is an awareness that Venezuela’s runaway public spending will have to be tackled. Chavez still leads in the polls, by a 15-18% margin, but Capriles is campaigning hard. It seems that these will be the first highly contested elections since Chavez came to power in 1998.
Both the Mexican and Venezuelan cases present real challenges for social democracy in general, and for possibilities of electoral success. For much of the past decade the centre-left in these countries has found it difficult to gain a firm footing in shifting political sands. However the elections taking place this year also offer the opportunity to reconstruct a disarticulated left, away from demagoguery and towards a forward looking and healthy social democracy which seeks economic growth but also emphasises well and responsibly funded social policy, all within the context of a vibrant democracy.

Rebellion in Aysén

This is a striking picture (please excuse the pun). Part Mad Max and part Bravehart. I cannot vouch for its authenticity, but it is apparently a group of armed protesters in Aysén. After more than a month of protests and a harsh government reaction, there is no sign that the unrest is receding. Judging by this picture, on the contrary. The Piñera government is counting on winter arriving fast and protesters getting cold and tired and hungry, which was their strategy with the student demonstrations last year. Surprising that they have chosen the same approach.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

A Chilean movie, not about politics (or is it?)

Patricio Guzmán is known for political documentaries. Nostalgia de la luz seems to be about astronomy. Figure it out yourself. It's worth watching, if only for the cinematography.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The MBA president

There has long been a debate in Latin America about the role of technocrats in politics, and not just in Chile (check out Centeno's classic work on Mexico). Unlike Mexico, however, in Chile these foreign-trained number-crunchers remained in the background, or at best, took on ministerial positions in things like Finance.

The current Chilean president is not only a technocrat, but also a businessman, and since he has come to office, much has been said about the tensions that exist between talents, skills and instincts that are required in politics versus those required in business.

As I say in this column, this debate is part of a deeper one about the role of ideology in politics, and especially within the parties of the right, and it is a debate that, with a businessman candidate leading the race, the Republican Party in the United States is going through as well.

Friday, 2 March 2012


The continuing conflict in the far south of Chile is but the latest example of the costs of excessive centralizations of the Chilean state. In this La Segunda column, I argue that the issues themselves are secondary to the primary problem, which is the lack of effective representation of different groups in the Chilean system. This goes for everyone from students, marginalized groups and the poor, and the many people who live outside of Santiago, and especially in the extreme north and south. The solution, then, is not negotiating the price of fuel, but a broader and deeper reconsideration of our modes of representation, from the electoral system to our hyperpresidentialisms to decentralization, if not federalism.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Binomial, in the Economist

The Economist has taken the riots in Aysén and run with them, linking them, rightly, with the deeper problem of representation. However, to say that the RN-DC agreement was a about changing the subject is wrong. The agreement also states that the electoral system must be changed. The proposal of a semi-parliamentary system is there, but nobody takes it seriously. What everyone takes seriously is the electoral system, and, increasingly, what kind of presidential system we wish to have. Piñera's response was inadequate, but there is lots going on behind the scenes.

Or at least there was, until everyone took off for the beach

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Patagoing, Patagoing, Patagone.

While I was out of town it seems something of a revolt has broken out in Chile's deep south.  It is funny that the Chilean MSM for some time didn't pay much attention -- which is precisely the point. Patagonians are demanding that people here in Santiago (and by people I mean the government, so I may be using the term loosely) pay attention to them. As this excellent BBC en Español piece reports, everything costs double in Aysén than in Santiago. And Santiago is expensive enough.

Worse still, Aysén is not connected by land to the rest of the country, leading its residents to feel much more kinship with their Argentine neighbours. In fact, if you speak to residents from Patagonia, you often find a slight Argentine accent.

Many people have noted that the Patagonian movement is not about politics, it is about identity. This may be so, but that's still political. Identity, left to seethe in anger and resentment, becomes political, and then becomes a great big headache. If you don't believe me, just ask the Quebecois, the Palestinians, or anyone in the Balkans.

They already have their own flag.

Chile: A little further from God, and a little closer to Miami

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Primaries for us, and for US

I think I have posted before about how similar I believe are the processes going on within the Alianza in Chile and the Republican Party in the US. They both seem to be fighting a kind of civil war between those who wish to win the next election, and those who are just as happy that they remain testimonial parties, true to their ideology. The Republican primaries this year have been all about that fight. But that's the good thing about primaries. They allow the parties to fight these things out, settle on a leader, and hopefully move on. Otherwise, one gets a situation such as the one the Chilean government has been going through, with open bickering amongst different factions.

Here is a column I wrote last week for La Segunda on the subject. Since it was published, Rick Santorum's success has only proven how unwilling many Republicans are to accept the candidate who clearly has the best chance of winning. Obama must be smiling.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Southern Tiger

Former President Ricardo Lagos has a new book out in the US. It's a kind of memoir. I think.

Here's my review in Americas Quarterly.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bad press

Maybe it's the island mentality, or maybe it's the over-reliance on technocracy, but Chileans love, love, love rankings. Quite often, Chile ranks far above its Latin American neighbours on almost any measure. So it comes as a shock when Chile does badly, especially when the country drops precipitously. For this reason, the publication of Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index has dealt a blow. The country drops to position number 80, and is now surpassed by places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Mali, and (ouch!) Argentina.

The cause? It's in the report:
"In Chile, where student protesters questioned the over-concentration of media ownership, violence against journalists included beatings, cyber-attacks and attacks on editorial staffs. Many of these assaults, often accompanied by heavy-handed arrests and destruction of equipment, were carried out by abusive armed police who were rarely called to account"
This confirms a phenomenon that I have been wondering about for a while. How is it that a government made up of people who have travelled, obtained postgraduate degrees at Harvard, speak many languages, and come from a private sector that claims to be open to the world, continue to think that the world is not aware of what is happening here? How is it that they continue to implement policies -- from education to security to aboriginal rights - that cause international criticism, whilst pretending that it has a model to sell to the rest of the world?

Increasingly, the world isn't buying.

Monday, 23 January 2012


Fortunately, the earthquake that hit Chile last week was political, not geological. But the agreement reached between Renovación Nacional and the Christian Democratic Party had the chattering classes, well, chattering. It was the first time since the early 1980s, and certainly since the return to democracy, that two political parties of different coalitions reach an official agreement on anything. The fact that it was on a package of political reforms is even more significant.

As I outline in this column, the reality is that the actual content of the agreement is rather short on details, or as Cristobal Bellolio says, "mucho ruido y pocas nueces". But after a long, hot year in which we thought that the political class had lost the capacity to talk to each other, the fact that the two parties were willing to take a leap into this unknown territory, is positive. It may well turn out that no agreement is actually implemented, or that the document becomes a starting point from which further negotiations may take place. The real value, however is these people have finally realized that, as Churchill said, "To jaw jaw is always better than to war war".

Of course, then he went to war.

Sunday, 15 January 2012


The US electoral calendar has gone into full gear, which is interesting for Chile in that one of the political reforms being discussed is primaries. In fact, the Christian Democratic Party held a primary today for the upcoming municipal elections. Here is something I wrote earlier in the week about the effects that primaries can have, using the US - a totally different kettle of political fish, I know -- as a comparative case.