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Former defense and health minister Michelle Bachelet, of the center-left Concertacion coalition, was elected as Chile’s first female president on January 15, 2006. She is the first president to enjoy a majority in both houses of Congress since the country returned to civilian rule in 1990. Her administration was shaken in May and June by massive student demonstrations demanding increased public investment in the education system, a greater expectation given record-high copper prices. As the price of copper increased by 83 percent from its 2005 to 2006 average, the Chilean government as well as the country’s mining companies enjoyed billions of dollars of additional revenue.
The Republic of Chile was founded after independence from Spain in 1818. Democratic rule predominated in the twentieth century until the 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende by the military led by General Augusto Pinochet. An estimated 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during his regime. The 1980 constitution provided for a plebiscite in which voters could reject another presidential term for Pinochet. In the 1988 vote, 55 percent of voters rejected eight more years of military rule, and competitive presidential and legislative elections were scheduled for the following year.
In 1989, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, the candidate of the center-left Concertacion (Coalition for Parties of Democracy), was elected president, and the Concertacion won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. In the December 1993 elections, Eduardo Frei, a businessman and the son of a former president, carried the Concertacion candidacy to an easy victory. Frei promised to establish full civilian control over the military, but he found he lacked the votes in Congress, as the 48-seat Senate included a senator-for-life position for Pinochet and nine designated senators mandated by the 1980 constitution. Frei was also forced to retreat on his call for full accountability for rights violations that had occurred under military rule.
In the first step in what would become a years-long effort to hold Pinochet responsible for the atrocities committed during the dirty war, in 1998 the former president was detained in London under an extradition order from Spain.
In the December 1999 presidential election, Ricardo Lagos, a moderate socialist, defeated center-right Alliance coalition candidate Joaquin Lavin, a former adviser to Pinochet. Lagos’s strong popularity was temporarily challenged by ongoing unemployment, price increases, and charges of government corruption in late 2000. Though Lagos remained popular throughout his tenure, political corruption scandals dominated the headlines in 2003 in Chile, which had been viewed as a regional leader in clean government and transparency. Incidents of influence peddling, insider trading, and kickbacks resulted in the head of the central bank and two cabinet members—one a presidential confidant—leaving their jobs. In response to the corruption scandals, Lagos forged a working alliance with the opposition’s strongest party to push for reforms to eliminate official corruption.
The December 2005 presidential campaign offered the ruling coalition an opportunity to showcase its economic stewardship, represented by massive public works projects sprouting up around the country. Michelle Bachelet, who was Lagos’s health and defense minister, benefited from her association with a government that presided over one of Latin America’s most impressive economic booms. With campaign promises to tackle inequality while maintaining economic discipline, Bachelet was elected president in the required second-round runoff on January 15, 2006, in which she comfortably defeated Sebastian Pinera of the Alianza coalition by 53.5 to 46.5 percent. Because of Concertacion’s strong performance in the 2005 elections and a reform that eliminated the institution of unelected senators, she became the first president to enjoy majorities in both houses of Congress: the Concertacion holds 65 of the 120 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 20 of the 38 seats in the Senate through 2010.
High expectations for Bachelet’s administration contributed to six weeks of massive student demonstrations in May and June 2006; an estimated 600,000 students called for improvements in the country’s education system and reforms in the regulations that they claimed hurt poor families. The World Economic Forum’s 2006-2007 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Chile 27th among world nations in economic competitiveness—far ahead of the rest of Latin America. However, it ranks 76th in this same report for the quality of its overall education system, below many other countries with similar income levels. In response to the strike, Bachelet reshuffled her cabinet and set up a comprehensive national advisory committee to advise on education reform. Copper miners as well as thousands of health care workers and teachers conducted similar protests in September 2006 demanding pay raises, marking another claim on the dividend from the copper boom.
Chile’s economy benefited in 2006 from a record-high price of copper, which accounts for 45 percent of exports. While maintaining her commitment to fiscal discipline, Bachelet announced plans to use part of the billions in proceeds to invest in health, housing, and education. Specifically, she committed to a one-time grant of $35 to each of 1.2 million low-income families (a small yet symbolically important amount), the construction of new hospitals and nursery schools, and the financing of student scholarships for poor students.
The long-running case against Pinochet come to a close with the former dictator’s death in December 2006, just a few months after prior decisions were reversed. Recent developments in the case include a 2004 indictment for tax evasion after the discovery that Pinochet had hidden more than $27 million in foreign accounts and subsequent revelation that the money had come from drugs and arms dealing. After Pinochet’s arrest in London and voluntary return to Chile, efforts to try the general on human rights charges were dropped three times as the Supreme Court ruled him unfit to undergo trial for health reasons. However, he remained under indictment in two outstanding human rights cases—one involving kidnapping and torture at a detention center where political dissidents, including Bachelet and her mother, had once been held. Reversing prior decisions, in September 2006, the Supreme Court stripped him of his immunity for this case. Before he could be tried again, however, Pinochet died in Chile on December 10, 2006.
Chile is an electoral democracy. Elections are considered free and fair, although low registration rates among young voters are a cause for concern. In 2004, a report from the Chilean Youth Institute said that the registry of young Chileans in the country’s electoral rolls dropped by 50 percent between 1997 and 2003. A presidential candidate is required by law to win a majority of 50 percent plus one to avoid a runoff contest.
In 2005, the Senate finally passed reforms that repealed the last vestiges of Pinochet’s legacy, moving to abolish authoritarian curbs on the legislative branch and agreeing to restore the president’s right to remove the commanders in chief of the country’s armed services. The reform package included the abolition of the Senate’s nine appointed seats, which included four representatives of the armed forces as well as lifetime positions for former presidents. It also reduced the presidential term of office from six years to four. The bicameral National Congress consists of the 38-seat Senate, whose members serve eight-year terms (one-half elected every four years), and the 120-seat Chamber of Deputies, whose members serve four-year terms.
Major parties and political groupings in Chile are split into three parts: the center-left Concertacion coalition formed in 1989 (comprising the Partido Democrata Cristiano [PDC], the Partido Socialista [PS], the Partido por la Democracia [PPD,] and the Partido Radical Social Democrata [PRSD] parties); the center-right Alianza coalition formed in 1999 (comprising the Union Democrata Independiente [UDI] and Renovacion Nacional [RN] parties); and the Communist Party.
In response to public outcry over the political corruption scandals, Congress passed laws in 2003 to prevent political patronage in high-level civil service jobs, increase government workers’ salaries to reduce their susceptibility to bribes, create public funding for political campaigns, and require the names of private campaign contributors to be listed publicly. These reforms have led to results on the ground. Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Chile as Latin America’s least corrupt country at 20 out of a total of 163 countries worldwide.
Guarantees of free speech are generally respected, and the media generally operate without constraint. A political consensus exists to amend some current statutes, striking down certain crimes contained in the criminal code such as insulting public officials. These remain on the books as the result of a protracted legislative process. Chile has no law guaranteeing access to public information. There are no government restrictions on the internet.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Religious homogeneity—the country is predominately Catholic—makes this practice easier. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The right to assemble peacefully is largely respected, and the constitution guarantees the right of association, which the government has also generally respected. Protests and demonstrations are common, and range from demands for improved education to increased salaries. Workers may form unions without prior authorization as well as join existing unions. Approximately 12 percent of Chile's 5.7 million workers belong to unions.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respects this provision in practice. Most sitting judges come from the career judiciary, and all judges are appointed for life. The constitution provides for the right to legal counsel, but indigent defendants, who account for the majority of the cases in the Santiago region, have not always received effective legal representation.
Chile has two national police forces: a uniformed force, the Carabineros, one of Latin America’s best law enforcement institutions with a history of popular support and respect; and a smaller, plainclothes investigations force. However, in recent years, the Carabineros have been the subject of complaints about the use of excessive force against demonstrators. In response, in June 2006 the government dismissed a Special Forces commander and his deputy whose unit was implicated in police brutality during the student protests. Prisons are overcrowded and antiquated, with facilities nationally running at about 163 percent of capacity.
In 1990, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to investigate rights violations committed under military rule. Its report implicated the military and secret police leadership in the death or forcible disappearance of 2,279 people between September 1973 and March 1990. Chilean courts convicted several former military officers of heinous crimes, ruling that a 1978 amnesty decree set down by the Pinochet government was inapplicable to cases of enforced disappearance, which, the courts have held, is an ongoing crime.
The army, the military branch most implicated in rights crimes, has extended limited cooperation to judicial investigations. In mid-2003, President Ricardo Lagos announced a series of measures relating to the criminal prosecution of former members of the military—including transfer of human rights cases currently under review in military tribunals to the jurisdiction of the civilian court system—and to reparations for victims of past rights crimes. President Bachelet has continued this push to prosecute Pinochet-era crimes by clearly invalidating the 1978 amnesty law for all murder and torture charges. While human rights groups in Chile applaud the effort, some conservatives feel the move will result in tensions and divisions as opposed to national reconciliation.
Native American groups in the country’s southern region are increasingly vocal about their rights to ancestral lands that the government and private industry seek to develop. The last census conducted in 2002 recorded approximately 692,000 people who identified themselves as of indigenous origin, or 4.6 percent of Chile’s total population. Lagos attempted to fulfill a campaign promise that the “Indian question” would receive priority attention by promoting the constitutional recognition of indigenous people in Chile. While, in January 2006, a bill supporting such a constitutional amendment could not be passed in the Chamber of Deputies because of the lack of the quorum needed for a vote, Bachelet has publicly called upon the Congress to support the measure.
Violence against women and children remains a problem, while discrimination toward women is showing improvement. In 2004, Congress passed a law that legalized divorce; as one of the most conservative countries in Latin America, Chile had been one of only a handful of countries in the world to prohibit divorce.
Throughout 2006, Bachelet vowed to work against continued discrimination against women, including higher medical insurance premiums during women’s childbearing years and lower salaries than men for comparable work. She initially fulfilled a campaign promise by appointing women to half her cabinet seats and helped institute a new labor code for the public sector adopted in the summer of 2006 that removes a candidate’s gender from job applications and mandates job training during regular working hours.