Freedom in the World
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Despite majority support in both houses of Congress, President Michelle Bachelet endured a difficult year in 2007 due to ongoing macroeconomic sluggishness, her perceived inability to govern, and divisions within the ruling Concertacion coalition regarding Chile’s economic policy. However, revenue stemming from record-high copper prices allowed the government to increase investment in social and education programs, which has contributed to an overall decline in poverty levels
The Republic of Chile was founded after independence from Spain in 1818. Democratic rule predominated in the 20th century until the 1973 military coup against President Salvador Allende, led by General Augusto Pinochet. An estimated 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” under Pinochet’s regime. The 1980 constitution provided for a plebiscite in which voters could reject another presidential term for Pinochet. When the poll was held in 1988, some 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 bloc Concertacion (Coalition of Parties for Democracy), was elected president. Concertacion’s Eduardo Frei, a businessman and the son of a former president, was elected to succeed Aylwin in 1993. Frei promised to establish full civilian control over the military, but he found that he lacked the necessary votes in Congress. Frei was also forced to retreat on his call for full accountability for human rights violations that had occurred under military rule.
Ricardo Lagos of Concertacion defeated former Pinochet adviser Joaquin Lavin, the candidate of the center-right Alliance coalition, in the December 1999 presidential election. Though Lagos remained popular throughout his tenure, political corruption scandals tainted his administration. In response, he forged a working alliance with the opposition’s strongest party to push for anticorruption reforms.
In the first step in what would become a years-long effort to hold Pinochet responsible for human rights atrocities, the former president was detained in London in 1998 under an extradition order from Spain. After being released from detention in London for health reasons in 2000, he returned to Chile, where he was eventually indicted in 2004 for tax evasion and two outstanding human rights cases. A series of pretrial legal battles over his health status and immunity from prosecution ended with a September 2006 Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for his trial. However, the case against Pinochet came to a close with the former dictator’s death in December 2006.
Running on a pledge to tackle inequality while maintaining economic discipline, Michelle Bachelet, Lagos’s health and defense minister, was elected president in January 2006. Because of Concertacion’s strong performance in the 2005 legislative elections and a reform that eliminated the institution of unelected senators, she became the first president to govern with majorities in both houses of Congress. However, this majority was relatively short lived. In December 2007, the Christian Democratic Party—one of the Concertacion coalition’s three parties—suffered a serious split causing six of its members to leave.
Bachelet has experienced moderate difficulties throughout her presidency. The problems began with massive student demonstrations in the summer of 2006, in which protesters demanded improvements in the country’s education system. Tellingly, the World Economic Forum’s 2006–07 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Chile 76th in the world for the quality of its education system, below many countries with similar income levels. That ranking came despite a fourfold increase in education spending since 1990. Bachelet’s other problems include her perceived inability to govern and lower economic growth in 2006 and 2007 (4 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively) as high energy prices outweighed record copper revenues. She has also faced dissent from leftist elements within Concertacion that consider her administration’s fiscal policies to be too conservative, especially given the increased state revenues from record-high copper prices. However, Bachelet can point to many accomplishments, including the construction of new hospitals and nursery schools, and the financing of scholarships for poor students. Furthermore, recent statistics show a decline in poverty rates, from 18.7 percent of the population in 2003 to 13.7 percent in 2006.
Chile is an electoral democracy. Elections are considered free and fair. The constitution, which took effect in 1981 and has been amended several times, currently calls for a president elected for a single four-year term, and a bicameral National Congress. The Senate’s 38 members serve eight-year terms, with a portion coming up for election every four years, and the 120-member Chamber of Deputies is elected for four years. A presidential candidate is required by law to win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff contest.
In 2005, the Senate finally passed reforms that repealed the last vestiges of military rule, ending authoritarian curbs on the legislative branch and restoring the president’s right to remove top military commanders. The reform package included the abolition of the Senate’s nine unelected seats and reduced the presidential term from six years to four.
There are three major political groupings in Chile: the center-left Concertacion coalition, formed in 1989, comprising the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), the Socialist Party (PS), the Party for Democracy (PPD), and the Social Democratic Radical Party (PRSD); the center-right Alliance coalition, formed in 1999, comprising the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and the National Renewal party (RN); and the Communist Party.
In response to a public outcry over political corruption scandals, Congress passed significant transparency and campaign finance laws in 2003, and the measures appear to have been effective. Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index gave Chile a ranking of 22 out of 180 countries surveyed, making it the best performer in Latin America. In June 2007, Congress passed a government-backed law designed to improve transparency, in part by protecting public employees who expose corruption.
Guarantees of free speech are generally respected, and the media operate without constraint. Some laws barring defamation of state institutions remain on the books. The print media are dominated by two right-leaning companies, but the television market is considered highly diverse. 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 this predominately Roman Catholic country. 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 upheld. Protests and demonstrations are common, and range from demands for improved education to increased salaries. Workers may join existing unions or form unions without prior authorization.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the courts are generally free from political interference. 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 have not always received effective legal representation.
Chile has two national police services: a uniformed service, the Carabineros, and a smaller, plainclothes investigation service. In response to public complaints, the government in June 2006 dismissed a special forces commander and his deputy after their unit was implicated in police brutality during that year’s student protests. Prisons are overcrowded and antiquated, with facilities operating at an estimated 155 percent of capacity nationwide.
In 1990, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to investigate human rights violations committed under military rule. Its report implicated the military and secret police leadership in the deaths or forced disappearances of 2,279 people between 1973 and 1990. Chilean courts convicted several former military officers of heinous crimes, ruling that a 1978 amnesty decree was inapplicable in cases of forced disappearance.
The army, the military branch most implicated in human rights violations, has offered 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 as well as reparations for victims of past crimes. President Michelle Bachelet has continued the push to prosecute these crimes by clearly invalidating the 1978 amnesty law for all murder and torture charges.
Indigenous groups in the country’s southern region are increasingly vocal about their rights to ancestral lands. The last census, conducted in 2002, recorded approximately 692,000 people who identified themselves as being of indigenous origin, or 4.6 percent of Chile’s population. A bill supporting constitutional recognition for indigenous people failed to pass Congress in January 2006, but Bachelet has publicly called on lawmakers to support the measure.
Violence against women and children remains a problem, though discrimination toward women is showing improvement. In 2004, Congress passed a law that legalized divorce; Chile had been one of only a handful of countries in the world to prohibit divorce. Bachelet has worked against a number of aspects of gender discrimination, including higher medical insurance premiums for women during childbearing years and lower salaries than men for comparable work. She initially fulfilled a campaign promise by appointing women to half of her cabinet seats, and in 2006, she helped enact a new public sector labor code that removes job candidates’ gender from applications and mandates job training during regular working hours.