Freedom in the World
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President Michelle Bachelet continued to struggle with rising inflation, increasing unemployment, and overall macroeconomic sluggishness in spite of high copper prices during 2008. Divisions within her Concertacion coalition also complicated her efforts, and she was forced to reshuffle her cabinet for the fifth time in January 2008. Conservative opposition parties collected several surprise victories in the October municipal elections, dimming Concertacion’s prospects for the December 2009 presidential election.
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 bar 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.
Ricardo Lagos of Concertacion defeated former Pinochet adviser Joaquin Lavin, the candidate of the center-right Alliance coalition, in the 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 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 advantage was relatively short-lived. In December 2007, the Christian Democratic Party—part of the Concertacion coalition¾suffered a serious split, causing six of its legislature members to leave. Their departure ended the Concertacion’s majority in both houses of Congress.
Bachelet had also faced massive student demonstrations in the summer of 2006, in which protesters demanded improvements in the education system, and she struggled to cope with lower economic growth as high energy prices outweighed record copper revenues. However, her administration oversaw the construction of new hospitals and nursery schools, and an education reform passed by the lower house of Congress in November 2007 awaited Senate approval at the end of 2008. The education reform aimed to reduce discrimination in school admissions and to redistribute government funds among public schools.
In January 2008, Bachelet reshuffled her cabinet for the fifth time, appointing experienced party officials. The move was prompted by the abrupt resignation of the interior minister. Also, in April 2008 the education minister was impeached over $540 million in missing funds. The problem was most likely due to incompetence rather than corruption, but it did little to renew Chileans’ faith in the administration’s ability to effectively manage the budget, which had grown sixfold since 1990.
Municipal elections held in October represented a setback for the president. The opposition Alliance won the most mayoral votes, including those in Chile’s largest cities.
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 half coming up for election every four years, and the 120-member Chamber of Deputies is elected for four years.
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.
Congress passed significant transparency and campaign finance laws in 2003 that contributed to Chile’s reputation as Latin America’s best-governed country. In June 2007, Congress passed a law designed to improve transparency, in part by protecting public employees who expose corruption. Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index gave Chile a ranking of 23 out of 180 countries surveyed, making it the best performer in Latin America.
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. On August 11, 2008, President Bachelet signed a freedom of information law, lauded by civil society groups for providing much needed transparency in governance in Chile. There are no government restrictions on the internet.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects that 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. Demonstrations are common, and protesters’ demands range from improved education to increased salaries. Workers may join existing unions or form unions without prior authorization; however, the 2007 International Trade Union Confederation survey of trade union rights highlighted ongoing antiunion practices including the replacement of striking workers and the use of dismissal threats to discourage union organizing.
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. In spite of three new prisons built in 2007, prison conditions are poor, and overcrowding is worsened by a prison population that continues to grow by 8 percent annually.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1990 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. Chile’s Supreme Court jailed five military officers in October 2008 on charges of killing dozens of suspected leftists during the dictatorship. The officers were all members of a committee, known as the Caravan of Death, which traveled the country and killed political opponents shortly after the 1973 coup.
Indigenous groups comprise 4.6 percent of the population and are vocal about their rights to ancestral lands. A general nondiscrimination bill that was under consideration by Congress at year’s end spells out a range of social categories to be protected from discrimination.
Violence against women and children remains a problem, though discrimination toward women is apparently in decline. 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. President Michelle Bachelet has worked to limit gender discrimination, fighting against 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. By year’s end, a draft law was being considered by Congress that would require political parties to nominate women for at least 30 percent of their candidate lists.