Letter to Guardian by Dr Cathy Collins
23 October 2010
Chilean president Sebastian Piñera has been feted during his brief London visit as the man of the moment (Rocks from a hard place, 19 October), hailed in the street by people who remember last week’s unforgettable scenes of 33 miners hauled one after another to the surface and into the president’s outstretched arms after over 10 weeks trapped underground. But once the euphoria dies down, some more sobering matters await the president’s attention. These include the question of what the men were doing down there in the first place, in an overworked, unstable mine previously closed down as unsafe … until copper prices rose and rose, and profit margins were allowed to trump safety concerns. Happily for Piñera, the decision to reopen was taken under the previous government, but it’s hard to see the millionaire president selling the idea of tough new safety standards to
the entrepreneurial class who are his natural supporters.
High growth figures over the past decades have tackled absolute poverty, but turned Chile into a highly unequal society. Piñera was elected last year by Chileans who want to be kept in the style to which they have become accustomed. A brief look at his background is enough to show how unrealistic it is to expect him to do that while taking on big business. Labour protection is not familiar territory for Chile’s millionaire president. The free-market model that has done wonders for Chile’s growth figures has also brought deregulation, “flexibilisation”, and de-unionisation, leaving workers ever less protected. Piñera is a man in search of a message: from the less ideological of Chile’s two rightwing coalition parties, he has proved willing to borrow centre-left ideas, including the social protection policies of popular outgoing president Michelle Bachelet. A move to the centre would also help put clear blue water between Piñera and the Pinochet dictatorship, which is Chile’s most recent experience of rightwing rule. It’s no coincidence that Piñera has expressed the hope that Chile will now be remembered for the slick mining-rescue operation rather than for the 1973 coup. He has a preoccupation with Chile’s and his own international image, and a morbid fear of being reminded that Chile’s modern political right, like its present economic structure, are creations of the military regime.
Piñera’s first few months were lacklustre, with little progress on earthquake reconstruction, and a damaging and ill-managed 70-day hunger strike by indigenous activists. The miners’ story was a political godsend, once it became clear that it would have a happy ending. But there’s a long way to go before Piñera’s real political legacy can be assessed, and a savvy media policy will not be enough.
Dr Cath Collins
Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile