Wed, Jan 18, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Chile's cultural revolution

The Latin American country's first female president will not make any radical changes to the economic system, but looks set to expand on the timid social justice programs of her predecessor


The victory of Socialist Michelle Bachelet in Chile's presidential election has reinforced Latin America's shift to the left.

Like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Brazil's Luiz Lula da Silva, Uruguay's Tabare Vasquez, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner and Bolivia's Evo Morales, the former paediatrician has also campaigned for the end to hardship for her country's poor, minorities and disadvantaged.

"Latin America is experiencing a rebellion against deprivation," said former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, one of Bachelet's supporters.

But Bachelet, 54, who won 54 percent of the vote in Sunday's runoff election to become Chile's first woman president, represents a divergence from her ideological contemporaries in that she is no populist.

The former defense and health minister is calling for neither a political or economic revolution but a cultural one. She, therefore, is not distancing herself from her predecessors -- on the contrary.

"I am against the demonization of development in Latin America," Bachelet said. "There is no axis of evil here."

The region is not under threat from its democratically elected politicians, she said, "but from poverty, the lack of integration of its indigenous people, the drug trade and migration."

The Chilean political scientist Guillermo Holzman said he believes Bachelet, who is known as an "outside left" of the governing center-left coalition, will hardly touch the successful economic model and reforms of President Ricardo Lagos.

Chile has seen its gross domestic product grow about 6 percent annually in the past several years -- results seen by few countries in the world. It also saw US$7 billion in foreign investment last year, a substantial sum for a country of 15 million people.

In addition, its per-capita annual income of US$4,910 is 60 percent higher than the region's industrial giant, Brazil.

Despite these successes, 18 percent of Chileans continue to live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate rose as high as 10 percent last year.

In addition, Chile has one of the world's 10 worst income disparities. The top 20 percent of the population own 56 percent of Chile's wealth while the bottom 20 percent account for 4 percent of its capital and income.

Lagos' projects targeting the poorest of Chile's citizens were timid. Bachelet -- considered the most leftist president since Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and died in the 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet -- is certain to expand them.

"With Bachelet, the candidate of the governing coalition indeed won," said Ricardo Nunez, president of the Socialist Party.

"But with her begins a new era with greater social justice, more rights for workers, pension reform and more and better education," he said.

Bachelet, with her sad family history -- her father was tortured to death under Pinochet's regime and she and her mother were jailed before fleeing into exile -- also is a symbol for many political analysts of Chile's rise from Pinochet's brutal 13-year military dictatorship as well as for the liberalization of Chile's ardently Catholic, archconservative and patriarchal society.

Divorce and advertising campaigns promoting the use of condoms were only introduced two years ago. Also new are the "cafes with legs," featuring waitresses in miniskirts, which was an unthinkable development only a few years ago.

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