In Praise of Michelle Bachelet
by Charles Lemos, Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 08:05:57 PM EST
“Chile is no longer our fatherland—it’s our motherland” became a popular refrain when Dr. Michelle Bachelet was elected four years ago to become the South America’s first female president since Bolivia’s Lydia Gueiler Tejada became interim president of that Andean nation in 1979. Unlike the appointed Gueiler, however, Bachelet won the Chilean presidency via the ballot box. Today she passed the reins of power to Sebastián Piñera, a Harvard economist and billionaire tycoon, ending a 20-year rule by La Concertación, the centre-left coalition that has governed the country since the departure of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
For the Latin American left, this is certainly a bittersweet moment. There's an immense pride in the success of her government which exits a remarkable 84 percent approval rate. Chile's rise points to the success of the “pragmatic socialism” movement in Latin America, a left-leaning democratic coalition of countries that includes Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and El Salvador that aims for progressive policies focused on reduction of social inequality coupled with traditional free market economic policy. And while we turned over power to the right, the loss is tempered by the fact Sebastián Piñera has pledged to maintain and extend the policies that have created Chile's social safety net. It is not insignificant to note that when the right accepts the ideas of the left as part of the model, we have won a major victory. This is perhaps Bachelet's greatest triumph. In Chile, pragmatic socialism is the economic model.
It’s somewhat remarkable that Michelle Bachelet even became President. Bachelet, an agnostic and single mother of three children including one with a non-married partner, is an atypical mother in a country widely viewed as one of the more conservative Catholic countries in which divorce was banned until 2004. A profile such as hers would disqualify any American from seeking the Presidency. She is the daughter of an air force general who died after being tortured during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1989). Bachelet with her mother fled into exile returning only the political situation in Chile stabilized. She would work with torture victims during the dark years of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Between 2000 and 2002, Bachelet was health minister in the government of fellow Socialist Ricardo Lagos, and she was later the country’s defense minister, up until October 2004 when she resigned in order to run for the presidency.
A pediatrician by training, Dr. Bachelet embraced gender issues from the start, vowing that her government would "fight with all its capacity for the full exercise of women’s rights.”
Among the accomplishments of the Bachelet government in the realm of gender issues were:
- A law giving women the right to breast-feed at work.
- A law stiffened the penalties for men who fail to pay alimony.
- Hundreds of nurseries have been established nationwide, along with domestic violence shelters for women and children.
- Equal numbers of women and men are now serving in top government jobs, including in the Cabinet.
- Women were for the first time admitted at the Chilean Naval Academy.
But it is in the realm of social investment and especially in the area of childhood development that Bachelet had the biggest impact. Under Bachelet Chile shaved off 50 basis points off the country’s GINI co-efficient narrowing the income inequality gap from 0.571 in 2005 to 0.520 last year. Looking over the course of the decade, the narrowing of social inequality from 0.583 in 2001 some sixty basis points stands out as one of the more notable achievements anywhere in the world. When one considers that the GINI co-efficient stood at 0.64 when Pinochet left office, the impact of the Left's rule in Chile becomes evident.
In 1985, 45 percent of Chileans lived in poverty with some 20 percent living in extreme poverty classified as living on two dollars or less per day. In 1990, when Augusto Pinochet left office, more than 38.6 percent of people in this Andean country of 16 million lived below the poverty line. By 2003, the poverty rate had been cut to 18.7 percent and as of 2008 it stood at just 13.7 percent. The number of Chileans who today live in extreme poverty is just 2.4 percent.
During much of the 1990s, Chile’s economy averaged annual growth of 7.8%, earning it the title of Latin America’s most turbocharged but the country’s growth was uneven with the rich getting richer and the bottom half of Chileans getting left behind. Chilean leaders had long hoped to match the affluence in Portugal or a Greece, two of the less affluent European nations.
Chile’s growth was fueled by free-trade agreements (FTAs)with 56 countries that opened markets to Chile’s natural resources such as copper (which remains in state hands) and timber, and to food items such as fruit, fish and wine. Chile in a public-private partnership, for example, developed the country's farmed salmon industry from zero in 1990 to where it is today, the world’s second largest after Norway. Since 1990, the country has increased exports from $9 billion USD a year to $60 billion USD in 2006. And the various FTAs have diversified Chile's trading partners so much so that China surpassed the United States as Chile's largest export market with Brazil now poised to overtake the US.
But despite the global commodities boom, growth slowed at the start of this decade to half what it was in the 1990s, to an average of 3.7%. The economic expansion was no longer keeping pace with the growth of the labor force. Far from catching up to Portugal’s economic output of about $23,000 per capita, Chile’s remained stuck at $14,000.
At a 2008 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, President Bachelet noted that “Chile has set even more ambitious goals for itself. Chile’s currently a middle-income country, and within the next few years its per capita income, measured through the use of the purchasing power parity, will be in excess of $20,000 per year. In keeping with this, the country’s now in the process of conducting reforms that will enable us to make a strong leap towards development…We must increase competitiveness, promote innovation and ensure that all members of our societies participate in the development process, what we have called social cohesion. We need to go further in social cohesion, too.”
Her Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows With You) childhood development programme is perhaps the jewel in the crown of the policies she instituted. The four main principles that govern Chile Crece Contigo are a Human Rights framework where all children have the right to develop to their maximum individual potential; Social Participation, with children and families participating from the inital design phase of various Government programmes, in order to include their needs and wants; and Equity, including universal actions for all children of a similar age, some actions targeting only children who participate in the public health sector, and other actions especially targeting vulnerable children who belong to the 40 per cent of the poorest households – which encompasses around 60 per cent of children from 0-4 years old in the country. The policies included free prenatal and postnatal care, mandatory paid maternal leaves, a network of state-subsidized day care centers that offered free childcare to working families, and scholarships to maintain school enrollment for adolescent mothers. It's a model well worth replicating.
Under her tenure direct foreign investment in Chile increased 64 percent and Chile became the first South American and the second Latin American country to join the OECD, a group of the world’s top 31 industrialized economies. Indeed, last year the United Nations Development Programme's annual Human Development Index, which measures countries' social as well as economic conditions, ranked Chile 38th in the world, ahead of all other Latin American countries.
The Chilean Constitution does not allow for successive presidential terms. She is eligible to run again in 2013 when Chile next holds presidential elections. In the meantime, she will commute between New York and Santiago working on international development issues with a particular focus on early childhood development.