19 January 2006 Edition

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Chile's first woman president

BY Aran Foley

Former political prisoner pledges half her cabinet will be women

Michelle Bachelet's runaway victory in Chile's Presidential election has to be seen as a positive development in a country where women have often been treated as second-class citizens.

A political prisoner during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the Socialist Party candidate is the first woman to lead Chile, considered one of South America's more socially conservative countries. Bachelet says she will fill up to half her cabinet posts with women and for this reason alone the result represents a major social shift.

How she will perform on economic issues is less certain. Many on the left will make the point that this is no Hugo Chavez, which is almost certainly true. However it is too early to dismiss her as just another neo liberal ideologue, more of the same since the fall of Pinochet.

There are a number of key areas to watch in order to get an idea of how Bachelet will perform.

The first area to watch will be what she intends to do about subcontracted labour. Nearly half the workforce is employed under these conditions. They can be hired and fired at a whim and this has led to an effective wage freeze, which takes the real benefit out of an unemployment rate of just 7.5%. Her first test on this issue will be her response to the ongoing industrial dispute at Codelco, one of Chile's few public industries. Pinochet had kept it in the public sphere in order for the Military to siphon off profits from the countries lucrative copper industry. Twenty eight thousand of its subcontracted labour force are now on strike. Bachelet has thus far declined to comment on the dispute.

Another test for Bachelet will be how she deals with the country's growing social security crisis. Pinochet privatised social security at the behest of his neo liberal masters and it had been held up by the Bush regime as an example of what they intended to do in the United States. The truth however is that many workers have been left with woefully inadequate pensions. It will be interesting to see what the new President does.

Bachelet won 53% of the vote, while billionaire businessman Sebastian Piquera polled around 47%. Her victory maintains the Socialist Party in the Presidential office for another four years, following the presidency of Ricardo Lagos. Lagos won the general election in 2000, the first time a socialist had held the post since 1973 when Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in a fascist coup.

Tortured and exiled by the Pinochet regime in the eighties and having seen her father tortured to death for supporting the ousted Allende, Bachelet will be able to tap into a wide network of support should she choose to make the kind of reforms necessary. John Guzman, the Judge who first went after Pinochet but was stopped by the then Government has been working on her campaign, another sign that this administration is different from what went before.

Qualifications aside, there is no doubt that Bechelet's victory is part of a wider shift to the left in Latin America that began with the near collapse of the Argentinean economy in 2002 under the weight of neo-liberal policies imposed from above. Rightist Governments throughout the region had been applying these policies throughout the 1990's and we now seem to be witnessing the backlash with left leaning candidates elected in Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia. There can be no doubt that this represents a significant weakening of US influence in the region. The failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations (The FTTA was a Washington sponsored neo-liberal trade agreement) and Washington's failure to have any of it's preferred candidates elected to head the Organisation of American States (OAS) are two cases in point.


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