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January 22, 2010

Chile's New Direction

By Spear's

This represents a major shift away from the divisive radicalism of the Bolivarian coalition and toward a more centrist approach

I was right after all, when in previous blogs I argued that Brazil’s President Lula pointed the way to a new Latin American politics by being a pragmatic leftist. After a long drift to racially- and socioeconomically-underpinned polarization, reason and the center are finally prevailing, as evidenced by this week’s presidential election in Chile.

Sebastián Piñera, a Harvard-educated economist and billionaire businessman, will succeed Michelle Bachelet as President of Chile, a center-leftist who leaves office in accordance with the constitution, despite having a 75% approval rating.

Not for the Chileans to hold a constitutional referendum on indefinite re-election as Chávez in Venezuela has done, or Zelaya in Honduras tried to do (leading to his ouster) or Uribe in Colombia would like to do. How very civilized of her to be so constitutional.

Piñera’s election is groundbreaking in many ways. First, it breaks the 20-year hold on power by the center-left coalition Concertación, widely credited with steering Chile out of its long and bloody dictatorship. Mr. Piñera won (albeit with the smallest majority in Chile’s history) despite longstanding fear of the right’s ties to the dictatorial government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Second of all, Mr. Piñera joins other right-wing rulers of major Latin American countries, namely: Alan García of Perú, Felipe Calderón of México and Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, who counterbalance socialist leaders such as Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia, Chávez in Venezuela and of course Ortega in Nicaragua.

Although leftist leaders still do well, this represents a major shift away from the divisive radicalism of the Chávez-led Bolivarian coalition and toward a more centrist and pragmatic approach (which I have always advocated) that focuses simultaneously on increased social justice (increased economic opportunities, better education, more access to healthcare) for all, while understanding the importance of macroeconomic stability in a free market capitalist system that is governed through strong state institutions, not single-handedly by some caudillo. 

This model has proved greatly successful for Lula personally and Brazil nationally, and President-Elect Piñera has already given indications that he understands this. He has promised to continue many of the social programs put in place by outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.

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Since his election on Sunday, Piñera has taken such pains to be respectful to Concertación, he has said he might even include some of them in his coalition cabinet, which is sure to contain many “independents.” Indeed, so friendly are relations that Pres.-Elect Piñera and outgoing Pres. Bachelet had breakfast together on Monday morning and Bachelet has invited him to accompany her on a presidential trip to Cancún next month. 

What? No violent revolution? No president going on national television advocating the throwing of Molotov cocktails or giving orders of imprisonment of the opposition, as Chávez does? Hey, if the Venezuelans continue to refuse to renew my passport, I may yet check out Chile.

After all, the “Southern Cone” of South America is starting to live out the dream I have always advocated as holding the key to Latin America’s future: socially left and economically right. Of course, I would be out of a job down there.

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