In Chile, a Billionaire Takes the Reins From a Socialist, Again

In an interview at the presidential palace a week before the end of her term, Ms. Bachelet said she was proud of her legacy.

“We haven’t done everything we wanted, and some things didn’t come out perfectly,” Ms. Bachelet said. “But the truth is that we have accomplished more than what many thought possible.”

At the end of a transformative era for Chile, a country of nearly 18 million, many question the long-term viability of the sweeping policy changes Ms. Bachelet put in place to expand civil rights and access to higher education.

In Chile, a Billionaire Takes the Reins From a Socialist, Again
In Chile, a Billionaire Takes the Reins From a Socialist, Again

“I think there were several advances for women during her two governments,” Alicia Moreno, 47, a social worker, said of Ms. Bachelet. “But she lacked strength to carry out the big reforms we all expected.”

Her first election as president was a milestone that turned her into a global icon of female empowerment, a status that helped her win hard-fought victories last year. Chile’s Constitution does not allow consecutive second terms.


Sebastian Piñera first served as Chile’s president from 2010. For his second tenure, he says, “We will need to restore confidence in the country.”Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

When Mr. Piñera succeeded her, his election in 2010 was pathbreaking, too, as he was the first right-wing leader elected since democracy was restored in Chile in 1990, after a 17-year military dictatorship led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

At this political turning point, interviews with the departing and incoming presidents suggest, there is much the two political figures in Chile agree on.

Both say they believe the country should continue to be a beacon of free trade. Both want to see even deeper ties with China, Chile’s top trading partner, and have rebuffed Trump administration warnings that Beijing is consolidating itself as a colonial, exploitive power in Latin America.

The two leaders are bullish about Chile’s transformation into a renewable-energy powerhouse and the country’s role as a global leader in countering climate change. And both say Chile should continue to welcome immigrants, even as a large wave of recent arrivals from Haiti and Venezuela has called into question the country’s capacity to absorb so many newcomers at once.

But there is plenty on which they disagree. To begin with, there is Ms. Bachelet’s legacy: an ambitious overhaul of the tax system, labor laws and public education. Mr. Piñera argues that she overreached and that her efforts amounted to taking a “bulldozer” approach to governing.

The departing president, however, argued that structural changes were necessary.

“This is a changed country,” Ms. Bachelet said in the recent interview in Santiago, the capital. “People are more empowered. The middle class is a lot more aware of its rights and its needs; people demand more each day; and political institutions are viewed with a growing level of distrust.”

During her latest four-year term, the government transformed Chile’s electricity grid, weaning a nation poor in fossil fuels of its dependence on hydrocarbons by building an expanding network of solar and wind-powered grids that have made electricity cheaper and cleaner.

Her government also created protected marine areas and a vast network of national parks in the southern Patagonia region that will shelter much of the country’s forest land and coastline from development.

She is credited with strengthening consumer protections and labor rights and passing an electoral reform law that made Chile’s political system more inclusive by breaking up a two-party system and broadening the participation of women. The electoral overhaul also limited the influence of private-sector money in campaigns.

Her signature legislative victory: getting a deeply divided Congress to approve the legalization of abortion in limited circumstances.


Mr. Piñera, a billionaire, says he will cut bureaucratic bottlenecks and court foreign investment more aggressively than his predecessor did.Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Beatriz Sánchez, a rising political star who came in third in the first round of last year’s presidential race, said the changes set in motion by Ms. Bachelet might become clear with time.

“Her main achievement was proposing, with deep conviction, an agenda of real change that shifted the conversation in Chile toward a society that valued rights and not just markets,” said Ms. Sánchez, who is to the left of Ms. Bachelet politically.

Mr. Piñera, however, says there is much that his predecessor got wrong.

“I don’t doubt the president’s good intentions,” he said during an interview this past week at his office in Santiago. “But you know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

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Among Ms. Bachelet’s most controversial changes was her aggressive push to expand access to free higher education through programs that today cover about 340,000 students. That initiative was financed by raising corporate taxes, which Mr. Piñera and other critics said drove away investors.

While it was a laudable goal, Mr. Piñera argued, Ms. Bachelet’s education policy is unsustainable and has degraded the quality of universities.

The education overhaul and other programs were tough to fund as economic growth slowed because the price of copper, Chile’s top export, dropped. Last year, the country’s fiscal deficit topped $8 billion, or 2.8 percent of its gross domestic product — a level that Mr. Piñera called irresponsible.

When Mr. Piñera, 68, ran for a second time, he handily defeated Ms. Bachelet’s favored candidate, the left-wing former journalist Alejandro Guillier, in December by convincing voters that he was best suited to jump-start economic growth.

The incoming president says he will cut bureaucratic bottlenecks, court foreign investment more aggressively than his predecessor did and seek to foster unity on economic policy in an increasingly fractured, and left-leaning, Congress. “It won’t be easy,” Mr. Piñera said. “First, we will need to restore confidence in the country.”

Chile’s economic growth will continue to rely heavily on its robust relationship with China, which in 2010 outpaced the United States to become Chile’s top trading partner, Mr. Piñera said.

“The relationship with China has been a good relationship, and it is expanding beyond commercial matters, to investment and cooperation in science and technology, environmental issues and several other fronts,” he said.


Ms. Bachelet with Mr. Piñera, right, and his wife, Cecilia Morel. At left is the interior minister, Mario Fernandez. The two leaders are bullish about Chile’s role as a global leader in countering climate change.Credit Esteban Felix/Associated Press

“China has been gaining ground in Latin America in part because China has been pursuing it and partly because the United States is stepping back.”

Mr. Piñera has expressed disappointment that the Trump administration has yet to present a coherent policy toward Latin America while warning the region about drawing closer to China.

“We’ve seen signs — building a wall along the border with Mexico, the deportation of immigrants, protectionism,” he said. “But a clear policy that would allow us to evaluate the foreign policy of the United States toward the region is still not on the table.”

As a sign of how muddled the Trump administration’s approach is, Mr. Piñera said that when he had a lengthy, cordial conversation with President Trump shortly after the Chilean election last year, Mr. Trump expressed surprise when the president-elect pointed out that the United States had a trade surplus with Chile.

But foreign policy is unlikely to be among the thornier issues Mr. Piñera faces when he assumes office on Sunday. He won the second round of voting by an ample margin, and Chileans elected a strikingly politically diverse Congress during the first round. Anticipating a vigorous political opposition, Mr. Piñera has portrayed himself as a deal maker and a moderate.

“I want to replace the perverse logic of the bulldozer that destroys everything in its wake for the wise culture of dialogue, agreement, collaboration,” he said.

Mr. Piñera has extended an olive branch on an initiative Ms. Bachelet failed to get across the finish line, vowing to support passage of a bill that would allow transgender people to update their names and gender on government documents.

Yet he remains opposed to another bill, which would legalize same-sex marriage, arguing that “situations that are different” cannot be “treated the same way.”

And as he sets out to accelerate economic growth, Chileans will be watching closely whether any new wealth is distributed equitably, Ms. Sánchez, the former candidate, said.

“If they seek to keep things as they are, where wealth grows and remains hyperconcentrated in few hands while most people’s salaries barely cover basic expenses, he won’t have an easy time making deals in Congress,” she said.

And university students, who staged mass protests during Mr. Piñera’s first term, are likely to become a thorn in his side if the subsidies Ms. Bachelet established are pared.

“Piñera promises more work and growth, but just like in his first government, he’s going to govern for the rich and the businesspeople,” Pablo Vilches, 22, a university student said.

Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on March 11, 2018, on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: In Chile, a Billionaire Takes the Reins From a Socialist Yet Again. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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