Chile: Activists Fear Setbacks Under Rightwing Government

Source: IPS News

(IPS) – Trade unions and non-governmental organisations in Chile are worried that rightwing billionaire Sebastián Piñera’s election as president will mean setbacks in terms of social policy and respect for labour and social rights.

Statements by the conservative president-elect, who triumphed in the Jan. 17 runoff vote, with regard to overhauling state-owned enterprises to boost efficiency and adopting policies aimed at increasing economic growth, sparked concern among the labour movement, environmentalists, indigenous peoples’ associations and other social organisations.

His campaign pledges also worried the centre-left "Concertación" or Coalition for Democracy, which lost its hold on power for the first time in 20 years.

To judge by the Harvard-educated airline magnate’s pro-business campaign platform, strikes, protests and social tension will increase over the next five years, Álvaro Ramis, president of the Chilean Association of NGOs (ACCION), told IPS.

Especially given the fact that part of the Chilean right still identifies with the 1973-1990 de facto regime of late dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who died in 2006. Some 3,000 people were killed or forcibly disappeared and nearly 30,000 were tortured under the dictatorship.

"I believe there is an emotional aspect (in the NGOs’ concerns), awakened, for example, by seeing ‘Pinochetistas’ in Piñera’s rallies justifying and legitimising human rights abuses," said Ramis.

There are fears that such influences and the president-elect’s neoliberal positions will lead to a major conservative shift in policy direction in areas like education, health, labour, the environment and women’s and indigenous rights, which in Ramis’s view would bring increased social unrest.

Activists say one of the most vulnerable areas is labour. Trade unionists are concerned that the future administration will not only turn a deaf ear towards workers’ demands, but could even roll back acquired rights.

"One thing they will do for sure is speed up the move towards labour market flexibilisation. I believe we will see setbacks there," said Ramis.

The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile’s largest labour federation, announced that it planned to fight, "with all our strength, against anything considered harmful to what we represent."

Diego Olivares, president of the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), another union federation, told IPS that the labour movement must be prepared to face two possible scenarios: either that Piñera will make good on his call for unity and cooperation, or that "he will try to reverse or roll back achievements and progress made particularly in the world of labour."

In Olivares’ view, the challenge is for the country’s trade unions to have the capacity to present a united front.

"To confront a government of business leaders and the right, the trade union movement cannot be divided. We at least need to have mechanisms for coordination, joint action and a united front, in order to best deal with the dangers and whatever situations may lie ahead," said the labour leader.

Chile’s trade unions are pushing for laws that would strengthen the labour movement by guaranteeing freedom to organise and collective bargaining, and paving the way for automatic unionisation.

CUT, meanwhile, said in a communiqué that it did not rule out protests if the new government fails to show a willingness to build agreements, and fails to respect the labour movement.

"The Piñera administration will follow two practices that will be huge barriers to overcome: repression and patronage – which means that forming part of the opposition will not be as easy as it might appear at first glance," said Olivares.

Social and labour organisations have little confidence in Piñera’s frequently repeated calls for unity and the construction of agreements. They believe that if they do not back the president-elect’s policies and measures, no negotiation will be possible, and any expression of protest will merely be put down by the authorities.

They also fear the use of patronage or clientelism as a form of containing or deflecting the discontent.

"Piñera is going to have well-stocked coffers and abundant foreign reserves, and he’s going to create a system of cash payments (starting with the "bono marzo", a stipend to be paid to four million Chileans at the beginning of the school year in March), which will have a major social impact. But that could be used as part of a patronage-based system to generate a new kind of support among the poor for the Piñera administration," said Ramis.

Another disadvantage faced by Chile’s social movement is that it is not as united as it has been in the past.

"We have a strong tradition, a long history of struggle. But we also have to acknowledge that the social movement is weaker now, which will hamper its ability to stand up to the government," said the activist.
He said the strength and cohesion of the social movement were undermined by a weakening of the social fabric and by the headway made by neoliberal economic policies since the dictatorship, but also by the very growth and consolidation of such movements over 20 years of centre-left Concertación governments.

In addition, the continued reliance on free market policies since the restoration of democracy drove changes in society that fomented individualism, to the detriment of collective values and social ties, Ramis said.

The president of ACCION said "commodified human relations now predominate, personal interests take precedence over collective interests, and consumerism has won out."

The fragmentation of the social movement and the growth of individualism that Ramis referred to can be seen in the labour movement, as a mere 11 percent of all workers in this South American country are unionised, and collective bargaining takes place in just 9.6 percent of all companies, according to the Dirección del Trabajo, the government’s labour office.

Moreover, the trade union movement is divided, with four labour federations: CUT, the UNT, the Central General de Trabajadores (CGT), and the Central Autónoma de Trabajadores (CAT).

Another concern is a bill that has the support of the rightwing alliance – made up of Piñera’s National Renovation Party and the Independent Democratic Union – and of some factions in the Concertación, which could provide tools to clamp down on protests and stifle dissent.

Social organisations say the bill, which would regulate demonstrations, would criminalise protests by making demonstrators and groups liable for any misconduct or damages that may occur.

There are also questions about how much civil society is respected, given that effective citizen participation is not guaranteed under Chilean law – a problem that NGOs have already complained about under the Concertación, reflecting a certain level of mistrust towards the coalition.

Civil society has its hopes pinned on a bill that looks set to be passed after nearly three years of debate in Congress: the law on citizen associations and participation, which would set a standard for civil society participation in the state, with the aim of strengthening democracy.

However, because of the slow progress the bill has made through Congress, it will most likely be Piñera, rather than Bachelet, who will be faced with either signing it into law or vetoing it, after he takes office in March.

In this period of uncertainty, the challenge facing NGOs today is the need to rework their ties with the various social and political actors, according to Ramis.

But he warned against the danger of being co-opted by the political forces.

"One of the dangers is that (the political forces) will not be willing to back social mobilisations. But an even worse danger is that they could be co-opted, which would undermine the role that civil society groups must play," he said.

There is broad agreement, however, that social movements must work together more closely and not fall into the temptation to hold constant, fragmented protests and demonstrations, but join together in a united front in order to deal more effectively with a scenario that promises to be far less favourable than it has been over the last two decades.