Chile: Will Presidential CEO Modify Regional Political Scenario?

(IPS) – Will right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera’s arrival to the presidency in Chile modify the overall political outlook in Latin America? Analysts consulted in various countries have different takes on the question.

Airline and media tycoon and former senator Piñera, of the right-wing Coalition for Change, will take office Mar. 11 with a team of 22 ministers, several of whom come from the business world, which has prompted some of the president-elect’s critics to label the future cabinet a “board of directors.”

Piñera will succeed socialist President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) of the centre-left Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Coalition of Parties for Democracy), which has governed this South American country of 17 million people for two decades, since the return to democracy in 1990 after Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship.

To head the Foreign Ministry, Piñera named University of Chicago-educated civil industrial engineer Alfredo Moreno, chief executive of several private companies, including Falabella, Chile’s biggest department store chain, which also has branches in Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

The Defence Ministry will be led by Jaime Ravinet, who served in that same position under a previous Concertación administration. He resigned from the Christian Democrat Party – part of the centre-left coalition – to accept the appointment.

His designation has been interpreted by some as a sign of continuity of the policy of the Concertación governments.

Although he has repeatedly stated his intention to strengthen integration in Latin America as a whole, Piñera has made it clear that he is close to the positions taken by the conservative governments of Colombia and Mexico and highly critical of leftist leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a leading proponent of “21st century socialism.”

Piñera, who is constantly compared to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate, and is a friend of Spain’s right-wing former Prime Minister José María Aznar (1996-2004), also says he admires moderate left-wing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and France’s conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Lula and Piñera plan to meet at the Rio Group summit in the Mexican resort of Cancun on Feb. 22-23. The rotating presidency of the Rio Group, the main Latin American mechanism for political consultation and coordination, will pass to Chile.

The Chilean president-elect, who against all expectations announced that he would back the reelection of Chilean socialist politician José Miguel Insulza as secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), “will lead a reasonably pragmatic government” and will put a priority on ties with Argentina and Brazil, Brazilian Professor Tullo Vigevani told IPS.

Vigevani, a professor of international relations at the State University of São Paulo, said that pragmatism was linked to an emphasis on the economy.

The analyst said the Piñera administration’s “search for balance” was reflected by the presence of a (former) Christian Democrat defence minister on the cabinet.

In the view of Chilean economist Claudio Lara, the results of the Jan. 17 runoff election will not significantly modify the political scenario in Latin America. The countries with conservative governments “act on their own; they are incapable of joining together or proposing concrete alternatives,” he said to IPS.

With respect to Chile’s participation in trade blocs like the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) or the Andean Community, Lara said Piñera “will follow the same line as Bachelet, but with a much more aggressive stance towards revolutionary movements and left-wing or centre-left governments.

“I think it’s obvious that we can expect a shift in rhetoric, at the very least,” said Lara, director of the Latin American Society of Political Economy and Critical Thought.

The close ties between Piñera and conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón will not suffice to create a new right-wing Latin American axis, said Chilean Professor Francisco Zapata at El Colegio de Mexico.

“There will be a distancing from Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia, and a tightening of ties with Peru and Colombia, although the distancing may be more rhetorical than real,” Zapata told IPS.

But although they see eye to eye on a number of political issues, it is far from certain how close Piñera and Peruvian President Alan García will be, given the longstanding maritime boundary dispute between their countries which is now before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Meanwhile, it is not in Piñera’s best interests to openly clash with Chávez, “because what the Chilean right wants is to present Latin America with a different image – the image of a ‘civilised’ right,” said Lara.

The aim is for the right in Chile to be seen as “having nothing to do with the military coup (that overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973), or with the military in particular: a new, modern right,” he said.

For his part, Professor Aldo Panfichi at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru said regional political integration would be weakened as the bloc of nations governed by right-leaning administrations implementing neoliberal economic policies – Colombia, Peru and Mexico – is strengthened by the addition of Chile.

“Bachelet was a key figure because she served as an interlocutor with the (more radical left-wing) administrations: Venezuela and Bolivia. With a more militant free market leader like Piñera, who will emphasise his affinity and close ties with the United States, relations will become more complex,” said Panfichi.

But referring to Piñera’s pragmatism, Vigevani, a researcher with the Centre for Studies on Contemporary Culture in Brazil, said that “while maintaining warm relations with Peru and Colombia (the Chilean leader) will also have close ties to Argentina and Brazil. I don’t believe there will be any changes.”

Panfichi, meanwhile, pointed to “a political dispute on what the idea of integration means and what concrete form it should take.”

While the countries that make up the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) – Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and three small Caribbean island nations – see integration as a broad political and economic process, countries with right-wing governments talk about integration in economic, virtually technical, terms.

The right wants “fewer tariffs, freer movement of capital, and (cross-border) investment in gas, energy, and road construction. In their view, the more investment, the more integration there is,” said the Peruvian academic.

Perhaps the foreign ministry that will miss Bachelet the most will be that of Bolivia, which has long been demanding an outlet to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost to Chile in a late 19th century war – an issue that led to the severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1978. Since then, the two countries have maintained only consular relations.

But under Bachelet and Bolivian President Evo Morales, the two countries “have experienced the warmest relations they had in 30 years,” said former Bolivian foreign minister Armando Loaiza.

Piñera’s rise to power will heighten “the struggle between the group of countries that Venezuela aims to lead, following the ideas of 21st century socialism, and countries with neoliberal policies,” like Colombia or Peru, Loaiza told IPS.

University of Buenos Aires professor of political theory Atilio Borón told IPS that with Piñera, “the tendency that we have seen in the Latin American right, which supported the (Jun. 28, 2009 coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya) in Honduras, will deepen….and a strong, dynamic right-wing alignment will be strengthened.”

In Brazil, many have seen Chile’s elections as a “lesson” for the Lula administration: that contrary to widespread belief, supporters of one faction in a coalition will not automatically vote for a leader of another party in the same political alliance, said Vigevani.

He noted, however, that the political realities in the two countries are very different.

The socialist Bachelet, who is reaching the end of her term with 80 percent popularity ratings, will not be able to hand over the presidential sash to the ruling coalition’s candidate, former president Eduardo Frei (1994-2000), a Christian Democrat.

“It is clear that in terms of intensity and speed, the leftward swing of the pendulum has slowed in Latin America, and more moderate political and economic policies are making headway,” said professor of international law at the Andrés Bello Catholic University of Venezuela, Adolfo Salgueiro.

“The Havana-Caracas-La Paz alignment is likely to continue, but future developments will undoubtedly weaken its influence, and a more pluralistic, less ideologically driven outlook will prevail in the future, in both politics and the economy,” he remarked to IPS.

In Borón’s view, the newfound growth of the right “has to do with the failure of progressive politics, and this is not only seen in Chile but also in Argentina, in Brazil, where the ruling party’s candidate is lagging behind her main rival in the polls, and in Uruguay, where a second round of voting was needed for the left-wing Broad Front to keep its hold on power.

“Progressive governments have left many pending matters still unresolved. If real progress is made on in-depth reforms, as Bolivia or Ecuador have done, which is what any progressive government should do, they’ll win by a majority. But if they are hesitant, and follow neoliberal policies, voters prefer the original, not the copy,” said the Argentine analyst.

* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente (Buenos Aires), Fran Chávez (La Paz), Fabiana Frayssinet (Rio de Janeiro), Pamela Sepúlveda (Santiago), Emilio Godoy (Mexico), Milagros Salazar (Lima) and Humberto Márquez (Caracas).