Shortly after taking over the reins in Teatinos 180, Chile’s foreign minister Teodoro Ribera Neumann put his cards on the table. He told Radio Duna Chile “has not a migration culture” so to enter the country Venezuelan’s need to get the right paperwork. That comment has a lot of content and, along with Ribera’s trajectory, shows that the minister is a genuine product of Chile’s elite.
Unlike his predecessor, Teodoro Ribera is not a rabbit the president pulled out of the hat to create media coverage and pull powers from the foreign ministry to La Moneda. With Ribera’s appointment Piñera admitted that he and his inner circle – interior minister and cousin Andrés Chadwick, interior vice minister Rodrigo Ubilla, spokesperson Cecilia Pérez – need a leader not a follower to handle Chile’s rightward turn internationally. From this perspective, Ribera is an adequate pick.
Ribera belongs to the not-so-conservative wing of the president’s National Renewal (RN) party. The constitutional lawyer published books about international law in Europe and Latin America and developed the foreign-policy program for Piñera’s first administration. He also leads the foreign affairs program at the RN-linked Instituto Liberal think tank. The reputation he built in these endeavors made him a valued foreign-policy adviser in both Bachelet administrations, too. So Ribera knows not only policy, but also politics.
As a thoroughbred elite figure, Ribera also has some skeletons in the closet. Most of Chile’s elite flash degrees from national and international Ivy League universities (even if only imaginary ones in the president’s case). But educating Chile’s elite obviously also includes teaching corruption and theft.
For Ribera, Universidad Autónoma, which he led for years, serves as cash cow. In Piñera’s first term, Ribera resigned as justice minister shortly after appointment over his close links to Luis Eugenio Díaz, the convicted ex-president of Chile’s university accreditation commission, which is a pillar of the country’s most elaborate corporate welfare scheme, the education system.
As justice minister, Ribera contracted Díaz, even though the latter was still deciding on Universidad Autónoma’s accreditation. But Díaz didn’t just shift pennies around. He also laundered money and engaged in blackmail related to his job at the accreditation commission. Hence, Chile’s top diplomat cultivated links to a hardened criminal not that long ago. In the lower ranks of society such links stigmatize individuals for life, but in the higher ranks criminal connections aren’t necessarily disqualifying from a top job. A sabbatical washes the guilt away. After all, the president himself is a bank robber and briber.
Ribera still has a share in Universidad Autónoma. According to reports, his family received pocket change of about CLP$7 million from 2008-2012 from that stake, but also operates a real estate business that rents furniture to the uni. It’s effortless income, largely financed through state subsidies dubbed ‘scholarships’ for students.
Having the right smell of competence and crookedness, Ribera doesn’t have to worry about Piñera’s populism and Piñera doesn’t have to tell the foreign minister what to do. Equally important, Ribera has clout in Teatinos 180. Where the hapless Ampuero stumbled among solid bureaucrats, Ribera commands and charts the course.
As such, Chile will open up further for rich economic migrants while it will close to refugees. With Ribera, the government can throw the mask of human rights away much quicker and go straight after the trade money. While this process started under Bachelet’s government – most visibly in bowing to China which pursues genocide against the Uighurs or promoting relations with Myanmar which is eradicating the Rohingya – previous administrations at least advocated for democracy and human rights when it didn’t cost much. Now, this approach is subject to the president’s approval ratings (the UN migration compact), ideology (Venezuela), and the first oligarchy’s business interests.
Decision-makers and analysts in the media don’t seem so concerned about consistency either. Nobody sees contradictions by demanding Venezuela issues documents so Chile can check criminal records, while Chile’s political and opinion leaders condemn at the same time the Venezuelan police state which fabricates charges against anybody who raises their voice.
So Ribera will maintain Chile’s crooked foreign trajectory. If that will pay off economically or politically remains to be seen. But he’s also a revolutionary in the sense of rebranding Chile from a staunchly democratic country to one that follows a perverted realist framework under which Chile becomes strong enough to do what it likes and doesn’t feel shame in mingling with autocrats.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).