Contradictions, Contradictions

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post appeared elsewhere in a slightly different version on July 19, 2016.

By creating variety, contradiction spices things up; it brews conflict of opinion and incites debate, and so advances democracy and social development.

Politics, as the activity of organising social life, must therefore be contradictory, too. This is a good thing. Policy that suppressed opinion and thus contradictory world views was in this country Pinochet’s approach. A society that doesn’t allow, or denies, contradiction becomes a mental — and often physical — torture chamber.

Fortunately, Chile — as of now — has turned its torture chambers into museums and allows contradiction to flourish.

Take the case of prominent socialist Osvaldo Andrade, whose wife has qualified for an exorbitant pension. This case creates a contradiction for the so-called left-wingers: How to reconcile personal wealth with the supposed fight against excessive wealth?

Mr. Andrade’s wife, Myriam Olate, will receive a pension of CLP$5 million — way above the ones ordinary Chileans can expect from their privatised pension fund, AFP, which either evaporate in ‘market failure’ or are gambled away by some hedge fund crack.

Both Mrs Olate and her husband admit that the pension is high indeed, but is the result of honest work and in line with the rules. Mrs. Olate expressed “feeling shame,” but maintained at the same time that as assistant manager of communications for the Chilean police, the Carabineros, she also deserves it.
At first the outrage seemed a bit funny and unjustified. Yes, it’s an excessive package, and it’s not fair. But that’s not Mrs. Olate’s fault. Working in high state positions is always lucrative, even more so for members of the forces who receive especially generous remunerations, which correspond to the importance of their service and longer working hours.

Later on, however, it emerged that Mrs Olate’s pension indeed looks a bit funny, even the Socialist Party conceded as much. Still, and whatever comes of that, Andrade is neither the first nor will he be the last socialist accused of hypocrisy.
On the other side of the political spectrum contradiction is apparent, too, although less controversial. Right-wingers are unapologetically in favour of amassing riches. And while they don’t face the same accusations of hypocrisy over it they fall into the law-and-order trap.

Ex-(now again) President Sebastián Piñera, for example, has always been a tough-on-crime guy. During his first presidency an ‘iron fist’ policy was implemented that seemed to reduce petty crime in Downtown Santiago. The policy seemed to backfire though, as surge in crime coincided with the end of prison sentences handed down for for pick-pocketing and such. These former petty thieves now work as violent attackers throughout the city, aiming for much higher prizes.

Mr. Piñera is a lucky man. If a similarly ambitious ruler would have been in power during Mr. Piñera’s time at the Bank of Talca, he might not have become president, as Mr. Piñera originally trained as bank robber.

As executive of the Bank of Talca in the early 1980s he and two colleagues performed an inside job that put US$200 million on the bank’s balance sheets and into it’s shareholders’ pockets who lent money on dubious terms and in clear violation of the law to shell companies. When Mr. Piñera’s colleagues went to jail on fraud charges, Chile’s future president and committed conservative abandoned helter-skelter house and wife to disappear for 24 days; he was effectively a prisoner at-large. He escaped the fate of his colleagues by putting his money to work and hiring a team of lawyers who kept him out of prison. Talking law and order and actually doing it are two separate, contradictory things.

At a Council on Foreign Relations talk he expounded on the importance of teaching people to take responsibility for their own life. A former prisoner at-large cum president, implicated in severe corruption scandals, is educating the poor on responsibility – truth is stranger than fiction.

The reason why this case didn’t cause nearly as much outrage is not only that Piñera was lucky to be at the helm at a time of skyrocketing copper prices, giving the impression he handled the economy well. Part of the reason is also that Chileans expect to be robbed by corrupt officials; they just don’t like being lied to about it. It’s shocking how many Chileans openly admit they don’t vote, because politicians, like businesspeople, are only filling their own pockets.

But here Chilean society at large is contradictory itself. For how can you demand democracy without taking an interest in electing the ones that represent you, or not even bother to invalidate your vote by scratching the ballot?

Focusing on contradictions is vital as it pushes real mistakes to the fore, instigates debate and above all gives voice to indignation. Sure, it’s hard. But that makes the country a better place.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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