SANTIAGO – After controversy-filled days, Fernanda Bachelet Coto resigned on January 7 from her position as commercial attaché in New York. President Sebastián Piñera personally had elevated her to the post, which provoked criticism especially from within his own party. Bachelet Coto’s departure masks a truth that should keep right-wingers worrying: The president fails at what the sector touts as its core competence – technocratic decision-making.
Fernanda Bachelet Coto became head of the New York office of state-run investment agency ProChile to promote Chile-US trade on December 26. Daily La Tercera revealed not only that the president signed off on the matter but also that Bachelet Coto is the daughter of a former business buddy, Ricardo Bachelet Artigues (extended family also of former president Michelle).
Smelling nepotism critics focused on Bachelet Coto’s young age and professional inexperience. Normally, seasoned bureaucrats from the foreign ministry or one of its branches vie in internal contests for the attaché position, which draws a CLP$10 million (US$15,000) monthly salary. But Piñera sidelined the experts.
Amidst the backlash, the government lowered the salary to CLP$7.5 million on January 5. (Chile’s minimum wage will rise to CLP$301,000 in March).
Going in hot
As fierce and early critic emerged Manuel José Ossandón, an anti-women’s rights Christian conservative from Piñera’s National Renewal (RN) party. He combined criticism of the appointment with a personal attack on Piñera. La Tercera quotes him as saying that the “appointment is full of flaws, and lowering her salary does not solve the problem: a position without competition … appointed by someone who does not understand that experience and transparency in any public office is a basic rule.”
This statement is remarkable because Ossandón endorsed Piñera in the 2017 election after his own candidacy faltered.
Other players defended the decision. Finance minister Felipe Larraín, who always puts on a worrisome face when talking about the country’s finances, said on January 7 that “a process, a competition” took place which determined Bachelet Coto as best candidate. Yet, the foreign ministry used the transparency law to expose Larraín’s claim as a lie. No competition took place, so Bachelet Coto became office head not because of competence but because of politics and her connections to the president.
Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, chair of RN coalition partner Independent Democratic Union (UDI), also had a go at Bachelet Coto’s defense. While at it, she endorsed nepotism presumably introduced by the socialist left. According to La Tercera van Rysselberghe said “we should begin to prioritize sanity in our sector: we cannot echo the left on an issue that has been treated the same way in all governments of the left.”
The row, although ended for now, confirms the foreign minister’s weakness and the president’s incapacity. Normally, Teatinos 180 and its branches provide the talent to fill the post, which requires more competency than some time spent in the family real estate business. Therefore, the foreign ministry has traditionally huge influence in these decisions, which should be technical not political.
By ignoring the ministry, the president also ignored its head, Roberto Ampuero. The minister failed, again, to defend his bureaucrats. He already threw them under the bus in the wake of Chile’s refusal to sign the UN migration pact.
But if Piñera succeeded in installing a spineless foreign minister to have a free and ruling hand, he also fails to use that hand.
For example, early last year he appointed his brother, Pablo, as ambassador to Argentina. Piñera did not see the error, saying “there is absolutely no nepotism here.” Only after a backlash similar to this latest fallout did he withdraw his brother.
It seems the second Piñera administration’s hallmark will become errors committed due to failure of judgment.
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).