The return of former health minister Jaime Mañalich to the political stage was as always: controversial. The doctor spent three months in rigorous silence, after leaving his position in June, shortly before the first peak of Covid-19. But he came back for an important reason.
Just one day before the deadline a constitutional indictment could be presented in the Chamber of Representatives, former health minister Jaime Mañalich promoted in an interview with El Mercurio newspaper his work to combat the pandemic. He warned that any action against him would imply an attack on the government. The truth is that he also took advantage of being victimized, recounting the personal and family cost he suffered. However, he was unable to prevent a group of opposition parliamentarians from filing the indictment.
Three days later, the Prosecutor’s Office leaked – despite denials – the main conclusions of the investigation that followed after independent leftwing Senator Alejandro Navarro filed a legal complaint against those who were responsible for the confirmed and probable 16,000 Covid-19 deaths. Surprisingly, the public did not know much about this judicial process until the Prosecutor’s Office released the eight foundations it bases its accusation against Mañalich on. The most damning relates to 31,000 infections the health authorities allegedly “ignored” in their daily reports.
Justice as a Presidential Matter
Mounting an obvious counter-offensive, Mañalich granted a long interview. In it, he not only fiercely defended his management over six months, but also attacked the prosecutor, leveling accusations of attempts to politicize the issue. He also harshly criticized the organizations that tried to show another angle with respect to the former minister’s strategy – “from a desk it is very easy” – but mainly, he relayed the story with which he intends to defend himself in the Chamber of Representatives and before the courts. “This is not against Dr. Mañalich, but a matter of the government.”
But Mañalich also achieved to say something that diverted the substance of the accusations and transferred the public discussion to the president: “Obviously there is an effort to destroy Piñera’s legacy.” The former minister assured that the Chilean president would be remembered for handling the pandemic. Yet, the next day government spokesperson Cristián Monckeberg highlighted that Piñera’s legacy would be the new Constitution. And as expected, opposition leaders questioned both approaches, and ironized the “legacy” of the government that came to power with the ambitious slogan “Tiempos Mejores” (Better Times).
Mañalich would not be alone in his defense. Surprisingly, Health Minister Enrique Paris departed from his simple, cautious and non-confrontational style, and came out to support his predecessor. He claimed some groups had an interest in the government performing badly in the fight against the pandemic. He also said that Mañalich had managed the crisis well. A few hours later, his comments were better understood.
What’s Under the Rug?
The Investigative Police (PDI), accompanied by prosecutors, had tried to seize several computers from the Health Ministry, including the minister’s and undersecretary Paula Daza’s. The reason? The emails Mañalich, Daza and Paris exchanged. However, the authority refused to hand them over, arguing that the confidential documents would affect “national security.” Paris’ statements were surprising, because a few days earlier he had said that the ministry was fully collaborating with the judiciary.
At the insistence of the press, a nervous Enrique Paris then said that he was open to delivering that requested information, as long as an order came from the Supreme Court. This argument was not only contradictory, but also sparked all kinds of speculation about what the government wants to hide. According to the minister, the data the ministry is unwilling to deliver contain the air force’s flight plans – and figures for the purchase of mechanical ventilators. The cover-up is only reinforced by the State of Exception the country has been under for the last six months. In normal times, the Transparency Law would force officials to disclose offers, prices, suppliers, and so on for the ventilators.
Something to Fear
Beyond the reasons Paris stated, his position strengthens the Comptroller General’s criticism. The authority detected irregularities in the renting of an expensive event center that was equipped as an ad-hoc hospital. But what is more delicate is that the refusal to collaborate suggests an attempt is underway to abuse the concept of “national security” – rarely used in democratic Chile, but often during the dictatorship – and to allow hypotheses emerging and rumors circulating that damage the government’s image.
I believe that Enrique Paris was carried away by arguments of a legal nature, but he was unable to perceive the magnitude of the problem and even less the cost the arguments could imply. This attitude strengthened the parliamentarians who presented the constitutional indictment, because in reality not the entire opposition was initially enthusiastic about it. And although it probably won’t move forward, any relevant information provided by the court case may turn this parliamentary instance into an unexpected defeat for government palace La Moneda. The first test will be if the Supreme Court agrees to the request of the Prosecutor’s Office and the information that Paris wants to protect so much comes out.
As one prosecutor said, “those who have done nothing wrong, have nothing to fear.” And that does make sense to people.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.