Piñera and Foreign Policy: an O-Turn instead of a U-turn

Foreign policy in President Piñera’s second term has caused some head-scratching. The president seems hellbent on altering the fundamentals of the post-dictatorship trajectory for populist reasons. On closer inspection, however, Piñera just moves foreign relations to the next stage.

Eyebrows went up when Chile rejected the UN global compact on migration last year. The move was notable because the agreement resulted from global cooperation and contains significant input from Chilean diplomats. It looked like a perfect fit. To justify the rejection, Piñera’s government pushed the far-right conspiracy theory that the accord would chip away sovereignty because it somehow imposes immigration quotas.

In reality, the compact establishes mechanisms to control and even prevent migration. Piñera’s rejection thus deprives Chile of managing a key 21st-century issue. And so the rejection was roundly criticized by foreign affairs veterans and seen as a betrayal of principles like cooperation. (A notable exception was ex-president Eduardo Frei, a ‘Christian’ ‘Democrat,’ making the autocratic point that rejecting the pact “is what corresponds” to face migration.)

Next came Cúcuta. Venezuela’s collapse has become the signature scare of right-wing governments across America. Absurdities like ‘Chilezuela’ and its local variations have frightened enough voters and right-wing policy-makers can’t do without. For Cúcuta the government staged a veritable propaganda campaign, with the foreign ministry publishing a photo showing interior minister Andrés Chadwick, the president and his (and only his) foreign minister Roberto Ampuero ‘inspect[ing] humanitarian aid for Venezuela.’ In sum, Chile’s elite looking at things.

The related trip was sold as effort to help distribute aid, the underlying assumption being that personnel is incapable of doing so without high-level supervision. But in reality, Ampuero and Piñera just visited a concert sponsored by Virgin’s Richard Branson, a major tax evader and hence threat to societal stability. Worse, while Piñera lectured on democracy, a taxpayer-financed aid truck and with it the liberal-conservative commentariat went up in flames. The pundit fire only died after the New York Times backtracked and published the truth. But by then, Piñera already rode another horse supposedly away from established practice: Prosur. Americas Quarterly (AQ) acidly called Prosur “the answer to a question nobody asked.”

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The O-Turn

These three examples, however, do not signify a U-Turn as ex-foreign ministers allege. Rather, Piñera is performing an O-Turn, turning things around but arriving at the same position. With the UN pact, for example, he played on xenophobic currents in society and created the image of a strong presidency determined to defend sovereignty. This trick brought in xenophobia as distraction to enable the government to continue sacrificing sovereignty for capital, that is trade deals. Piñera’s advisers sensed that society is beginning to feel the negative impacts of free trade.

But the billionaire class has massive overseas interests and Chileans in general are conditioned to consume imported goods or buy directly overseas. Without trade deals and the related loss of sovereignty (parties must always adhere to rules that have not been unilaterally defined) the billionaire class would lose money and society its purpose. Immigrants are the scapegoat to manage that contradiction. As officials made clear, immigrants remain welcome, if they their labor or capital can be used, or if they flee a ‘socialist’ country Chile doesn’t do business with. Human rights and protection from war or political prosecution just won’t cut it.

The visit in Cúcuta made these priorities clear; it sharpened the right-wing profile against Venezuela, but until this day not one government in Latin America has called China and Russia out without which the Venezuelan crisis would have been solved long ago. Hardly a departure. All previous administrations have courted China and Russia.

Similarly, Prosur represents continuity. With the organization, leaders want to coordinate inter-American trade, meaning capital, flows. Its members just don’t want to have success have based on a left-wing legacy. Pushed as a non-ideological alternative to UNASUR, it follows the right’s tried and tested economic strategy: depoliticize economics to discourage citizen involvement, asphyxiate debate and politics so rulers can rule. AQ’sBruno Binetti correctly qualifies Prosur as a dead horse, because it first lacks purpose and second Brazil can’t dominate it. Nobody knows what it could do better than UNASUR, beyond pushing the ideology of non-ideology.

While explaining these decisions, officials always placed a premium on economic terms, rather than democracy and non-negotiable rights. Asylum and cooperation have to serve capital. That’s continuity. Chile’s foreign policy principles have always been vehicles to lend the country legitimacy in the world order. They were there for relations with the US and Europe and  suspended for relations with China and Russia. Their function for the US and Europe, however, become obsolete to the degree neoliberalism lets the democratic mask slip. That’s what baffles some analysts and former foreign ministers.

By embracing unfettered trade and capital flows, mostly licit but also illicit in the corrupt governments of Venezuela and Argentina, Latin America’s left wing as helped create this situation. Theirs are crocodile tears. That’s no reason for schadenfreude, though. The fascist monster is waiting in the wings, ready to devour the right-wing center.

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