To an outside observer, it must be difficult to look through Chile’s contrasting scenario, which changed within just one month. Exaggerated optimism, risky promises, and worst of all, the hateful comparisons with other countries are gone. But President Sebastián Piñera only briefly experienced how it feels to control the agenda at the end of the social protests that started in October.
Piñera had recovered his mood. You could see it during his speeches and field visits. Optimism rose with the military in the streets, police on patrol, not facing any protests or criticism. And with an extremely weak opposition, which could not seize the moment when the president’s approval collapsed to 6% at the end of 2019. Notwithstanding some center-left mayors, the opposition also remained submerged at the onset of the pandemic. It could not even rise when Piñera indulged in a personal treat by having his picture taken at Plaza Italia – dubbed Dignity Square by the people – which was the nerve center of the capital and controlled by protesters for nearly four months.
Today, Chile has the world’s most infections per million inhabitants, most of which in the Metropolitan Region. A sad record only alleviated by the low death rate. And the truth is we Chileans never ceased to be amazed, after the president recently called for a “new normality,” causing great confusion. Furthermore, over eight million people have been in total confinement for the past 10 days and the outlook is not encouraging. In the public memory still resonates Health Minister Jaime Mañalich’s emphatic statement that our country would not get extensive quarantines.
Although this new and catastrophic scenario has involved a change of tone in government palace La Moneda – especially apparent in a more cautious president, at least while using ‘success’ language – we still see the Health Minister committing important errors. Mañalich recently said part of the country could already live the “new normality” – a concept even the president’s party discarded. Or he is trying to justify decisions – many questioned by medical experts – without a trace of self-criticism.
When recounting this serious crisis, without a doubt, communication management will be seen as low point in this second, most difficult phase, punctured by lack of coordination and contradictory accounts. Ministers even bickered over how much the announcement of a premature return to normal could affect the population’s behavior, while the government spokesperson just watched from the sidelines.
Piñera does not look good. With those in charge of a country at a critical turn stressed out, and the evident surprise of a changing panorama he considered controlled, the Head of State must have changed his narrative and style. In fact, a few days ago, he acknowledged the hospital system was approaching its limit, even though he could have let the minister make that statement. The statement called to mind Piñera’s promise that nobody in need would lack a bed or ventilator, even though the experience of many European countries called for prudence. But we all know the president.
And if the explosive and alarming increase of cases became a headache for La Moneda, the announcement days earlier of delivering food boxes to the economically most vulnerable sectors, especially those under full quarantine, turned into a political and social disaster. What was good news, was ruined by the unclear way in which Piñera announced it on national television on a Sunday night. The population interpreted it as an immediate benefit, so much so that many defied restrictions and left their homes to demand food boxes.
The problem? Only three days later did the government explain that distribution would take several weeks and that the beneficiaries would not be the “70% most vulnerable,” as the president said. The logistics are of such complexity that it has been estimated the 2.5 million boxes will take around 45 days to reach every recipient. In all likelihood, this measure only accelerated the coming of another social uprising with unexpected consequences.
Finally, as we advanced last week, some leaders of the president’s National Renewal party and the Christian Democrats proposed a transversal agreement to face the crudest moment of the health and social crises. The proposal also garnered support from business associations and even trade unions but faltered when almost all other political parties “dismissed” it.
Surprisingly, the president launched the idea into the public sphere anyway but without notifying his coalition. A bad scenario for a good proposal. Apparently, “anxiety” won over him again. Although it looks challenging, the idea hopefully flourishes because Chile does not withstand a third consecutive deep crisis without the unity of all actors.
In any case, the impression the president leaves is that he is worried and hence his turn. Not only is Chilean society at stake, but his own image. The one that will go down in history.
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.