Not even in his worst nightmare could President Sebastian Piñera have imagined the first half of his term. First, a social outburst that would politically destabilize La Moneda and bury his 2017 campaign promise of “Tiempos Mejores” (Better Times). That slogan became the tragic paradox of a society tired of abuse and inequality, and which found the moment to open an escape valve with a right-wing president, businessman, and billionaire. And just as a new phase was expected to begin after Oct. 18 (18/0), without even a truce being declared, the country had to prepare for the most complex crisis the world has seen in many decades.
But a fundamental difference exists in understanding how the Chilean leader has handled politics and the economy from October onward. The social uprising erupted unexpectedly, baffling not only the government, but also the political class and elite. And therefore, between 18/0 and February this year, we can see a Piñera surprised by crisis. Considering Covid-19 by contrast, La Moneda could not just prepare two months in advance, but also learn from experiences and practices of other countries. It was a crisis that allowed for planning and was more structured than the social outburst.
Handling the protests, Piñera was reactive, both politically and economically. In addition to poor management, the early days were marked by major communication errors, even talking about “war,” and attending a grandson’s birthday – in a well-known luxury restaurant – at the most critical time. Then an audio leaked in which first lady Cecilia Morel called protesters “aliens” and complained that she and her friends would have to cede some of their privileges. Only two weeks prior, the president bragged in an interview with the Financial Times that Chile was “an oasis” in Latin America.
He never managed to get to the bottom of the social demands. Instead, he tried first to control public order by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a curfew, dispatching soldiers into the streets. This removed part of the collective amnesia of a society in which many still grapple with the trauma of a 17-year dictatorship. The presence of soldiers in the streets only fueled the conflict and spawned an informal group called “The First Line” (La primera línea). These young daredevils, in turn, did not live the years of massive repression and therefore confronted the state forces without weighing consequences.
In a survey by polling firm CEP, Piñera’s approval collapsed to 6% during that time. In response, he completely abandoned his program and ideology, introducing bills, for example, to increase penalties for the rampant collusion in Chile’s ‘free’ market. Such initiatives were previously unthinkable for a Chilean right-wing government. In addition, he had to relax his stance on imposing a second state of emergency and was forced to support the parliamentary agreement to call a plebiscite on a new Constitution, which he hitherto had categorically rejected.
Throughout the uprising, the government failed to control public order, for which it was heavily criticized from the right. The permanent occupation of the heart of the capital, Plaza Italia – re-baptized Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Square) – was the symbol of the social movement and validated the right’s claims at the same time.
Piñera also took back the metro fare increase that sparked the uprising and raised the minimum wage by CLP$50,000 (US$60), levied a special tax on monthly incomes above CLP$8 million (US$9,500), and froze electricity tariffs, set to rise by 9.2%. All these measures were palliative, however, and did touch the substance of popular demands.
Thus, management of the 18/0 crisis was poor, and of course, the problem is that after the coronavirus, these demands will return strongly, with the difference that we will have an indebted state with no scope to allocate new resources.
In the Covid-19 crisis, the president has had an advantage. He could prepare in advance, which officials in Wuhan or Italy could not. Without a doubt, his management during this crisis is better than during the social outburst. Chile established patient reception sites, made tests available, among other measures. However, administration officials have clashed with mayors and the medical college over the government’s refusal to impose a national lockdown.
Most curiously, Piñera’s greatest critics have been right-wing mayors, indicating that political management in crisis remains a weakness of the president. But the most piercing point is that he is trying to use this crisis to – anxiously and unsuccessfully – raise his elusive approval ratings. And of course, mistakes continue, like strolling around Plaza Italia, which is Chile’s Ground Zero, getting his picture taken and lying about it. This counts as a provocation for what will come next.
Piñera’s forte, so far, has been his administration’s two economic packages. The first over US$11.75 billion – using the 2% constitutional allowance per catastrophe – included the draft Employment Protection Act, already approved by Congress, and the second package over US$5 billion puts the focus on business loans and help for informal workers. We will see how the Chilean government acts when the virus outbreak peaks, probably in early May. For now, it seems the administration is indulging in dangerous triumphalism – one political sin Sebastián Piñera has always committed.
Translated by Christian Scheinpflug
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.