This year will remain in the collective memory of the world, and of course of Chileans. And although the political event of the year was the plebiscite, allowing us to change the Constitution inherited from Pinochet, the pandemic also put us in a context that revealed the weakness of our institutions and the poor quality of politics – or rather of Chilean politicians. Chief among them is the president.
While the pandemic has turned the country upside down, it also showed us a president mired in the inability to regain the support he lost during the social outbreak that started on Oct. 18, 2019. Just a year ago, in the middle of the social crisis, polling firm CEP registered 6 percent support for President Sebastián Piñera. A recent poll, conducted by Criteria Research, registered a poor 7 percent.
Piñera saw an opportunity in the Covid-19 crisis, but unfortunately made a huge mistake: He followed a triumphalist strategy, almost identical to that implemented during the rescue of the 33 trapped miners during his first mandate. Back then, the strategy pushed his support to 66 percent.
Government palace La Moneda implemented a clear communicational turn and focused fully on how it would face the virus. In January, the government began reporting the preparation of a plan, signaling it will retake the control it had lost in the prior months. The summer and the growing fear about coronavirus in the other hemisphere had stopped the protests at Plaza Italia, the outburst’s ground zero. But the government misinterpreted the calm.
It was only a temporary withdrawal. And unsurprisingly, Piñera bumped into Piñera. The obsession to gain the affection he craves won him over again and the smug and arrogant president reappeared. “We are better prepared than others, even Italy,” he said. This moment now appears similar to the one when he told foreign media that Chile was “an oasis” of stability just two weeks before the social outburst.
Meanwhile, former Health Minister Jaime Mañalich, a Piñera confidante, followed the same scheme. Oscillating between clumsy and bombastic phrases, suggesting the virus could turn into “a good person,” he obscured the management of the pandemic. Because beyond the understandable mistakes that occur during an unprecedented crisis that involves trial and error, Mañalich diverted attention with his acid and controversial character. He achieved, however, a resurrection of public annoyance with the government.
Of course, the finishing touch would come from the president. Exhibiting behavior worthy of psychoanalysis, he went down to iconic Plaza Italia, now rechristened Plaza de la Dignidad, to have his picture taken in the middle of strict quarantine. If I had to pick a 2020 image, I’d pick that one. It symbolizes everything. The long confinement, the public annoyance that led to the end of this Constitution, and of course, the erratic behavior of Piñera. Despite the slight rise in the polls at the beginning of the pandemic, the trend began to reverse quickly.
The Rise of a New Republic?
Chile also experienced a historically unprecedented event. Months of confinement forced us to get the best of ourselves and demonstrate an unexpected capacity for adaptation and resilience. At the same time, it exposed the tremendous inequality in this country. While some were able to overcome difficulties thanks to connectivity and good housing, others had to manage survival. The gaps increased this year in all aspects. If at first the government had the ability to commit resources – two billion-dollar rescue packages – to partially alleviate the employment deficit of millions of vulnerable citizens, over the course of months help has faded.
But the 10 percent pension withdrawal projects – resisted by La Moneda and the right wing at first – made it clear that the middle class had been left to its own devices. Same with big business association CPC. Jumping on the PR opportunity, its members saw to the delivery of government-sponsored food boxes with agility. But as the weeks passed, the businesses disappeared and CPC’s new president, Juan Sutil, assumed rather hard-right political positions. This was understood as a response to broadcaster Chilevisión taking a position on the social outbreak, which led Sutil, who runs a fruit-growing business, to pull his ads.
Although Piñera announced a return to normality, in reality we experienced a very unusual year. Congress assumed more power than it constitutionally has and maintained a constant struggle with the Executive. The right wing divided into conservatives and pragmatists. The former – led by the downcast couple Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand and former Education Minister Marcela Cubillos – suffered defeat after defeat. The pragmatists, in turn, raised Las Condes mayor Joaquín Lavín as presidential candidate, even though he favored everything his party opposed.
Other 2020 Tales
The opposition, inconsequential as ever, split into three factions and lost the ability to agree on priorities. The “two hopes” of politics, center-right party Evópoli and left-wing Broad Front coalition, disappointed most. Both turned into caricatures of what they wanted to change. Broad Front especially remains far from being an “alternative.”
In 2020 the ideologies fell. The Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party had to oppose the government’s own 10-percent pension withdrawal project, which an opposition Socialist Party senator and one from the left-wing Party for Democracy (PPD) saved.
We also had the weakest government since the return to democracy, which broke all records for cabinet changes. The institutions remained knocked out. The Catholic Church named Celestino Aós cardinal to everyone’s indifference and a new Carabineros head will get a last chance to reform the police force after his recalcitrant predecessor resigned amid numerous scandals and abuses.
This was also the year when populism consolidated. The development is personified by Humanist Party representative Pamela Jiles, sponsored two of the three pension withdrawal projects. On the other side of the aisle, populism showed, among others, in government spokesperson Jaime Bellolio turning from Apruebo to ardent Rechazo supporter just weeks before the plebiscite.
Joaquín Lavín and the communist mayor of Santiago’s Recoleta district, Daniel Jadue, consolidated their leadership. But to get a serious shot at the presidency, both will have to leave their parties.
Health Minister Enrique Paris, the least political minister of all, ended up saving somewhat the government’s honor by giving the impression he had sorted the Covid-19 mess. Communist Party chief Guillermo Tellier kept thinking we are living in the times when the USSR existed. He will remain at the helm, even though he lost to Camila Vallejo, a former student leader with vast potential.
But, above all, Piñera remained disconnected from the people he governs, exemplified by his constant non-use of a face mask. He, like no one else, showed that we are living in an unequal country.
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.