The New Chilean ‘Prime Minister’: An Old Guard Conservative

SANTIAGO – Victor Pérez is the new interior minister of Chile. The most important minister post in the country, often compared with that of prime minister in other countries, is once again held by an UDI veteran.  Pérez’s background sheds light on what the minister and the government have in store for Chile in upcoming months.

After the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) blamed Minister of Interior Gonzalo Blumel for the historic defeat of the pension bill, the question was not if but when he would be sacked. On Tuesday, July 28, President Sebastián Piñera gathered key members of his government and replaced the center right Blumel for Victor Pérez from UDI.

This appeared to be a clear sign from the administration: a young, moderate minister, known for seeking dialogue with the opposition was replaced by a conservative hardliner from Chile’s most far right party. Nevertheless, Pérez emphasized after taking office, “I am convinced that politics is the art of reaching agreement based on dialogue.”

Opposition parties seriously doubt there will be dialogue, especially with the upcoming referendum for a new Constitution. Fuad Chahín, president of the Christian Democrats, told Cooperativa that “Victor Pérez is a hawk, he’s hardcore, he is one of the Rechazo-fanatics and it is difficult to understand from an opposition point of view how someone with his profile occupies this position.”

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Dictatorship and Colonia Dignidad

A look at Pérez’s background confirms that the Piñera administration has taken a sharp turn to the conservative right with its new interior minister. Pérez is one of the old-school UDI-members – like Andrés Chadwick, who had to leave his position as interior minister during the social uprising after a constitutional accusation. Pérez studied Law in Concepción and became mayor of Los Angeles in 1981, appointed by General Augusto Pinochet himself. He remained in that position until 1987. From 1990 until 2006, he served the UDI in the House of Representatives, and from 2006 until yesterday he was senator for the same party.

The close ties of the UDI with the Pinochet years have never bothered Pérez. In 2017, the party, founded by Pinochet’s ideologist Jaime Guzmán, discussed modifying its principles stemming from the dictatorship. The parties’ board was faced with heavy opposition from Pérez after it decided to eliminate a controversial phrase (“The UDI emphasizes the patriotism and spirit of service of the Chilean Armed Forces and of order, including its liberating action of September 11th”). According to Pérez, hiding phrases such as the above “would mean turning our back on the UDI’s history.”

Pérez was a fierce opponent of the Concertación governments. He also clashed with President Piñera during his first term. During Piñera’s first term, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter decided to withdraw the appointment of José Miguel Stegmeier as governor of the Biobío region. Digital newspaper El Mostrador had published evidence that Stegmeier was involved in money laundering for Colonia Dignidad, a cult led by Nazi Paul Schäfer. Pérez publicly defended Stegmeier, calling him “a most honorable person.”

Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus referred to the episode on national television today, claiming that she is concerned about Pérez’s work during the dictatorship, and the fact that he “was part of the group of close friends of Paul Schäfer and Colonia Dignidad.”

Pérez versus Protests

In recent months, Pérez has also been an outspoken supporter of the Rechazo-movement. Now, however, as interior minister he will be in charge of organizing the October referendum. Another heavy dossier that lies on his desk is the current situation in the La Araucanía region. Dozens of Mapuche prisoners are on hunger strike, claiming that the government isn’t complying with international treaties that protect the Mapuche. At the same time, rural violence in the region is resurging, with arson attacks on vehicles and machinery on a near daily basis.

Pérez already announced he’d restore peace to the region, which Mapuche people fear means an increase in oppression. Protesters ahead of the October referendum fear the same. Although Pérez declared he will do everything to hold a peaceful referendum, his emphasis on security and public order is viewed as an announcement oppression of protests will increase in the weeks ahead of the plebiscite.

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