Too Cool for School: Nepotism and Education Bias in the Chilean Executive

The country’s leadership suffers from several structural problems. After analyzing the background of 24 ministers, Chile Today identified high degrees of nepotism, tunnel vision and underrepresentation partially stemming from centralized and expensive education. These problems jeopardize the executive just as the country is facing several crises.

On the surface, Chile looks like a shiny star. It leads the Human Development Index and is second place on the Democracy Index in the region. Beneath the shiny surface, however, things aren’t so brilliant. 

Analyzing the background of all 24 ministers, Chile Today found that family ties are of disproportionate importance in Chilean politics, leadership heavily depends on academic background and education at certain often foreign and expensive institutions remains important to get a ministerial post.

Larraín, Chadwick and Nepotism

At least 14 (58%) ministers have ties to either current or former government  or business figures. Finance Minister Ignacio Briones has worked for a long time for companies owned by the Larraín family. The Larraíns have been a local dynasty since independence and produced business owners, a president, actors and directors,  and the current Justice Minister, Hernán Larraín. 

A good professional relationship is not the only factor. Culture Minister Consuelo Valdés Chadwick is a distant cousin of Andrés Chadwick, the former Interior Minister. Andrés, in turn, is a cousin of President Sebastián Piñera. Other names also open the doors to power. One Monckeberg (Cristián) is Social Development Minister and another (Nicolás Monckeberg Díaz) ambassador to Argentina. The latter’s niece, Magdalena Díaz, is Piñera’s Chief of Staff. 

This excessive influence of a few families shows that Chilean democracy suffers from problems of nepotism, i.e., using power to get good jobs or advantages for kin. Nepotism can result in state capture, or the employment of public means for private ends. It also generates less successful and productive professional relationships because of the private interests that must be considered, which is highly problematic at the highest government levels.

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Law, Economics and Tunnel Vision

Apart from power relations, academic disciplines in which the members of the executive were trained provide another example of homogenization. Chile Today found that 10 ministers studied Law and seven have a background in Economics or Business Administration. In total, 16 ministers, or over 66%, did not study the sector of society they govern.

Of course, if a minister is a good manager, it may not matter which area she or he governs. Moreover, Chile also knows ministers that do have a profound background in their subject. Examples are Consuelo Valdés Chadwick with a degree in Archeology at the Ministry of Culture, Arts and National Heritage, Antonio Walker with a degree in Agriculture at the Ministry of Agriculture and the Health Minister Enrique Paris, who is a doctor. The Ministers of Finance, Justice and the Economy also have corresponding university degrees. 

Yet, a lack of affinity with a minister’s field have also led to bad judgments. The former Minister of Women and Gender Equality, Macarena Santelices, for example, was heavily criticized by feminist groups for not having a gender studies background, which was only compounded by her ties with the Pinochet dictatorship. Santelices resigned after one month, having committed errors like appointing a beauty contest organizer as Head of Research of her ministry.

As Economics and Law backgrounds are overrepresented in the government, tunnel vision also becomes more likely. Tunnel vision refers to focusing on only part of a problem, like economic and judicial aspects, instead of trying to get a holistic view. For example, when the pandemic arrived, the government maintained a partial lockdown strategy so business continued, aiming to keep economic damage low. But this has resulted in Chile now being amongst the worst-hit countries globally.

Harvard, Georgetown and Bad Representation

The educational trajectories of Chile’s political leaders are remarkably similar too. To become a minister, it’s best to start at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where 14 ministers completed undergraduate studies. Another viable, though less preferred option is Universidad de Chile, where three ministers went. Doing a postgraduate degree at prestigious and usually costly US or European universities is the next step; 15 ministers did so, 62.5% of Piñera’s executive team. Examples of such famously good but costly universities are Harvard University, attended by Energy Minister Juan Carlos Jobet, and Georgetown University, the alma mater of Health Minister Enrique Paris.

Many undergraduate degrees originating from just two places again contribute to tunnel vision. Even more important are the expensive postgraduate studies, costing around US$70,000 per year. But as these studies are almost necessary to rise up the ranks, elite thinking and inequality increase, jeopardizing  the proportionate representation of citizens.

To further advance the country, leaders with backgrounds in biology, music and such should get a shot too. Leadership with largely homogeneous educational and personal backgrounds will benefit disproportionately individuals rather than society.

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