Wednesday 13 December 2017

Chile's Bachelet sworn in again

Chile's new President Michelle Bachelet (AP)
Chile's new President Michelle Bachelet (AP)

Michelle Bachelet may be older and wiser than she was eight years ago when she first assumed Chile's presidency, but chances are that leading her restive nation will not be any easier this time around.

The moderate socialist was inaugurated as Senator Isabel Allende, daughter of the former president Salvador Allende, placed the presidential sash on her shoulder before Chile's congress in Valparaiso.

Ms Bachelet's win followed a campaign of promises to finance education reform with higher corporate taxes, improve health care, change the dictatorship-era constitution to make Congress more representative and reduce the vast gap between rich and poor.

Some think she raised expectations too far.

"She promised a lot of things, a lot of reforms, so people expect many things to happen," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University.

"But the economic conditions have changed," he added. "The economy is not growing quite as fast and Bachelet is not going to have the leverage to introduce all the reforms."

During her first presidency in 2006-10, Ms Bachelet won praise for shepherding Chile through the global economic crisis. Although growth stumbled and unemployment rose, she used government reserves to help the poorest Chileans, and she enjoyed 84 percent approval when she left office.

The student protests that bedevilled outgoing president Sebastian Pinera began under Ms Bachelet. She named a commission and shuffled her Cabinet, which seemed enough when the student groups were still strongly influenced by the ruling centre-left coalition.

Those bonds broke under Mr Pinera, when Communist Party members such as Camila Vallejo led the students. Ms Vallejo is now a member of Congress and a Bachelet ally, but the key university student unions are led by anarchists who vow to make life impossible for Ms Bachelet if she does not follow through.

"The urgency of the educational crisis that we're living doesn't allow us to give her a honeymoon," said Naschla Aburman, president of the Catholic University student federation.

Chile is the world's top copper exporter, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and inflation have been the envy of Latin America. But many Chileans say more of its wealth should be used to help reduce income inequality and make quality education accessible to everyone.

Many blame the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Mr Allende, for concentrating wealth and power. Pinochet privatised water resources and ended agrarian reforms. He also eliminated central control and funding of public schools.

Ms Bachelet, the daughter of a general who died of torture after challenging Pinochet, became Chile's first female defence minister and president, then the first leader of the UN women's agency.

Her "New Majority" coalition welcomed Communists, street activists and former student leaders, and won in December by the widest margin in eight decades of presidential elections.

Chile's economy thrived under Mr Pinera, but metals prices have dropped and growth has slowed just as Ms Bachelet hopes to take in about 8.2 billion US dollars (4.9 billion) in taxes from businesses to fund her education reform.

Mr Pinera was praised for reconstruction efforts after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake devastated part of the country days before he took office, and his management of the rescue of 33 trapped miners brought him global fame.

His popularity plunged amid clashes between police and protesters, but bounced back after he took strong positions against dictatorship-era abuses. The billionaire former airline executive plans another shot at the presidency in four years.

Meanwhile, unrest in Venezuela cast a shadow across Chile's inauguration.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro cancelled plans to go to the swearing-in after US vice president Joe Biden, who attended, called the street protests in Venezuela "alarming" and said democratically elected leaders who rule as authoritarians damage their people and countries. Mr Maduro sent his foreign minister Elias Jaua to Chile in his stead.

Ms Bachelet has tried to straddle the divide.

"We are always going to try to find ways of assuring that human rights are truly guaranteed. Neither does it seem proper to take violent actions seeking to destabilise a democratically elected government," she said Friday in a television interview with Chile's Channel 13.

Press Association

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