Entrevista de “The Santiago Times” al director del Programa Económico de la Fundación Chile 21, Eugenio Rivera.

Publicado : 15 Noviembre, 2013 en Portada, Prensa


Q&A: Progressive think tank economic director explains Chile’s left


Eugenio Rivera, economic director of the progressive think tank Fundación Chile 21. Photo by Katie Steefel / The Santiago Times

On the eve of presidential and primary elections which most predict will mark a turn to the left, The Santiago Times sat down with the economic director of one of the country’s most influential, left-leaning think tanks to hear his thoughts on the many faces of progressive politics in Chile.

From radical groups to the influential student movement, independent parties to established coalitions, Eugenio Rivera, economic director at the center-left think-tank Fundación Chile 21, explained the broad spectrum of ideals covered by the left in Chile today.

While polls suggest former President Michelle Bachelet of the Nueva Mayoría pact — successor to the Concertación coalition (1990-2010) — is the overwhelming favorite to win presidential election, many within Chile are calling for a change in the traditional institutional left.

She will also face challenges from eight other presidential candidates — five of them left-leaning. Of the remaining three, only her opponent from the Alianza coalition, Evelyn Matthei could be considered a traditional conservative opponent. Independent Franco Parisi describes himself as a social progressive and Regionalist Party of Independents (PRI) candidate Ricardo Israel a centrist.

What is the goal of Fundación Chile 21 — do you try to influence the policies of presidential candidates?

Fundación Chile 21 has a stake in contributing to all in Chile’s center-left. In general we support the parties which ask us for support for their candidates. So we have a broad relationship with the left.

We have fixed positions on certain policies, and we are a little bit critical of what the Concertación did during its 20 years in office, because it represented an elitist democracy.

Secondly, most public policy is drafted without public consulation. For example the Central Bank listens a lot to the bankers, but never listens to the people in the streets or to the farmers. This is a very elitist way of formulating public policy, there are no channels of participation so that the people can have a say in drafting public policy.

We believe that the AFP [mandatory private pension] system serves big economic interests, but does not guarantee adequate pensions to the people. We are for a social policy based on universality, an equal access to quality, public education, a public healthcare for all — similar to the British healthcare system.

We object to the Concertación as we believe the the role of the state should not be confined to facilitating the functioning of the market: there are areas in which the market is not efficient: in education, energy, the environment and health.

In general, we aim to put these ideas at the forefront of the public debate: a more interventionist state, and reviving the importance of public engagement. We do not think that privatisation is a synonym of modernisation — the market has positive aspects, but many negatives. We do not think that the financial market should operate without regulations.

So even though we collaborate with all of the left, we represent a more progressive position inside of what is called the “center-left.”

What does the Chilean left represent to you? How is it similar or different to the left in other countries?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall it has been difficult to pinpoint exactly what the left represents. I would say that to be from the left is to have a conviction in the necessity of profound change to current society: the situation of inequality, of inequity in access to education, health, retirement pension. Unequal democratic representation and access to the law as well.

I would say that to be from the left today means firstly, to believe that democratic values outweigh economic logic, that democracy — which is to say, the will of the majority — is something that a [political] system has to pursue.

I think that to be from the left today means to be in favor of deepening democracy, making it more participative, complementing representative democracy with more public engagement.

I think it is important to make progress towards more equality, with free education of quality for all. And when I say for all, I mean including for the sons of multi-millionaires, because what this [project] is about is that all the Chileans and those who live in Chile receive the same education, that would be financed for all — via taxes. It is through paying taxes that everyone contributes according to their capacity.

Concerning the left in the United States or in Europe, Chile in general has a different tradition from that of the U.S., it is more similar to the European traditions.

We are more similar to Germany, France, Italy, whose socialist parties are similar, more ideological parties. And in this regard, maybe we differentiate ourselves more from the U.S. political system.

As you know in the U.S., secondary education is free, in general it is public and free, while universities are very expensive. For us this is important that the whole system is public and free. And in this regard we feel close to where the Democratic Party stands on public education.

Similarly, for us it is important to set up a public retirement pension system, which could be complemented with other mechanisms, such as a individually-funded systems. We also think that there should be public health care, that would ensure a good quality of healthcare for all Chileans. And in this regard we are very similar to the Labour Party in England, and I think also to the Democrats [in the U.S.], even though with them, there are more differences.

Do you think there are left-wing groups in Chile which are more radical? Do they have a lot of influence?

There are a lot of presidential candidates further left than Bachelet. I would say that particularly in the student movement, there are a lot of newly created leftist groups. People who are tired of a political system which puts excessive emphasis on political consensus, and wants to set up a normal democracy in which the majority govern, of course while still respecting the basic rights of the minorities.

In the student world there are a lot of people and a lot of candidates who are to the left of Michelle Bachelet. And I personally think that in the current opposition, there are two principal groups. There is one sector which identifies itself with what the Concertación has done during its 20 years in government, who are satisfied of what was done.

But there is a very important sector inside the Concertación — including the Communist Party (PC) — which believes that we need to introduce more important change. That between 1990 and 2010, the intention was to improve the situation by small changes, but that this was insufficient in the face of phenomenal income concentration, enormous economic inequality and terrible education, healthcare and pensions systems. And in this regard it is necessary to instigate deeper changes.

I would say that this line of division crosses the Nueva Mayoría coalition. I would say that this represents the main alternative calling for more leftist policy than what was achieved by the Concertació.

Are you concerned the number of left-wing presidential candidates could split the vote and allow a victory for the right?

Not at all, I think Bachelet could win in the first round. There is a tremendous crisis on the right. There is a lot of fighting, a lot of conflict. Matthei is in trouble, Parisi is claiming some of the conservative vote and [current President Sebastián] Piñera has been among Matthei’s critics. They are all fighting against one another — to use a Chilean expression, they’re “a bag of cats.”

And I think something similar is happening in the opposition. I would say that there is a serious problem of political representation. The parties are not adequately representing the public, and this is expressed in the crisis of the right, but also in a crisis of the left and the center-left, which has only been overcome by the presence of Bachelet. If Bachelet was not here, it would be a different “bag of cats.”

In this regard, the crisis of representation, the fact that the public is not well represented in the existing parties, means that there is, on one hand, a deterioration of the traditional parties, and on the other, accounts for the apparition of small leaders who want to appear as the organizers of public discontent.

I would say that in this regard, without Bachelet, something similar would happen with the center-left, and that the great quantity of candidates is an expression of the great disorder that exists. I think that what is happening in Chile is that, because of this lack of representation in the political system, there are no new ideas. There is an intellectual deficit. We do not know how to face the current situation, or what the alternatives are. Individual people say things, but we have not agreed on a common vision, and because of this there is a situation of disorder. And this gives room to “caudillos” [military leaders that head an authoritarian government], or people who do not represent anyone and who think they should be presidential candidates.

What would be an example of that?

I would say Alfredo Sfeir [Green Party (PEV) candidate]. I can see how Marcel Claude [of the Humanist Party (PH)] represents the student movement so here I think there is a relation. But Sfeir, [independent candidate] Jocelyn-Holt, [Equality Party ( PI) candidate] Roxana Miranda. She is interesting: [in her opinion] there is her, and then all the others.

But in any case, maybe Roxana Miranda could be an interesting case because she is a candidate who comes from the very impoverished, and represents their specific problems.

Bachelet represents the center-left system, Matthei represents the right. Marcel Claude and Parisi are the more dangerous expressions of the deterioration of the political system, they represent opportunism, one that is capable of offering anything.

I would say that Marco Enríquez-Ominami represented, in 2009, the protest against this duopoly [of the Concertación and the Alianza]. And now I think that his are very personal projects that do not represent a lot of people.

And what do you think of Israel?

Ricardo Israel, essentially, represents the residue voters, all those who are fighting with their [respective] parties. He regroups different people but lacks clarity in his convictions, which are mainly the affirmation of regionalism. It could be interesting but it seems to me that there is little intellectual development.

Therefore it is better described as a group of people who have been dissatisfied by the other parties. I would say he does not represent something very interesting.

Why has Bachelet avoided talking about her program and attracting attention to the extent that other candidates have?

Well there is an easy explanation: when someone is winning they are not interested in talking with anyone. The candidates who are losing want to make themselves more heard, they have to criticize the important people.

The problem from the beginning has been that Bachelet has been in a winning position, and her strategy has been to make sure nothing changes. At the moment the only thing she could do is lose votes. It would be difficult for her to gain more because she is already at the top.

This is what I would say is the straight-forward answer. But I think that there is also a more fundamental problem, which is related to what I said earlier about the two opposing forces in the Nueva Mayoría.

In this regard, I would say that Bachelet has two problems. The first is that those who support her have two very different views and have difficulties to agree with each other. The second one is that Bachelet’s leadership is not very organic — it is not built on the institutionality that supports her, but rather on the appeal it exercises over the electorate.

It is not easy to explain. It is not a problem of capacity, but she does not have a team which can advise her on how to solve the energy problem, for example. We have serious energy problems, and there is no leadership in the Bachelet team capable of saying to the country that this is what we’re going to do. And it’s the same with the problem of environmental sustainability.

This intellectual deficit also applies to labor, because [Bachelet] talks a lot about being against inequality, but concretely she has no proposal to solve it. What I think is fundamental to eradicate inequality is that we should have a better balance between the business owners and the workers.

For this reason I would say that a good journalist could put Bachelet in a lot of trouble, because she does not have clear answers to a lot of important topics. For instance it is not clear whether she is for or against the HidroAysén [a project aiming to build five hydroelectric power plants in Chile’s Aysén Region]..

Is there an event in your life that was particularly important in the formation of your political and economic beliefs?

My political life started not long before [President Salvador] Allende was elected. It was a moment of crisis, and there was a lot of criticism about Eduardo Frei’s government, the father, in the 60s.

When I was in high school, I was very close to the foundation of a left-wing party that left the Christian Democrats (DC) and became the MAPU [Popular Unitary Action Movement]. MAPU split from the DC in 1969, and many young leaders of the DC left to create the MAPU, and in the 1970 election they supported Allende. And I was part of this group, but I was still in high school.

We believed that a profound change was necessary under the Allende government, and I would say this was the origin of my convictions. I have always been left-wing.

Do you think there is a country that is a good example, or that you respect more?

I definitely identify the Nordic countries as a model. They have a strong union movement, with a certain balance between the world of the entrepreneurs and of the workers, which is very important. They acknowledge that to guarantee equality in public spending is very important. They have high taxation levels which finance public goods.

I would say that in general we regard very positively what is called the “welfare state,” which guarantees public education, public and free quality healthcare, etc. [The Nordic countries have] a developed welfare state. It is clear that there are no excesses, there are no [major] problems and they adapt to new conditions. And I would say that this is an important element.

We value the role of the state in Norway for example, where the Norwegian state owns the natural resources, and develops interesting policies to prevent oil production from discouraging other economic activities, as is the case in Venezuela. In Venezuela they produce oil and nothing else. In Norway they have created an interesting policy to make sure that they take advantage of the oil, but that this does not inhibit the development of other types of benefits, other types of export products.

I would say that [the Nordic] countries have a more reasonable level of interaction between the state and the market. They value the market, there are important businesses, but the state remains important in uniting the public behind certain national objectives.

There are also valuable examples set in other countries, for example in the United States public participation in a wide range of areas is something which seems important to me.

There are things that I deem important in the Asian countries as well. They rely a lot on private enterprises and big businesses, but the state plays an important role in regulating certain fundamental things, such as capital flight.

In countries like Cuba for me there is no model [to follow]. We are very critical of the inexistence of a democratic regime, I do not believe that there is democracy there. I think that Fidel Castro should have left a long time ago.

If he had left power in 1970, some 43 years ago, then maybe he would have been a hero. But he became a burden.

We value democracy, but a democracy in which the collective actors play a role.

By Clémence Douchez-Lortet (clemmie@santiagotimes.cl) and Katie Steefel (steefel@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2013 — The Santiago Times