March of democracy

Print edition : April 07, 2006

JAIME GAZMURI IS a close associate of Michelle Bachelete. -

Interview with Jaime Gazmuri, Vice-President, Chilean Senate.

MICHELLE BACHELET was sworn in the first woman president of Chile on March 11, 2006. Her election showed that the wounds left by the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet had finally healed.

Bachelet is no ordinary politician. She belongs to the left wing of the Socialist Party and is a single mother of three. In one of the most conservative countries in Latin America, she is not shy to advertise her agnosticism. After her swearing-in, which was attended by the continent's top leaders, she said that Chile would be the first country to have men and women in equal numbers in all top government organs. Cabinet posts have been divided equally among men and women. Incidentally, her Cabinet includes Raul Vergara Meneses, who was in jail with her father during the days of Pinochet's dictatorship. Meneses later went into exile and fought with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Since 2001, the presidency has been occupied by the Socialist Party, which has ruled the country in alliance with three other parties. The alliance is known as the Concertacion coalition.

One of Bachelet's close political associates, Senate Vice-President Jaime Gazmuri, was on an official visit to India in February. Like the new President, he too was an opponent of the Pinochet regime. At the time of the American-backed coup in 1973, he was the secretary-general of the neo-left Movimiento de Accion Popular Unitaria (MAPU) Party, part of the coalition government led by Salvadore Allende. After the coup, MAPU merged with the Socialist Party. Being a leader of the peasant movement, Gazmuri was a wanted man for most of the 1970s and 1980s. After escaping from the country, he remained active in the underground; he visited Chile clandestinely many times to participate in the struggle to restore democracy and the rule of law. He is now with the Socialist Party.

Gazmuri talked about the recent developments in Chilean and Latin American politics in the course of the interview. Excerpts:

Chile has the privilege of electing the first woman President in Latin America.

Michelle Bachelet was elected directly by the people. She will be heading a coalition of four parties. The first two Presidents belonged to the Christian Democrats. Ricardo Lagos, elected four years ago, was the first President from the Socialist Party. These developments show that Chile has been a stable democracy for the past 16 years. Lagos was the first President to give women key posts in government. He, for instance, appointed Bachelet the Minister of Defence. She was not the obvious candidate for the post but she was a success all the same.

Bachelet is also the daughter of one of the few democratic generals in the Chilean Army at the time of the military coup led by Pinochet. He died in prison after being tortured by his former comrades-in-arms.

"PUBLIC OPINION RATHER than the elite chose Bachelete."-IVAN ALVARADO/REUTERS

She was the best candidate for the post of President this time. Public opinion rather than the elite chose her. All the parties in the coalition had to throw their weight behind her candidature.

Women have been given a prominent role in the new Cabinet.

For the first time in Latin American history, 50 per cent of the Cabinet posts have been given to women. It is a major change. Now there is equal representation for men and women.

Chile is considered a rather conservative state today. However, Chilean politics was much more open before the 1973 coup. New ideas were circulating at the time. The trade union, student and peasant movements were strong. Under Allende, Chileans had a new experience but the conservative and repressive military dictatorship charted out another course. The dictatorship had a dumbing-down effect on the people. However, after the return of democracy, society is once again changing rapidly. Chile is a more tolerant place today.

What have been the achievements of your government so far?

The democratic government in Chile has had success in diminishing poverty. There was 40 per cent poverty at the beginning of the democratic rule. Now it is around 18 per cent. The unemployment rate has been brought down to 8.5 per cent. The distribution of income still remains skewed. We have a big challenge there. The government is instituting reforms to bring about parity of salaries among men and women. The election of Bachelet is a strong signal in this direction. Today, on an average, a woman's salary is 40 per cent less than her male coworkers'.

We have been trying to diversify our economy. Copper is the mainstay of the economy now, constituting 75 per cent of our export basket. We have expanded our fishing industry in a big way. Chile, for instance, is the biggest producer of farmed salmon in the world. We earn $1.5 billion from the export of salmon.

How are Chile's relations with its neighbours? Have the disputes been resolved?

A top-level delegation from Chile was present at the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected President of Bolivia, Evo Morales. Morales indicated a strong desire to improve relations. The rapprochement process had started much earlier. A task force has been set up to look into bilateral issues. As you know, Bolivia has territorial claims on Chile. Bolivia has a key role to play in the subcontinent because of its location. Many countries in the continent want to export through the Pacific Ocean. Their goods have to pass through Bolivia to enter Chilean ports.

We have a close relationship with Argentina now. All our differences were resolved in the 1990s. President Lula da Silva of Brazil and our former President Lagos are close friends. Chile has been playing an important role in United Nations peacekeeping operations in recent times. In Haiti, the U.N. force was under a Chilean general. The peacekeepers ensured fair and free elections in February.

Peru is unhappy with the recent defence acquisitions of your government.

There is no arms race with Peru. We replaced four old frigates and four old submarines with new ones. We have a very transparent defence budget. We have an agreement with Argentina to create a system to analyse each other's defence budget. We have proposed the same to the Peruvian government.

How are your relations with Venezuela and Cuba?

Our President was in Venezuela. We want to have good relations with President Hugo Chavez. However, his national priorities are different from ours. With Cuba we have normal relations. It could be better perhaps. We oppose the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

How would you characterise the political orientation of your government?

It is a centre-left government, a contemporary version of a social-democratic government. We have a very open economy. The opening of the economy started during the Pinochet regime. We decided to continue with this but it was our democratic choice. A small economy cannot survive in a globalised world. The free trade agreements we signed are very favourable to us. We do not say that we are an example for all countries, but we may be an example for small countries.

We follow fiscally conservative policies but at the same time we implement very active social policies in health, housing, education, poverty reduction and income distribution. We are aware that the state has an important role to play.

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