Cracks in the Façade

When Latin American intellectuals gather to discuss what’s right and what’s wrong in their corner of the world, the subject of Chile inevitably comes up. The consensus opinion is typically a mixture of grudging admiration and outright envy. South America’s fifth most populous nation is generally perceived as a model of what other countries would like to be. Governmental functions are considered to be carried out with the highest degree of transparency in the region. Corruption, an obstacle to progress elsewhere, is not endemic in Chile. Most of the damage caused by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami was quickly repaired, largely through national resolve and resources. The police are held in high esteem and the armed forces, with the latest equipment and a high level of professionalism, are the class of Latin America.

Santiago, a bustling metropolis of close to six million habitants, has been transformed in recent years into one of Latin America’s most attractive and functional cities. With a world class subway system and new neighborhoods so spotless and sparkling they could be mistaken for upscale sectors in major U.S. or Canadian cities, parts of Santiago serve as a vibrant billboard for the country’s accomplishments. Local businessmen like to characterize their nation as the “Singapore of Latin America,” citing its economic success over the past several decades and reputation for political stability.

But cracks are starting to appear in the façade of prosperity and domestic tranquility. Almost three years after voters chose billionaire Sebastián Piñera to become the first conservative, business-oriented president in the two decades since civilian rule was restored, his popularity has tanked and many of his initiatives have been discredited. Some Chileans who hoped that his business savvy would help solve the country’s increasingly troublesome economic and social conditions are having second thoughts.

“How the mighty have fallen” is how The Economist summed up Piñera’s woes. Locally, the president’s failings have become ongoing grist for The Clinic, a popular, satirical leftist publication, and an object of derision at The Clinic, a companion restaurant and bar that’s become Santiago’s hippest hangout for the city’s political progressives. There’s an increasingly strong belief that former president Michelle Bachelet is a sure bet to win the next election and usher the socialists back into power.

“All of the worlds are present in Chile,” quips an ophthalmologist while explaining that his seemingly modest $60 examination fee would be out of reach for the vast majority of the country’s approximately 17 million citizens. “We have the first world, which you can see in the new part of the city, but also have the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth worlds.”

Today, the signs of increasing poverty and discontent are perhaps more evident than at any time since the early years of the military dictatorship in the 1970s. At the entrance to a public hospital in the heart of a middle class Santiago neighborhood, dozens of ragged, homeless men line up every evening at a curbside soup kitchen before bedding down for the night under sheets of cardboard and soiled blankets. Public protests have also become more frequent, particularly on the part of high school and university students, who have been demonstrating for better quality and lower cost education for the past six years with little to show for their efforts.

And old animosities from the polarized Pinochet years continue to fester. Recently, over two dozen fans of the late dictator were injured when they clashed with the police the day a pro-Pinochet documentary debuted. Many Chileans have yet to work up the courage to confront their troubled past and visit the recently inaugurated Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, where all of the gory details of the military dictatorship’s excesses have been documented.

“I also think one of our core problems is that we remain a deeply classist society,” a young hotel executive explains with more than a little remorse. “When the resumes of prospective employees are reviewed, many in the process look first at the family name, the home address, and what schools were attended. If someone doesn’t have the proper social connections, it’s a big strike against them.”

And against Chile itself. Some problems remain too ingrained to be solved through a political process alone.

Mark Holston