The Good and the Bad Democracies

Chile: The Good Democracy?
by Rodrigo Acuña
June 22, 2007, Red Pepper

A glance at much of the media’s coverage of Latin America would suggest that there are two types of democracies in the region today: the good and the bad. Due to an almost pathological obsession by outlets such as the New York Times and the Economist, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have been categorised as places where democracy is being ‘eroded’ and freedom of the press ‘curtailed’, and where popular demagogues are happily marching their people towards dictatorial systems.

In its 19 April 2007 edition, the Economist provided a classic example. Its target was the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. Although the report noted that Correa takes many of his cabinet secretaries around the country with him “in an attempt to bring government closer to the people”; has doubled cash transfers to 1.3 million of the nation’s poorest people; provided a further $100 million to “housing subsidies for the poor” and “increased substantially” spending on education and health, unfortunately, it was hard to “find an independent political observer” who thought Ecuadorians had something to be hopeful about.

To make matters worse, “the growing strength of the president’s grip on power… is giving cause for alarm”, stated the Economist in the most predictable fashion. Back in Venezuela, Simon Romero on May 17 filed a story for the New York Times titled: “Clash of Hope and Fear as Venezuela Seizes Land.” With a combination of historical knowledge and imagination, Romero wrote:

For centuries, much of Venezuela’s rich farmland has been in the hands of a small elite. After coming to power in 1998, and especially after his re-election in December, President Hugo Chávez vowed to end that inequality, and has been keeping his promise in a process that is both brutal and legal.

Charging the Chávez government responsible for the “largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history”, Romero notes that the “violence has gone both ways” with “more than 160 peasants killed by hired gunmen” and eight landowners also murdered thus far. The slight disparity in deaths between peasants and landowners however escaped Romero’s attention, as with the fact that the government has targeted landowners with non-productive haciendas who cannot prove documentation for their original titles of purchase – a wide spread problem in the region. In short, of course the conclusions one should draw from Venezuela are all too obvious.

So where can one find the good democracy in Latin America? Where is the ‘responsible’ government? For that, if we are to believe many commentators, one must travel across the Andes to Chile and meet socialist President Michelle Bachelet. As the second female President in Latin American history after Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997), Bachelet evokes a combination of admiration but unfortunately also disappointment due to the policies of her administration.

By now much of her personal story is well known. With a father, Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet, who served loyally with the Allende government (1970-1973), Michelle and her mother Ángela Jeria were imprisoned shortly after General Augusto Pinochet’s coup on the 11th of September 1973. Having fled with her mother after her father died under torture, Bachelet lived for various periods in Australia, the former East Germany and the United States. Trained in paediatrics and military studies, Bachelet received much attention after she was made Health Minister, and later Defence Minister, under the centre-left Concertación government of Ricardo Lagos.

As a minister and now incumbent President, Bachelet must be given credit for certain achievements. Given the task as Health Minister of drastically reducing waiting lists in public hospitals within the first 100 days of Lagos’s government, Bachelet generally achieved these aims while making it mandatory for all primary-care facilities to provide emergency contraception to all females over the age of 14 who requested it.

Aiming to make good on her promise of breaking down gender barriers, as President she appointed the first-ever gender cabinet with roughly 50-50 men and women while extending the proposal to undersecretaries and regional governors, amongst others, whom she is personally allowed to appoint. In a country where the Catholic Church, right-wing politicians and deeply rooted chauvinism in society hold considerable sway, such initiatives by Bachelet must be commended. Likewise, the Chilean head of state’s government has seen 800 new childcare centres open while a low-cost health-care scheme has also been extended.

Read the rest here.

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