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Chile Bolivia And The Rightwing Backlash

Chile Bolivia And The Rightwing Backlash

By Katie Small -


What do a divorced mother from Chile and a so-called “narco-terrorist” and neo-Che from Bolivia have in common? They’ve both been elected leaders of their respective countries, in keeping with an apparent left-ward trend in South American politics. The United States is watching closely.

As I write this, the results from the Chilean Presidential elections are being announced: the country has elected its first female President.

Michelle Bachelet won against Sebastian Piñera in the run off election on Sunday after neither gained an outright majority in the first round of elections in December.

Bachelet is a mother and a doctor, and has been Minster of Health and Defence under outgoing President Richard Lagos.

Piñera is a businessman, and clearly in the top stratum of the elite in a country which has a much greater gap between rich and poor than our own. He owns a Chilean TV station and the national airline, LAN Chile. He has a PhD in Economics from Harvard, and left the country in 1973 to do this degree – neatly avoiding the huge upheaval the country went through that year when the CIA-backed coup toppled the elected government and replaced it with a cruel military regime led by General Augusto Pinochet. Piñera’s not all bad though – after his return in 1976, he worked on the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), a UN project which was the first examination of the region’s underdevelopment from a local perspective.

Yet, while Piñera showed his heart was in the right place taking part in ECLA, Bachelet herself was physically in the same place as the majority of Chileans during the military regime. As a member of the socialist party, she was detained and tortured by the military, a commonplace occurrence in the country at the time. She later managed to escape into exile overseas; her father died in the hands of the military.

It’s often been repeated that had Piñera won, he would have been the first democratically elected right-wing leader in the country since 1958 – although the two presidents prior to Socialist Ricardo Lagos were definitely centrist, some might say even centre-right.

Make no mistake; the election of a socialist, woman candidate to the Presidency is a big deal, although it’s not as much of a shock to the northern neighbours as the election of Bolivian President Evo Morales in December.

As with Chile, the Bolivian electoral procedures require that if a candidate does not win an absolute majority in the first round of voting, a second vote will be held to decide between the two leading candidates. While it was understood that Evo Morales was a leading contender in Bolivia, it came as a surprise to many that he won the election outright with 53% of the vote.

Morales is the first indigenous leader of the country, an outspoken left-winger, and not a politician the CIA is keen on. He works hard to portray himself as a regular Bolivian, unlike the elite who have previously ruled the country: he has already announced that he will take only half of the current presidential salary.

Many commentators have spoken of a left-turn in Latin American politics. Broadly speaking, the 1970s and 80s were a period of imposed market orientation: in this period, a large number of the region’s countries experienced coups and right-wing dictatorships. Emerging from the horrific repression that these dictatorships brought with them, many Latin American states – Argentina and Chile to name a couple – opted for centrist leaders during the 1990s. One explanation could be that the recent memory of brutal dictatorship deterred the election of leaders with policies similar to those who were violently removed from power, and that only now are the people confident enough to look leftward again. Left leaning leaders have been elected to power recently in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.

While Morales is a naturally ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the region is hardly being overrun by communists, and definitely not all Latin American leaders are so excited to see Morales elected.

Mexican President Vicente Fox likes to look northward, indeed has little choice given that the country is now economically entwined by way of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). So no surprises to hear that Fox was not impressed when Morales invited representatives of the Zapatistas to his inauguration – the Zapatista movement kicked off when NAFTA came into effect, in protest at the treatment of Mexico’s poor and indigenous.


Katie Small studies at the University of Auckland, was co-author of the book "I Almost Forgot About The Moon – The Disinformation Campaign Against Ahmed Zaoui" and blogs at This is her first piece submitted to Scoop.


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