Staff Writer Joanna Zhang reports on the latest installment of the World Leaders Forum: President Michelle Bachelet of Chile.
President of Chile Michelle Bachelet walked into Low Library’s Rotunda like a superstar. She ended her last presidential term in 2010 with 84% popularity and was appointed the first Director of UN Women, so it’s no wonder that she has acquired such a large fan base. Even our ever-composed PrezBo stumbled over his words and accidentally introduced her as the “president of Columbia” to which she wittily replied, “I don’t know if my life will be easier, but I will think about it.”
Her speech was a comprehensive overview of what Chile’s democracy lacks from the perspective of a government official. Chile had gone through enormous political changes for the past four decades, starting from Salvador Allende’s democratic vote into office in which he attempted to incorporate his Marxist views and bring socialism into the country, to the coup d’etat in 1973 that led to Pinochet’s harsh dictatorship, and finally a surprisingly peaceful return to democracy. Bachelet reflected that democracy has now become a requirement for political elections, and for those who have suffered under Pinochet’s dictatorship, a fundamental part of Chile that must be protected.
However, Chile’s current state of democracy is not without its flaws. Bachelet noted an emerging phenomenon of increased political participation from the middle class due to economic prosperity that can now influence political agenda beyond election periods. Chile has now reached a new level of social activism, completely bypassing traditional structures. But Bachelet encouraged us “to not see it as a threat, but as an opportunity”. It is an opportunity to build a firewall against corruption, to increase transparency of the political process, to heighten the sense of accountability among politicians, and ultimately protect interests of the general public against interests of the elite minority. The activism within Chile indicates a limit to the power of the government, and in response, the government must find new room for action. Changing the nature of the Chilean government is a “broad and ambitious agenda, but one that cannot be postponed”.
Throughout Bachelet’s speech and her answers to questions posed by students and faculty, she continuously returned to her main agenda, and that is the people. Chile had been plagued by a lack of trust during the Pinochet regime, and it has far-reaching influences. The Chilean general public is afraid of change, and afraid of so much power lying in the hands of so few. Bachelet has realized that “the greatest public good is public’s trust”, and that policy would be much better and more acceptable if the public feels that they are part of the policy’s formulation. When asked about the rise of social equality in Chile, she revealed that strong social policies that give the public more voice such as strengthening the capacity for workers to negotiate their work conditions is the main solution. The Chilean government has recently approved a 40% quota of female candidates in the electoral procedure, sat down with indigenous groups to negotiate their rights, and listened to students about inequality in higher education, all of which reflect an attempt to give the people a stronger voice in their own country, and that has led to fantastic results.
Perhaps the United States can learn from this. Although we are one of the most developed countries in the world, inequality is still a widespread issue. Racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, gender inequality activists, and more have begun to speak up, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. We are not unlike Chile in this respect, and following Bachelet’s lead may yield surprising results. After all, as Bachelet quoted FDR, “The real rulers of the government are the citizens”.