This past September marked 40 years since Augusto Pinochet’s bloody military coup in Chile. Today, 23 years after the return to democracy, Chilean citizens continue to experience the lingering effects of the former dictator’s neoliberal economic model.
“The country is alright, but I am not,” goes a typical Chilean sentiment, placing the blame on the individual while ignoring the factors that fuel the Andean country’s sharp inequality.
On the surface, Chile has emerged as South America’s most prosperous nation and a global economic success story.
Today, Chile averages a 6 percent GDP growth rate. It’s the world’s leading producer of copper (with China as its largest trading partner) and, in 2010, became the first South American member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — a select status shared with economic titans such as the United States.
However, Chile’s Pinochet-inherited economic system in which nearly everything is privatized — from the educational system to health care to pensions — has resulted in social, economic, and political inequality on the individual level.
“Given the cultural hegemony of neoconservative thinking,” explained Javier Couso, a law professor at the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile. “[Chileans] tended to blame themselves for the malaise they experienced, and therefore they concluded, ‘I must be a failure if the country is well, but I am not.’”
Couso, joined by Guillermo Larraín, an economics professor at the Universidad de Chile, spoke at an event hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley in October.
They discussed their philosophies on Chile’s economic and political model from their recently published book, El Otro Modelo: Del orden neoliberal al régimen de lo público (The Alternative Model: From the neoliberal order to a regime of the public sphere).
The book’s three other authors, who were not in attendance, include Fernando Atría, José Miguel Benavente, and Alfredo Joignant.
El Otro Modelo is “a book written with 50 fingers,” said Larraín, and it took four years to write. It has been a Chilean bestseller for 12 weeks, he added, noting one Chilean reader in particular, former President Michelle Bachelet.
Along with some of the authors, Bachelet helped promote the book at a launch event in July.
Bachelet, who served as Chile’s first woman president from 2006–2010, is favored to win in the current presidential campaign. Chile’s constitution prohibits presidents from running in two consecutive terms, barring the current President Sebastián Piñera from seeking immediate reelection.
Addressing the crowd of professors, students, and community members, both authors maintained that Chile’s inequality was markedly visible and “particularly irritating” as Couso called it, when it came to fundamental social rights such as education, health care, and pensions.
“People are radically on their own,” said Couso, and the privatized companies have created a system of haves and have-nots.
One example they presented was Chile’s for-profit education.
Families have to pay for the type of education they desire, said Larraín. Private providers offer better quality but more expensive education, while the public school system curriculum remains very poor, and those who can’t afford alternatives, suffer.
They furthered their point by comparing public school percentages around the globe.
In South Korea, 100 percent of schools are public. In the United States and the UK, that figure is well over 90 percent. In Chile, however, only 42 percent of schools are public, according to Couso.
The outcome, he concluded, is a profoundly segregated society.
“For-profit education is the rule, and therefore Chile runs among the most economically segregated educational systems on Earth,” said Couso.
Educational projects should be not-for-profit, Larraín added, allowing parents the freedom to choose.
The authors also argued that the government should have a role in regulating private companies that provide public services. “If private entities are providing fundamental social rights like education, health care, or pension funds, they shall be regulated by a special kind of legislation,” said Couso. If you are fulfilling a public function in the economy, in the society, you must be doing this under a public regime, Larraín added.
“We have developed our country with the idea that the market has the power to efficiently allocate resources — and this is wrong,” he said. “In the public regime, we say if you are a citizen, you have the right, regardless if you have the money.”
To solve Chile’s inequality problems will require more government involvement and less reliance on private entities to solve public problems. In El Otro Modelo, the first step begins with constitutional reform.
“We start with the political — that’s the key to change any of the other issues,” said Couso, adding that Chile needs a system in which the democracy can express itself. “The constitution as it is right now does not allow democracy to work.”
The two are not alone in their thesis. The current constitution was adopted in 1980 during the Pinochet dictatorship, and eight out of nine Chilean presidential candidates, including Bachelet, also support a new constitution, according to Couso.
There has been a lot of public reaction to the book, with someone writing something in favor or against the book every week, according to Larraín.
“Chileans love politics,” he said. “There was something in the air that needed to be written, and for some reason it was written here. It was a bit of a chance.”
Sarah Yolanda McClure is a Master’s student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.