Sebastian Piñera has just won the general election in Chile. As one friend on Facebook put it, the Mercs and the 4x4s will be out on the streets of Santiago tonight.
The polls and pundits have been predicting his win for months but I still can’t believe it. The man with the smarmy smile and the billboard that said ‘Delinquents – The Party’s Over’ has gone and won. Was that a Pinochet slogan? It sounds like it could have been.
After only a year in Santiago and now back in the UK, I can’t claim to know a lot about Chilean politics. But I can imagine that a billionaire who apparently owns a TV station and has a controlling interest in LAN, the national airline, is probably quite keen on making money. Namby pamby topics like social justice, free health care or environmental concerns like not ruining the countryside by building an effing great big dam in Patagonia are unlikely to be top priorities.
Bachelet has been generally well-regarded. Had she legally been able to stay in power, she may well have done so. Eduardo Frei, Piñera’s opponent, didn’t seem to be nearly as popular. ‘I just don’t trust him to do what he says he’s going to do’ said one friend. Meanwhile, Piñera’s posters were everywhere. From deserted deserts to the wind battered beaches of Chiloe, his smug beaming face was there, promising tough reform on crime and a ‘breath of fresh air’. In the end, he won, with 52% of the vote to Frei’s 48% in tonight’s second round.
As a non-Chilean, I can’t possibly begin to understand what it’s like to grow up in Chile’s rigid class system. I haven’t seen a military coup or lived under Pinochet’s regime/government (choice of word depending on what side of the fence you sit).
What I do know is how hard it is to talk about politics in Chile. As a teacher in Santiago, students clammed up whenever politics was mentioned. I was told specifically by my boss not to discuss it in class. Occasionally, I’d see unguarded glimpses of Pinochet support – ‘It was just a change of government’, ‘He was nice to me when I was little’, ‘My friend says his only mistake was he didn’t kill all the communists’ – and it shocked me to the core. Essentially there are those in Chile who really believe that a man, under whose rule thousands of people allegedly disappeared, was the best thing to ever have happened to their country. And yet nobody seems to want to openly challenge this belief. It’s as if politics is a nasty, embarrassing business and that the past should be lain to rest. Will Chile ever be able to move on if it can’t talk about what happened in 1973 and the years that followed?
And so it hit me today, as the election results were coming in, that my friends in Chile were talking about politics in their status updates on Facebook. For many there was disgust – ‘Nothing to celebrate’, ‘disaster’, ‘I’m leaving Chile!’, ‘Chileans have sold their souls to the devil’ – while for others there was a feeling that not much would change. ‘It’s just the centre right versus the right. Half of this country has already been sold off, I just hope there’s something left after the next 4 years’ said one. Some had practical concerns ‘When are the shops opening again? ‘(it’s illegal to buy or sell alcohol during an election) while others didn’t even seem to know there was an election happening, ‘Can anyone lend me a tent for the weekend of the 25th?’ asked one, ‘Where can I buy a cheap fridge?’ said another. Only one lone voice sounded gleeful ‘A great conversion! Chile is a great nation. I’m proud of my country’. Nobody liked his status. Meanwhile others, in the grand tradition of keeping their opinions to themselves, chose to seethe quietly with a ‘……………………’ and a ‘no comment’.
Here’s to more commenting. May there be much more of it. The last time I checked it was still free and OK to do so.