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Corruption Scandals Are Water off Chile’s Back

By: Hana Fischer - @hana_fischer - May 27, 2015, 12:58 pm
Faced with massive corruption scandals, President Michelle Bachelet was forced the shake up her Cabinet. (t13)
Faced with massive corruption scandals, President Michelle Bachelet was forced the shake up her Cabinet. (t13)

EspañolSome might say the wide-ranging corruption scandals that have rocked Chile as of late are a sign of the South American nation’s decline. After all, this was supposed to be the model country in the region, an example for those seeking a path to follow toward economic development.

I could not disagree more. What is happening in Chile is actually a sign of a nation reaching a level of maturity enjoyed by only a select few countries. This is, of course, not the result of corruption itself, but rather the public’s reaction to these scandals.

People in Latin America tend to have a distorted view of the problems affecting our societies. For example, every time some scandal in the United States turns into world news, we become outraged and say: “Why do such horrible things happen in North America? Nothing like that ever happens here. It must be their culture!”

Yes, it certainly is the culture. It’s the reason why these sorts of problems become known in the first place, because of the institutions in place to bring them to light: a free press that investigates; an independent and efficient judiciary; and a public that decries the scandal and demands justice.

A political crisis is not the end of the world, but rather an intrinsic healing process of a republican system. Liberal democracy is the only form of government with mechanisms in place to purge itself of corruption without resorting to violence.

Some people still believe that if there is no scandal in the press involving politicians, businessmen, or union leaders, it must mean there is no wrongdoing going on in the country. The truth is, however, that is simply not the case. As James Madison put it:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

These auxiliary precautions emerge spontaneously from culture, institutions, and the sense of dignity emanating from personal economic autonomy.

In the United States, as in all developed nations, a liberal system was first established in the economy, and the transition towards democracy came later. In Latin America, however, democracy came before any attempt to apply economic liberalism. This is largely the cause of our continued frustration and the reason why populism is perpetually on “the comeback.”

Chile followed the same path as the rest of her continental neighbors. Successive governments tried to apply statist measures to solve economic problems, and the result was that between 1950 and 1975 Chile became the “world champion” of inflation. During that period, the cost of living increased by 11,317,874 percent, driving a large chunk of the Chilean population to poverty.

It was a long journey that eventually hit rock bottom during the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973). In those years, Chile suffered through a shortage of basic goods and long lines to obtain most essentials, not unlike what is happening in Venezuela today.

What followed was an era of military dictatorship and horrific human-rights violations. However, simultaneously, the country began to liberalize the economy — a system that was endorsed by the elected governments that followed after the country’s return to democracy.

I have always admired the way the Chilean left, during this period, learned from their mistakes of the past. They were able to arrive at sound conclusions that prevented them from dismantling an economic system that, despite its faults, was able to lift so many families out of poverty and expand the middle class. They followed a successful formula of liberal democracy in politics and entrepreneurial spirit in the economy.

Massive protests during the Sebatián Piñera administration (2010-2014), however, uncovered latent public discontent. At the time, it seemed as if a majority of Chileans wanted to return to the old populist style of government that dragged them into the abyss. President Michelle Bachelet based her 2013 presidential campaign on this sentiment.

After assuming office for her second term, Bachelet unleashed the “excavator,” as her political ally Jaime Quintana said. In other words, she aimed to tear down what it had taken decades to build.

Taking full advantage of her parliamentary majority, she passed various reforms that put Chile back on the path toward statism. We’ve all seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. Many of us feared for some time that Chile would not be able to escape the curse of the typical Latin-American fate.

It was within this context that the corruption scandals emerged. Faced with this situation, Chile proved that economic freedom — and the ideas, ethics, and values that come with it — had taken root in the Andean nation’s culture. The public chose not to endorse the thesis “steals, but does public work.” Instead, Chileans woke up from their slumber, and spoke out against Bachelet’s reforms.

Chile’s institutions functioned as they should, because the citizenry kept them in check. They were not complacent in the face of corruption, and that ought to be an example of civic maturity for us all.

After replacing Bachelet’s “political heir” in Rodrigo Peñailillo, the newly appointed interior minister, Jorge Burgos, was asked about his plans in government. “I don’t like excavators,” he said, “because they work backwards, and I believe this country needs to move forward.”

His words demonstrate that public opinion forced the government to change its direction. And that is why we should remain optimistic for Chile: there is proof that the Chilean Miracle continues to bear healthy fruit.

Translated by Adam Dubove.

Hana Fischer Hana Fischer

Hana Fischer was born in and resides in Uruguay. She serves as a writer, researcher, and international affairs columnist in different media outlets. A specialist in philosophy, politics, and economics, she has written several books and received honorable mentions. Follow her @hana_fischer.