The University of Texas at Austin
  • Opinion: Chile's political transition will not impede relief

    By Matthew A. Johnson
    Matthew A. Johnson
    Published: March 4, 2010

    Matthew A. Johnson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government. He is conducting dissertation field research in Santiago, Chile.

    In the days since the Feb. 27 earthquake, the focus in Chile has turned away from the natural disaster itself and toward the recovery efforts in afflicted areas. In the wake of this transition comes another one: the political changing of the guard from President Michelle Bachelet to President-elect Sebastián Piñera on March 11. Thus, during one of Chile’s gravest crises ever, the question of whether and how the political transition will affect the cohesiveness of the recovery effort is extremely salient.

    Just as the earthquake left visible cracks in many of Santiago’s buildings, the reported rumors of preexisting, behind-the-scenes tensions between Piñera and Bachelet have been on prominent display since the terremoto (earthquake). In the days immediately following the tragedy, Bachelet and Piñera maintained high profiles, but separately.

    Chile’s earthquake response has largely been directed by President Bachelet, leaving President-elect Piñera with seemingly little input, save for the numerous press conferences he has held after visiting damaged sites. While Piñera was able to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it was only President Bachelet on the runway to greet her. Nor has there been visible evidence of cabinet members of the current government and the government-elect working on logistical issues together and addressing the press corps in tandem. In short, it seems the current government is largely making the bed that the incoming government will have to sleep in. To be sure, the gravity of the situation demanded immediate action by the current government. However, Bachelet has crafted a seemingly unilateral response to one of Chile’s direst crises, surprisingly enough, in the wake of her own exit.

    Unlike the U.S., where presidents have the opportunity to hold two consecutive terms, the Chilean constitution disallows concurrent reelection. As a result Bachelet, despite her extremely high approval ratings (above 80 percent in January 2010), was unable to run in the recent elections. Opposed to the 2008-09 transition in the U.S. when a very popular president-elect was waiting in the wings for an unpopular incumbent’s term to expire, Chile’s “lame duck” president still enjoys the constitutional legitimacy to create a response to the earthquake, as well as the social legitimacy to do so.

    But what happens after Bachelet’s term? Will the political transition allow Piñera a reshaping of the recovery effort to his liking? I would argue that Chilean response will not be altered dramatically after March 11. Political scientists often speak of something called “path dependence,” whereby extant political institutions and decisions are often difficult to change once in place. As a result, although President-elect Piñera will have discretion over long-term recovery efforts (for instance the rebuilding of roads), he will also likely find it difficult to retreat from commitments made by Bachelet. Piñera, however, should not see these constraints as a bad thing — consistent and stable government policies tend to work much better than erratic ones.

    Thus, in this country known for its recent economic and political stability (and now for the stability of its infrastructure) the ensuing political transition will change the face of the Chilean response to the earthquake, but not necessarily the character of the response itself, regardless of the fault lines between Bachelet and Piñera.


    The Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the Hispanic Graduate Business Association and the group Chilenos en Austin are hosting Con Chile en el Corazón, a musical and cultural event this Saturday (March 6) from 6:30-10:30 p.m. to benefit earthquake relief efforts in Chile. Learn more about the event or how you can help support the relief efforts.

    Photo by James Guppy on Flickr.

    • Quote 2
      anit graphiste paris said on Nov. 24, 2010 at 4:25 a.m.
      Too much troubles with that damn earthquake in Chile. Politicals only think about reelections.
    • Quote 2
      Free Dora Explorer Games said on Aug. 24, 2010 at 4:39 p.m.
      What really surprised me about the earthquakes in Chile was that there wasn't nearly the outpouring of support and relief that we saw in the Haiti disaster. I'm not sure if it was a political move by those in power to show that they had a strong enough infrastructure that they didn't need outside help, or maybe they truly had it handled. For the people who were affected, I hope they truly did.
    • Quote 2
      Catalina said on March 24, 2010 at 1:10 p.m.
      Well hello! Am Catalina Barros, Chilena! I am living in Dallas right now, but I am hoping to start an MBA in the University of Texas in Austin next semester. I was part of the earthquake. Actually the day of my wedding was the day of the earthquake. I married an American citizen and his while family was there to celebrate. It was horrible and shocking to see how the country was left after that long earth movement. We did get married, with a few change of plans. I hope once I get to Austin I can become part of this CHILENOS GROUP, like they said before, chilenos always carry their country in their heart, and I will miss it forever. Arriba Chile! Catalina
    • Quote 2
      Angelo Gomez said on March 23, 2010 at 10:08 a.m.
      I think these comments lack in the appreciation that former President Bachelet received from the population and how Chile has been an example even in the midst of disaster. Bachelet's approval rate was over 84 percent. I do not know any U.S. president in recent history with such rate. Also, the transition from Bachelet to Pinera does not describe, in this article, that this was a smooth process of two opposing political forces. Bachelet's family was imprisoned and her father killed by the right wing represented by Pinera. She was exiled for many years. Thus, accepting and working with him, while it was lightly, it also represents a movement away from similar to Apartheid in South Africa. My point being, we have to clarify that Chile has been able to overcome, while still works remains to be done, their historical divisive past. While countries like the U.S. still have much more work to be done between blacks and whites. Similar is the case in Chile between the right wing, supporters of Pinochet, and the center left, which represents over 4 million Chileans who were exiled and tortured and imprisoned, and other atrocities in the name of order. Both side need to be considered when analyzing Chile's transition. Above all and despite all, Chile is able to move forward in the midst of the middle of a major catastrophe. Oppose to the case that Hurricane Katrina caused in the U.S. This is still a job to be done in terms of recovery, forgiveness and reconstruction. Chile response has been fast and smooth in the middle of a political transition from two opposite history shaping forces. Kudos for Chile!
    • Quote 2
      George Cardwell said on March 20, 2010 at 2:58 p.m.
      I have several questions: 1. Why would I want to know your opinion of the effect of the political transition on the Chilean earthquake recovery? How can I assess the accuracy of your opinion - I don't know anything about you except that you are a Ph.D. candidate in the Government Department. Advisers' opinions are only useful to those with intimate knowledge of the adviser. 2. The real information of interest here is the lack of cooperation between the outgoing and the incoming administration. That's the real story - it's the only story the ordinary Chilean citizen cares about, and the only story most Americans want to see. Spend some more time here. Since you are obviously talented (or you wouldn't have made it this far), why not use that talent to tell the real story? All thinking men would thank you! Dr. G.L. Cardwell ECE Department UT Austin
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