Monday, May 23, 2005

Chilean lessons

This year we are living the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the wave of democratization that swept Latin America. It seems to me that is a good moment to see behind, to see around and to try look forward.

These two decades were marked not only but the change in the leadership of the countries in the region. They were marked, above all, by a rather naive desire to bring to life democracy in the region. We have tried to do it so however, without the kind of changes that were required to make democracy not only a desirable goal, which it is but-above all- without the support that would have made our democracies viable.

Of course, the exception to the rule is Chile and, up to a certain extent, Mexico. Both countries used some of the features of their authoritarian regimes to carry away economic reform programs that have provided, up until now, the stability that distinguishes both countries when one compares then with the rest of the region. The fact, however is that Mexico has lost for the most part its stability. All that has been left behind is an empty shell that is about to collapse.

As far as Chile is concerned, the country seems to be on its way to preserve its stability and, above all, on its way to keep growth at rates higher than the rest of the region, but also with the benefit of social and political stability.

Part of Chile's story of success is related to long-standing agreements among the country's elites that go all the way back to the 19th century. Such agreements explain, as an example, their ability to defeat Peru and Bolivia in the wars that they have fought against each other but also in their ability to manipulate in their favor the relation they had in the 19th century with Britain.

Such agreements explain also the stability of the Chilean democracy up until the 1960s and, paradoxically enough, Salvador Allende's presidential bid and the coup d'Etat that defrocked him in 1973. Moreover, such ability to strike deals and to build coalitions was used by Augusto Pinochet himself to gain the support of the Christian Democrats, who later decided to switch their loyalty and to become the head of the coalition that rules Chile since the late 1980s.

Now, when conflict ravages all the region, Chile stands not only as the less “democratic” of all the countries in the region (see the Electoral Democracy Index built by the United Nations Development Programme) but also as the only one that has been able to effectively reduce poverty and to develop a truly progressive tax regime.

At the core of such paradoxical success, it is possible to find political elites willing and able to reach compromises. The most important of such compromises, however, has hot been with other groups or parties, but above all with the country’s conflicting authoritarian legacy. Even the socialist President Ricardo Lagos, a political refugee during Pinochet's regime, has been willing to preserve, untouched, the market reforms carried by Pinochet.

Such ability puts the Chilean politicians well beyond their peers from other countries.

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