Chile’s Bachelet Pushes Ambitious Social Reform Agenda

To satisfy Chileans’ desire for change, President Michelle Bachelet has already announced numerous reform policies.

Michelle Bachelet answers questions from reporters outside Chile's presidential residence in Santiago, January 7
Michelle Bachelet answers questions from reporters outside Chile’s presidential residence in Santiago, January 7 (michellebachelet.cl)

Since her inauguration ceremony last month, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, has announced a series of policies aimed at proving to the public her desire for change.

Bachelet’s election campaign was based on an ambitious social reform agenda, focused on issues such as gender inequality and social welfare, as well as tax, education and constitutional reform. Her aims are similar to those of her first term in office, between 2006 and 2010, although she acknowledges that her previous government failed to bring about the change it sought. This was particularly the case for education and poverty, issues that led to mass protests and the eventually the downfall of the previous conservative government.

Bachelet’s first major step on taking office was to announce her “fifty measures in one hundred days,” an impressive list of commitments on issues ranging from education and health care to women’s rights and the environment. Legislation implementing these changes has already swept through Congress, the first bill signed into law creating new March and winter bonuses, aimed at assisting Chile’s poorest families during the toughest periods of Chile’s financial year.

A former director of UN Women, gender issues have always been close to Bachelet’s heart, and her first weeks in office resulted a bill proposing the creation of a Ministry for Women and Gender Equality. This body will oversee the implementation of a number of her gender policies, including access to secular sex education, reproductive rights, birth control and the decriminalization of therapeutic abortion. She also seeks to legalize gay marriage, building on the civil unions for gay couples introduced by her predecessor, Sebastián Piñera.

However, the most important aspect of her reforms is education, a sensitive issue that led to the “Penguin Protests” during Bachelet’s first government, as well as unprecedented levels of civil unrest under the Piñera administration.

In response to public outrage over the education policies of the previous government, Bachelet has promised an end to profit making universities, in addition to free university education within six years. She has also set herself the ambitious target of making university education available to Chile’s 70 percent most economically vulnerable students within four years.

To finance these initiatives, Bachelet proposes radical tax reform, raising the corporate tax rate from 20 to 25 percent, a figure more in line with other developed countries. She has also announced plans to clamp down on tax evasion and end the unpopular Taxable Profits Fund, a mechanism introduced by the military dictatorship to allow wealthy businessowners to register personal income as a corporate asset, thereby avoiding tax.

Despite the popularity of these initiatives, there are many on the Chilean right who question the viability of Bachelet’s reforms. The new socialist president is expected to spend more than $15 billion on her reforms, with only $8.2 billion generated by increased tax revenues.

Furthermore, although Chile stands out among Latin American economies for its growth and stability, the copper industry that has made it a success is flagging, due to a decline in Chinese demand. Even prior to Bachelet’s election, growth had started to slow, though the central bank still expects growth between 4 and 4.5 percent this year.

Bachelet’s plans have been met with feverish enthusiasm from a public visibly demanding change. Although she has always been a staunch advocate for social justice, reforms during her first term were noticeably more modest. However, it is clear that modest reform will no longer satisfy the Chilean public.

Under Bachelet’s predecessor, fuel prices, economic inequality and limited access to education resulted in protests and a national strike, supported by 70 percent of the population. Piñera’s image as a billionaire concerned only with big business cost his coalition government the election. Thus Bachelet cannot afford to be perceived as timid. She must be seen to be breaking from the past and demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to social justice to maintain public support. As such, many of the activists responsible for the protests under the last government have been co-opted by Bachelet, with the national union of students working directly with the new administration on education reform.

In a move designed to welcome Bachelet’s new government, and highlight the public’s demand for change, tens of thousands of Chileans marched through the streets of Santiago last month, in a rally dubbed “The March to End All Marches.” The event gathered together a variety of social groups keen to make their voices heard. Advocates for gay rights, indigenous groups, environmentalists and women’s rights united under one banner to show their support for social reform. Their message was clear: Chile expects change. But with expectations so high, it remains to be seen if Bachelet can deliver.