News & Current Events
Socialists Return to Power
Ricardo Lagos became president in March 2000, the first Socialist to run the country since Allende. Chile's economic growth slowed to 3% for 2001, partly the result of a drop in international copper prices and the economic turmoil in neighboring Argentina. In 2003, there were several minor financial scandals involving insider information and bribery. In response, Lagos introduced new reforms promising greater transparency. In 2004, Chile passed a law permitting divorce for the first time.
In 2006 presidential elections, Socialist Michelle Bachelet won 53% of the vote. The former pediatrician is a survivor of the Pinochet dictatorship, which was responsible for her father's death and subjected her to prison, torture, and exile. Bachelet took office on March 11, becoming Chile's first female chief of state. She promised to continue Chile's successful economic policies while increasing social spending. The president's first major challenge came when 700,000 of the nation's students organized a national boycott in May demanding educational reform. The students called off the strike in June after the government agreed to address their concerns.
In January 2008, president Bachelet swore in six new ministers to her 22-member cabinet. The major change was the appointment of Christian Democrat leader Edmundo Perez Yoma for Interior Minister, the top political post of the cabinet. Bachelet also replaced ministers of economy, public works, mining, agriculture, and planning. The cabinet changes are not expected to affect government policy.
Earthquake Devastates Beginning of Right-Wing Rule
In January 2010, for the first time in 50 years—since the rule of Pinochet—Chile elected a right-wing president. Billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera narrowly defeated Eduardo Frei of the Concertacion, the center-left alliance that has been in power for 20 years, in the second round of voting. Piñera, who was elected to the Senate in 1990, owns a television station, a soccer club, and a large stake in the country's main airline, Lan Chile. He lost to outgoing Bachelet in the 2006 election, his first run for the presidency. Piñera said he would use his business acumen to create jobs give private industry a more prominent role in the economy. He has distanced himself from the Pinochet regime, and his cabinet is made up of a group of technocrats with no ties to Pinochet.
Chile was hit by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in February 2010. Fatalities were relatively low, with some 500 people killed in the devastation. However, as many as 1.5 million people were displaced. The country, long known to be at high risk for earthquakes, has enforced strict building codes in urban areas, which helped to limit the amount of damage in these areas. But buildings and homes in poorer areas—many built with adobe—did not fare as well. Chile's electricity grids, communication, and transportation systems were badly damaged, severely hampering rescue and aid efforts. The epicenter of the quake was 70 miles northeast of Concepcion in central Chile. Massive waves caused additional damage along the coast.
In March 2010, Sebastián Piñera was sworn in as President of Chile, immediately following three major aftershocks from the recent massive earthquake. Piñera is the first right-wing president since Pinochet. He made an effort to distance himself from the former dictator, and he assembled a cabinet of technocrats with no ties to Pinochet. He faced the widespread devastation of his country following the February earthquake, visiting the quake zone directly after his inauguration. One of his first acts as the new president was to form an emergency response team to deal with the country's reconstruction in the aftermath of the disaster.
Fate of Trapped Miners Rivets the Nation
On Aug. 5, 2010, a tunnel collapsed at the San José mine, trapping 33 miners 2,000 feet below ground. Remarkably all of the miners survived. Rescuers drilled a small borehole to provide the miners with food, lights, and liquids and to allow them to send notes to and from family members as they wait to be rescued. The miners have become national heroes throughout Chile. They were rescued in mid-October, weeks earlier than planned, lifted to safety one by one in a rescue capsule. Each of the miners emerged jubilant and in overall good health considering the ordeal.
Plan for Hydroelectric Dams Causes Outrage
Immediately following the successful rescue of 33 miners in 2010, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera had an approval rating of 63 percent. By June 2011; however, Piñera had a disapproval rating of 56%, the highest of any Chilean president since democracy returned to the country in 1990. The main reason for the approval rating nosedive was Piñera's support for the Hidroaysén electricity project, a plan to build five dams on two rivers and flood over 14,000 acres of nature reserves in the Patagonia region.
A government environmental commission approved the $3.2 billion Hidroaysén project in May 2011, prompting a country-wide protest movement. The protests caused injuries to 28 police officers and over one hundred thousand dollars in property damage. One protest in early June involved 30,000 demonstrators marching to the presidential palace, with some protestors throwing stones and pieces of wood at police vehicles. The police fired back with water cannons. Since the commission's decision, the focus has turned to the yet to be approved transmission line for the project. Patagonia, considered by Chileans to be a national treasure with its breathtaking glaciers and lakes, attracts thousands of tourists each year.
Chilean Youth Call for Reform
Throughout 2011, partly inspired by the Arab Spring, activists continued to protest and started a movement which came to be known as the Chilean Winter. On August 4, 2011, some protestors set up barricades around Santiago, the nation's capital, while others banged on pots and pans. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of high school and college students. About 900 demonstrators were arrested. Also in August, nearly three dozen university and high school students went on a hunger strike to show their disapproval of President Piñera's government. These education protests have taken over several schools, forcing some to stop classes. Students organized rallies which were attended by 100,000 people. The protestors were demanding a more accessible and affordable university system as well as higher quality and equal funding for elementary and middle schools.
In October 2011, student representatives attempted to negotiate with government representatives led by Felipe Bulnes, the education minister. However, the students withdrew from the negotiations, reporting that Bulnes attacked a student representative, David Urrea. Bulnes reportedly accused Urrea of trying to break up the negotiations. A spokesperson for the government blamed extremists within the student movement for the breakdown of negotiations. Bulnes was replaced by Harald Beyer as education minister two months later.
Although the student protestors did not get all their demands met, they did influence a huge drop in President Piñera's approval rating. As of January 2012, Piñera's approval rating hovered around 26–30%.