“We could not understand the clamor for a more just society” | International


Sebastian Pinera (Santiago, 69 years old), one of the richest men in Chile and president of the country twice, between 2010 and 2014 and now, since 2018, faces a critical situation. A massive revolt and with very high levels of violence has placed a society that, until only a month ago, was considered one of the most stable and prosperous in Latin America. In this interview, held last Thursday for more than an hour in his office in La Moneda, Pinera admits the need to build a more fair and equal system, with a constitutional reform or even a new Constitution, but says it will not fall "in the temptation of demagogy and populism. "

Question. How long can Chile resist this protest?

Reply. Each person makes their own projection and I am optimistic. I think that Chilean democracy, the rule of law and common sense will prevail. In Chile we have a paradox: it was the poorest colony in Spain in Latin America and in the last 30 years it probably lived one of the best periods in its history. In 30 years we managed to recover democracy in an exemplary way, we achieved a process of growth and development that we had never known before, we multiplied our income per capita by five. We pass from the middle of the table to head all rankings from Latin America. Poverty was reduced as in any other country in Latin America, from more than 60% to less than 10%. We also managed to reduce inequalities, less than we wanted, less than we needed, but we tended towards a more egalitarian society. And now we have suffered the three most violent and disruptive weeks that I remember. What does this paradox obey? I have read the main analysts to elaborate all kinds of very contradictory theories with each other.

P. How do you explain it?

R. I agree with all theories although they are contradictory. It is a way of expressing confusion. I have my own hypothesis: the malaise of success. A broad, thriving middle class emerged from the three decades of progress. What happens in Chile is not due to the rise of 30 pesos (five cents; about four cents) on the Metro ticket, but is due to a reality that was pushing perhaps 30 years ago and that we will not solve in 30 days. We could not understand that there was an underground clamor of citizenship for a more just, more egalitarian society, with more social mobility, more equal opportunities, less abuse. In these weeks we have seen that clamor burst, and we have also seen a wave of violence, of destruction, caused by organized criminal groups.

P. Where do these groups come from?

R. They are from different origins. I believe that today there is something new, different from what we had a month ago, but I need evidence to be able to affirm it.

P. You once used the word "war."

R. War against violence, against crime, against looting, against injustice, against poverty, of course. One in life has causes for which he is willing to fight, such as making Chile a developed country, without poverty, with greater equal opportunities, but also has causes against which he wants to fight. He said that in this wave of violence involved very organized groups that we did not know before in Chile, to which are added traditional crime, drug trafficking, anarchists and many more. They showed willingness to destroy everything, without respecting anything or anyone. They burned and destroyed half of the stations of our underground transport system, vandalized more than 2,800 buses, burned hundreds of supermarkets, commercial establishments, small businesses. Without mercy, without any contemplation for anything. We will identify these groups, we will bring them to justice and they will answer for their crimes. Simultaneously there was another situation, which was the very strong peaceful demonstration of the citizens of Chile to demand a fairer, more egalitarian country, with less privileges. And the government that has done? Attend both realities. We fight violence with the full force of the Constitution. A fundamental responsibility of every Government is to protect public order and protect citizen security and that is what we have tried to do, with many difficulties, during these three weeks. But at the same time we launched a social agenda that includes many of Chileans' requests: increase pensions and guaranteed minimum income, reduce the prices of basic services such as electricity, public transport and road tolls. Also establish more taxes on the highest income sectors to finance this social agenda.

P. Are we talking about a model change in Chile or just touch-ups?

R. The model in which I believe, and I will fight to perfect it, is democracy with freedom of expression, with separation of powers, with rule of law, with respect for minorities. I believe in a free, open, market, competitive economy. I also believe in a strong commitment of the State to fight against poverty and offer greater equal opportunities. The other model is the Bolivarian, which has brought in all countries where suffering, frustration, loss of freedom, stagnation has been applied.

P. Is there no intermediate model? You talk about social status, but it has taken an explosion to undertake certain reforms that were not discussed two months ago.

R. Our government program, with which we won the elections, included a pension reform that had been stuck in Congress for more than a year and will now move forward. It also included a profound reform of the health system, both public and private, to make it more equitable and of better quality. And a reform to education. Now we realize that social demand was more urgent and deeper and we must accelerate the pace, but I want to say something: one of the risks when these situations occur is that governments become demagogues, populists and irresponsible and throw the house out the window. With that, all they do is compromise the country's future. That is why we have to be very responsible and not destroy the bases of the economy. In these times of emergency, the Government has to be very clear in the north so as not to fall into the temptation of demagogy and populism.

P. Let's go back to violence. Who destroyed the Metro, with losses valued at 376 million dollars (about 341 million euros)?

R. In 15 minutes, in a coordinated and simultaneous way, they burned seven subway stations. Of 136 stations, 80 were burned, vandalized or destroyed. That is not something spontaneous or casual. It is the work of organized criminal groups, but naturally investigating this situation and bringing them to justice and punishing them corresponds to the police, the Prosecutor's Office and the Judiciary.

P. Do you suspect agents of adverse regimes to your Government?

R. I don't discard anything. I have received a lot of information, some of it from external sources, which states that there was intervention from foreign governments here. But I want to be prudent, we have delivered that information to the Prosecutor's Office, which is the one that by mandate of the law should investigate crimes in Chile.

P. You put yourself at the head of the regional onslaught against President Maduro. Do your suspicions point to Venezuela?

R. I have heard what a senior official of the United States Department of State said, I have heard what the OAS said and many highly respected organizations. I don't rule out anything, but as president of Chile I have to be prudent.

P. Do you think Chile is on its way to normalization? The protests continue.

Pinera, last Thursday at La Moneda.

Pinera, last Thursday at La Moneda.

R. The State has many responsibilities in a democracy: to protect public order, to protect the security of citizens, to protect the freedom and rights of all Chileans. It also has the obligation to respect human rights. I can say the following: these emergencies can lead to two ways. One, as a great incentive. Citizens' demands can help the Government and the entire society work more urgently to achieve greater justice, greater equity. That would be good for the country. But it can also happen that these demands are channeled out of democratic institutions and become a breeding ground for violence, for demagogy, for crime, for populism. That would be a very bad road.

P. No one doubts the quality of Chilean democracy, but there is an important disaffection. How can the interest of citizens in politics be recovered?

R. It is another paradox: so much appreciation for democracy and so much contempt for politics and for the institutions of the Republic. Not only in Chile. We see it in Spain, in Europe, in many countries of the world. In the case of Chile, without a doubt, there has been a kind of divorce between citizens, politics and politicians, and I think that has to make both sides reflect. Politicians have to understand that they cannot defend privileges, that they have to work harder and better. Citizens also have to understand that if we fall into the self-fulfilling prophecy that politics is crap, that it is useless, that they are all corrupt or incompetent, who will want to be in the world of politics? The best are going to go. Who will be left?

P. There are numerous reports of human rights violations by State agents, with 14 police officers accused of torture, and there are violent groups that continue to destroy the cities.

R. The acts of violence began on Thursday, October 17. Before they were demonstrations, uncivilities, evasion of payment. The violence really began on Thursday, October 17 and on Friday 18 this overflowed. In a few minutes they burned seven stations of a Metro that cost us blood, sweat and tears to build and that we were expanding to reach almost all the inhabitants of Santiago. The situation was so complex, there were so many attacks in so many different places, with so much power, with so much planning, with so much evil, that public order could not be controlled. At that moment, as president of Chile, I felt the duty to resort to the instruments that the Constitution grants to the president and decreed the state of emergency.

P. Taking the military to the street has a great symbolic burden in a country like Chile.

R. What less a president wants is to decree a state of emergency. But you don't do what you want, but what you owe. What does the state of emergency mean? That the president designates members of the Armed Forces as maximum responsible for the different emergency zones, with the mandate to protect public order. The Constitution allows to limit the right to mobility and the right of assembly for a maximum period of 15 days. But when we decree the state of emergency, here, at this same desk, we meet with the main ministers, with the head of the emergency area of ​​Santiago, General Iturriaga, and take all possible precautions to ensure respect for rights humans. An emergency is an extraordinary period with a lot of violence. There are a thousand wounded police.

P. And many injured civilians and people with eye injuries (1,778 and 177, respectively, according to the National Institute of Human Rights).

R. And many civilians injured, yes. I could have decreed the state of emergency and simply expect everyone to act according to the law. But we immediately called the National Institute of Human Rights, which is an autonomous body whose mission by law is to protect human rights, and we said: “They will have all the facilities, they will be able to enter all places, prisons, to the police stations, to the hospitals, to any place ”. Then we call on the Armed Forces and the chiefs of the emergency zones to fully respect the use of force protocol, which meets all human rights standards worldwide. This protocol establishes that the first line is the presence of the police or the Armed Forces to protect order. Second, talk and convince. Third, if that is not possible, the use of some deterrents such as water throwing cars or tear pumps. And only ultimately and if strictly necessary, in what is called privileged self-defense, the use of rubber ball guns used by all the world's police. We contacted the Public Defender's Office so that each detainee immediately had a lawyer to protect their rights. Fourth: we talked with the Prosecutor and the Judicial Branch, because the rule of law remained intact, so that they had special diligence and concern during this emergency period. Fifth: I personally invited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch to send observation missions to Chile. Sixth: we adopt a policy of total transparency, all information is published. There are 60,000 carabineros in Chile and I have seen them strive with self-sacrifice, with sacrifice, to protect people's rights. However, if any of them committed excesses, did not respect the protocols or committed crimes, the Prosecutor's Office will investigate.

P. You voted for no in the plebiscite to Pinochet of 1988 and, being president, he threw himself to a good part of the right when he spoke of "passive accomplices" of the dictatorship, in reference to civilians. What do you feel when you are accused of violating human rights?

P. It is a totally unfounded accusation. I tried my best to protect my countrymen from violence. If I had not done so and had continued to burn, not only Metro stations, but hospitals or airports, I would have breached my duty. I can ensure that we take all measures and precautions to ensure respect for human rights. Now, that these weeks of violence may have been abused, of course. And they will have to be investigated and judged.

P. You admit the need to reform the Constitution. Does it completely rule out a constituent period and a new Constitution?

R. I think it is necessary to modernize and perfect our Constitution. In our Government program there is a reform proposal and we are ready to discuss this issue within the channels of democracy. What is the constituent power that exists in our country? Our country is a democracy, not a dictatorship.

Police detain a protester in Santiago, Chile, on Friday.

Police detain a protester in Santiago, Chile, on Friday. AP

P. Talk about the Congress.

R. What I say is that we discuss all the reforms, and if this ends in a modernization of the current Constitution or a new Constitution, it will be part of the democratic game. Where should it happen? Within the framework that democracy itself set for that debate, which is the National Congress, the constituent power of our country. But first let's discuss what changes we want and look for ways of understanding. Those who want to skip democratic institutions and set their own rules of the game are undermining democracy.

P. Is it to skip the rules of the game asking for a referendum so that citizens decide whether or not to change the Constitution and choose the mechanism, as some sectors in Chile demand?

R. Our program proposes that when Congress reaches an agreement of a new Constitution or a modernized Constitution, that agreement is ratified by the citizenry through a plebiscite.

P. What is the main objection to the current Constitution? What would you want to change?

R. I believe that a better balance is required between the different powers of the State, especially between the Legislative and the Executive.

P. Less presidentialism?

R. A better balance Now the powers of the Executive are excessive in relation to the powers of the Legislative. Secondly, it has to be a Constitution that allows greater participation of citizens, popular initiative of law, communal plebiscites so that citizens can discuss and resolve issues that affect their quality of life. I have a constitutional reform project, I can deliver it to you right now, but where should we discuss it? If we are democratic we have to discuss it within the rules of democracy and in Congress.

P. Even if Congress is discredited?

R. Today there is no institution in any part of the world that has the confidence of citizens. Look what has happened with the Church, with sports organizations, parliaments, courts, the Armed Forces, the police. In all parts of the world there has been a distancing between citizens and their institutions. We must use the instruments that democracy itself gives us to improve the quality of democracy and that is to improve the quality of institutions, to improve the quality of politicians. For example, one of the reforms that we are proposing, which is of constitutional rank, is to reduce the excessive diets that parliamentarians receive in Chile. Parliamentarians in Chile receive a diet above all OECD countries and Chile is not the richest OECD country. Also reduce the number of parliamentarians and that is already underway.

P. What do you think of the hard right judgment? Jose Antonio Kast said: "What irony, the right-wing government that promised the best times, ended the streets full of violence and crime, raising taxes and kneeling approving all the reforms that the left wanted."

R. A comment alien to the truth and that contributes little to what Chileans need today.

P. Do you think that kind of right will grow or end up triumphing in moderation?

R. Chile is and always has been a moderate country, so I have a lot of confidence that after these weeks of fever, we will recover our nature. Chile is a country that every time it has had to face adversity, and has touched us many times (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods) it has shown its best.

P. Will there be a before and after? Will Chile be different after these events?

R. Chile changed, we have all changed in these weeks, and the president too.

P. In what sense?

R. In which we have better understood the message of the people. Chile had three notable decades, the so-called “Chilean miracle,” and we conquered democracy in an exemplary way. Normally, the transition from military government to democratic government generates economic chaos and social violence, but it was not the case in Chile. We also experience monumental economic progress. We reduced inequality, a strong middle class emerged, all that was a great achievement, but it was not enough. We should have understood that we had to better distribute the fruits of that prosperity. That is the lesson we have learned now.

A man holds a Chilean flag this Friday during protests in Santiago.

A man holds a Chilean flag this Friday during protests in Santiago. REUTERS

P. A man like you, accustomed to success in politics and business, what do you feel when so many Chileans demand your resignation?

R. Chile is a free country. Everyone has the right to think what they want from the government, the president, the sports clubs. I respect that freedom. Those who do not respect are those who pretend to be the interpreters of citizenship. These people do not realize that the discomfort also goes against them.

P. For some analysts, their government is symbolically finished. It promised economic growth, and is shrinking. He sought the support of the middle class, and the middle class has taken to the streets to protest. Guaranteed security, and there isn't.

R. I have heard it from the opposition. There is a chronic disease of democracy and it is becoming contagious throughout the world, to think that the work of the Government and the opposition is to destroy each other, which also destroys democracy and coexistence. I believe in a democracy in which there is government and opposition, but in which both try to collaborate from their different points of view so that the country moves towards the right direction. Let me talk about growth. During the previous government, because that's where critics come from, the country grew an average of 1.7% per year. Investment and productivity fell. Last year, first of our Government, the economy grew by 4%, leading the growth of Latin America and surpassing global growth. The investment recovered strongly. Therefore, it was a year of many achievements in Chile. We created 70,000 new jobs, inequalities were reduced. This year, 2019, has been very difficult because the world economy has weakened. The two great powers, the United States and China, have engaged in a trade war and that has had a brutal impact on Chile, a very open country, and has affected the price of our main export products, copper, cellulose, Fruit. Our growth expectation was between 2.5% and 3%. That forecast is no longer valid because these three weeks have caused gigantic damage to the economy and I do not only mean material damage, it has also reduced the confidence of consumers and investors. We had to cancel the APEC summit and the climate summit, with soul pain. I think that in the month of October the growth rate will have been negative. But I want to tell the critics, the opposition parties, that they were part of previous governments and that they, like us, were not able to see what we have now discovered with the demonstrations.

P. Do you think you have managed to open efficient communication channels with the opposition?

R. At the beginning it was very difficult, because they saw an opportunity to take advantage and every proposal of the Government was rejected: "It is not enough, nothing is enough." We made a change of cabinet, we changed a large part of the political team: "It is not enough." We present a social agenda that means an increase in spending in our country as never before: "It is not enough." We are now realizing that the time has come for democratic responsibility, republican commitment, unity, greatness, not division or smallness. In recent days we have made great progress with part of the opposition. Because there is a part of the opposition that has no desire to collaborate, and there is another part of the opposition that in my opinion is taking more constructive attitudes and has allowed us to move forward a lot in an agreement to carry out the pension reform, the tax reform and, we hope, many more. To approve the social agenda and the public order agenda, we need laws of Congress, in which we are a minority.

P. Are you worried about the damage to the international image of Chile?

R. Of course. I currently have a million concerns, but that does not mean that I do not have at the same time the capacity to be attentive, to listen, to react, to try to channel these difficult times that Chilean society is going through the path of democracy, of dialogue, of agreements, of solutions and not in the way of burning everything, as some want.

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