Inequality sets the tone in Bachelet’s state of the nation address

Published On : Wed, May 21st, 2014

President singles out education reform, tax changes, women’s electoral quotas and improved reproductive rights as key to increasing equality in Chilean society.

Inequality sets the tone in Bachelet’s state of the nation address

President Michelle Bachelet gave her state of the nation address in front of Congress on May 21. Photo by Alex Ibañez / Gobierno de Chile

Speaking for over two hours in front of Congress on Wednesday, President Michelle Bachelet outlined her plans for the country in her first state of the nation address since becoming president for the second time.

The president touched on some of her mandate’s most ambitious and contentious proposals — including education and tax reform bills currently in Congress — all the while returning to a central theme of social and economic inequality in Chile.

“Today, we must move together towards a society that matches the wealth and the level of growth that our country has achieved,” Bachelet said. “And we must address inequality in all its dimensions.”

The president opened by praising achievements across sectors and regions.

“Today few doubt that Chile is a unique country: more connected with the world, more connected between its regions, with more aspirations, moving forward for its education, in the defense of its communities and the environment; a country that recognizes and demands its rights with clarity,” the president said.

Bachelet then spoke of the strength of the Chilean people as demonstrated by the efforts of the thousands of volunteers who stepped up to help those in need following the 8.2 earthquake in the north and the devastating fires in Valparaíso.

“As in so many other times, we have seen the enormous strength of our country unfold around these emergencies: with courage, with unity, with generosity,” Bachelet said. “We have seen groups of volunteers willing to work hand in hand with people who have lost everything.”

The president conceded that there is room for improvement within the country’s emergency response systems, and that the government should always be looking for ways to better the prevention of large scale loss and the reaction when these emergencies occur.

‘Education is a social right’

A large portion of the address was devoted to education reform. The president sent her the first phase of her landmark bill to Congress on Monday as student groups marched in Valparaíso against the proposed legislation which they say does not go far enough.

“We have ethical reasons to push forward with this reform that is based in the profound conviction that to receive a quality education is the most effective mechanism for reducing inequality,” the president said. “Education is a social right that should not depend on the economic resources of students or their families.”

Bachelet laid out the various parts of the proposed education reform, including improving the access and quality of education from pre-K through university levels. She noted that an investment in education will in turn be an investment in the country as it will subsequently impact Chile’s workforce, businesses and future innovation.

These reforms are tied to the tax reform bill that recently passed the lower house and now sits before the Senate. Some have criticized the proposal saying it will hurt businesses and the economy through tax increases on companies and eliminating the investment scheme set up to support entrepreneurs.

Bachelet assured Chileans that she has their best interests in mind and that issues like pensions and fair treatment of the country’s older citizens will be handled carefully and equitably as the reforms move forward.

“I want to assure all Chileans that this tax reform is not being paid by the middle class or the small businesses. It is the opposite, they will see benefits from this reform,” Bachelet said. “Nor will it affect the amount of your pensions. You know this president, and you know that she promotes public policies in favor of the people.”

In addition to education and tax reform, Bachelet said her government hopes to tackle inequality through increased support for small businesses and entrepreneurs and also increased access to medical treatment across economic levels and locations. She also touched on improved support for women and Chile’s indigenous peoples.

In her discussion of improving women’s rights in Chile, Bachelet gave her support for a bill that would legalize therapeutic abortion and abortion in cases of rape that is being brought to Congress. Chile is currently one of six states, including the Vatican, to ban abortion in all cases.

“Periodically we learn through the news of cases where women have had secret abortions that put their lives at risk and without a doubt are experiencing great pain and anguish,” Bachelet said. “Each abortion in our country is a sign that as a society we have reached out too late because prevention is not having the desired results.”

The president added that to address this issue, and the many others facing Chile, it is vital to have more women in government and important roles across the country. She said she supports the implementation of quotas to improve this disparity.

“We want to see more women, for all, in the construction of our democracy,” Bachelet said. “For this we are incorporating the political participation of women through the mechanism of quotas in the bill to reform the electoral system, currently in Congress.”

‘A new constitution is a task for the entire society’

A new constitution, something she campaigned on last year, was also featured prominently in her address.

“Just as education reform allows for improved opportunities for the children and young people, the task of strengthening the democracy and modernizing it through a new constitution is a task for the entire society,” Bachelet said.

The current constitution was written while Chile was still governed by the military junta led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. It has been amended considerably since it was approved in 1980, with more than 50 changes made in 2005 alone. However, for Bachelet, a constitution written under a dictatorship should not represent a democracy.

“The current constitution, despite all of its reforms, still generates a profound distrust in the popular sovereignty and the ability to have a democratic dialogue among the people,” Bachelet said. “We do not want this to be the base of our public work as a nation.”

Another major facet of inequality in Chile is the centralization of everything from infrastructure to culture. Bachelet pledged to tackle this issue from multiple angles.

“The development of our country and our people happens through the greater contributions and resources of our regions, districts and towns. If this does not happen and the enormous gaps in opportunities that currently exist are maintained between those distinct territories, this will continue to be another factor in the creation of inequality in Chile,” the president said.

Bachelet promised more funding for transportation between and within regions, increased investment in the various regions, and improved infrastructure for things like education and health. She also announced the creation of a Presidential Advisory Committee of Decentralization and Regional Development.

While discussing threats facing Chile’s environment, Bachelet said she will work to protect vital resources such as glaciers and water available to Chileans. GreenPeace Chile has created a bold new campaign to defend Chile’s glaciers, setting up a nation on the country’s massive ice fields claiming sovereignty until the government steps up its efforts to protect them.

“The glaciers represent a source of fresh water whose value is incalculable. We are presenting a bill that protects the glaciers and their surroundings,” the president said.

She then took the discussion further, saying that freshwater is a right of all Chileans and that measures need to be taken to protect the resource.

“We have proposed to recognize water as a national good for public use in its various states, substantially modifying the Water Code.”

Near the end of her address, the president touched on foreign relations, citing continued trade treaties that the Pacific Alliance, a pact set up by her predecessor Sebastían Piñera, and the Peru maritime case that was resolved by the International Court of Justice earlier this year as an example of improved relations in the region and a great respect for international cooperation. She also mentioned the ongoing case with Bolivia in which she maintained the ongoing rhetoric of upholding Chile’s historical agreements.

The president closed with a statement of pride for her country and the idea of Chile as rebuilding and construction a brighter future.

“Today history has given us a great opportunity. We should take it. Chile and its generations to come will ask us to account for the future that we have built for them,” Bachelet said.

The full state of the nation address is available in the original Spanish is available online.

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis ([email protected])
Copyright 2014 The Santiago Times

About the Author

Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte specializes in foreign relations, law, and human rights. Her work can also be found on Mapuexpress, The Center for Justice and Accountability, and InterAmerican Security Watch. Charlotte is also a regular contributor to the BBC Radio5 program Up All Night as a Chile correspondent. Contact her at [email protected]