No play on words
In its inception, the word change in the history curriculum for Chilean schools – from military “dictatorship” to “régime” for the period of general Augusto Pinochet’s violent rule – was part provocation, part slip-up. In its effect, it reflects that while Chile is an economic athlete, it remains a political cripple. So does its government.
Whoever in the education ministry had the bright idea of sanitising language to describe one of the more murderous governments of an era stiff with competition in political violence, it did not come sanctioned from the highest echelons of governments. The hapless minister for education, the technocrat Harald Beyer, is only a week into his job. And Sebastián Piñera, the businessman-turned-president, is an economic liberal who is unexcited by ideology. That is why his election two years ago brought an opportunity to mend the rift that still splits Chile after nearly 25 years of democracy and why his failure to do so is so disappointing.
Polarisation into left and right has persisted through truth commissions and high and steady economic growth; indeed it has grown more acute under Mr Piñera. Student protests recur annually in Chile, but last year’s were bigger in scale and harsher in tone than anything seen in a long time. The immediate cause is legitimate frustration with a heavily private education system that costs much and yields too little quality. But having a right-wing government in power has also whetted protesters’ appetite for confrontation, while that government’s tin-eared response to demands backed by a large majority has hardened fronts further.
In such an environment, a word change that can only be seen as an attempt to rehabilitate Pinochet throws fuel on the fire. It also exposes Mr Piñera. Not only has he let his lack of ideology become a political blind spot instead of turning it into a political resource. Even on plain managerial grounds, the president looks ever less in control of his own government.
To be fair, Mr Piñera was always hostage to the Independent Democrat Union, the irreconcilably conservative party that is the biggest in his coalition and muscles its way to more influence the lower the president’s approval rate falls.
But the greatest obstacle to political renewal in Chile are the institutions beaqueathed by the dictatorship, which congeal any serious reform effort in permanent deadlock. Mr Piñera has two years left of his non-renewable mandate: he should devote it to electoral reform. His country needs a statesman, not a lame duck manager.