Respected abroad and unloved at home

A new book by Chilean sociologist Eugenio Tironi explores the reasons for Sebastian Pinera's poor approval ratings.

Chile’s student protests show no sign of dying out, as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Santiago and other cities this week. President Sebastian Pinera was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, while his finance minister Felipe Larrain travelled to Washington, where he told reporters that Chile had contingency plans for any slowdown in the world economy.  The Wall St. Journal published this account and the Financial Times has the following story: .  The FT blog also has a piece on Pinera’s dismal approval ratings of 26 percent, citing the work of sociologist Eugenio Tironi, who observes that Pinera governs as if Chile were a corporation and rather than a country. Tironi, who worked for former president Eduardo Frei (1994-2000) is the author of a new book whose title in English is Why Don’t They Love Me?


More Chile news coverage

Newsweek has an admiring article on former president Michelle Bachelet in her role as head of UN Women:

Mother Jones has a not-admiring article on Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s advocacy of Chile’s private pension system:

The Telegraph reports that rescued Chilean miner Edison Pena has entered a treatment program for alcoholism:

The Chicago Sun-Times has an article on pastel de choclo, a must-eat dish for anyone visiting Chile:


Some readings on inequality and social unrest

Patricio Navia is a Chilean political scientist at New York University and a prolific columnist and author.   He has a piece on the openDemocracy web site analyzing the background on the student protests and recent general strike in Chile, which he says is far from being a South American version of the Arab spring:

“The student movement is less about opposition to the market-friendly economic model than about inclusion within it, and expanding the range and structure of opportunities it affords. The protesters seek to improve the model with a host of measures: more protection for consumers, more rights for citizens and a more level playing-field so that the middle class can realistically aspire to upward social mobility.”

On the issue of consumer protection in Chile, read the interview with the director of Chile’s National Consumer Service, Juan Antonio Peribonio, in the most recent issue of Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce Magazine. According to Peribonio, Chile stands out in Latin American for its defense of consumers, but his agency is underfunded and hopes that a bill before congress will provide the tools needed to oversee the country’s financial sector:

And for a look at inequitable hiring practices in the Chilean job market, the Santiago Times has an excellent article on the ways potential employers grill job applicants on their families, religious observances and political views.  Although the country’s labor law prohibits such discriminatory practices, they appear to be widespread.  The article quotes one job seeker, a woman with a degree in business engineering who recently interviewed at several major Chilean companies:

“In Chile it is common to avoid hiring women with children,” she said. “In all the interviews I’ve gone to, I’ve been asked if I want more children, if my son goes to kindergarten and if he gets sick easily. I was also told I was not suitable for a position that required occasional travel because it was ‘not compatible with my role as a mother.’”


Gringa in Chile

English-speakers won’t get to read it until next year, but Isabel Allende’s latest book, El Cuaderno de Maya, or Maya’s Notebook, was launched last month in Santiago, and this blogger has a signed copy next to her computer.  Maya is a troubled American teenager who seeks refuge from crime and drugs on Chiloe, the largest island in Chile’s southern archipelago.  An excerpt:

“Chiloe has its own voice. Before I never used to take off my headphones, the music was my oxygen, but now I stay alert in order to understand the Chilotes’ convoluted Spanish. Juanito Corrales left my iPod in the same pocket of my backpack where he took it out and we have never mentioned the matter, but the week when he delayed returning it to me I noticed I didn’t miss it as much as I believed I would. Without the iPod I can hear the island’s voice: birds, wind, rain, the crackle of wood, wagon wheels and at times the remote violins of the Caleuche, the ghostly boat that navigates in the mist and is recognized by the music and bone rattle of shipwreck victims who come aboard singing and dancing.”

The author’s bilingual web site:



“No one deserves to die like that, especially when you’re extending a helping hand to others,” a Chilean colleague remarked to me.  She was referring, of course, to Friday’s air crash off the Juan Fernandez archipelago in which 21 people are presumed dead.  Among the victims were five journalists from Chile’s national television network who travelling to the Pacific territory to report on reconstruction after last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

The area was home for four years to shipwrecked sailor Alexander Selkirk, who may have inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. The earthquake that struck Chile generated a tsunami that killed eight people on the largest island, which has a population of approximately 630 people and lies 375 miles west of the mainland.

Chile’s defense minister toured the crash site and afterwards said authorities had concluded that the twin-propeller Casa C-212 plane would have crashed with such impact that all those on board died instantly. The pilot was considered one of the best and brightest, a 26-year old woman who had flown a number of difficult missions in the past and was a member of Chile’s elite Fifth Air Brigade. For more background, see

The tragedy prompted a postponement of former president Salvador Allende’s third funeral, scheduled for Sunday, the anniversary of his 1970 election.  His remains were exhumed in May and examined by a team of specialists who concluded that the Chilean leader had committed suicide.  A statement by the Fundacion Salvador Allende said the family wanted to extend its sympathies to the victims’ families and that a date for the burial would be announced later.

Nocturno de Chile

Los Archivos del Cardenal, or The Cardinal's Archives, airs Thursday and Sunday evenings on Chile's state television channel

The guests ring the doorbell of a house in the affluent Lo Curro neighbourhood in eastern Santiago and an aspiring Chilean writer shows them into a living room where several guests are already seated.  Drinks are served; the work of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is discussed. The writer’s husband, a taciturn American, appears in the kitchen and glares at a guest who tries to open a door leading from the kitchen. Behind the door is a homemade lab where poisons and drugs are produced for the Pinochet regime’s secret police.

“Experimentos Bacteriologicos” is the seventh episode of Los Archivos del Cardenal , a gripping television series that presents fictionalized accounts of some of the cases documented by the Catholic Church’s human rights department, the Vicariate of Solidarity. The series began broadcasting last month and drew some initial grumblings from conservatives—which only seemed to boost its already high ratings. The show’s writer, Josefina Fernandez, happens to be the daughter of one of the Vicariate’s lawyers and is a fan of the U.S. series Law and Order. There is, quite obviously,  an enormous stockpile of chilling real life events for the show’s scripts.

This most recent episode is based in part on the activities of Mariana Callejas and Michael Townley, a Chilean-American couple who worked for the regime’s secret police agency, the DINA. Callejas often held literary gatherings at their home, sometimes hosting her guests overnight during the curfew while the DINA used the premises not only as a makeshift lab but also to hold and interrogate political detainees.  The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano also included this material in his novel By Night in Chile, calling Callejas  “Maria Canales” and Townley “Jimmy Thompson”:

“As a general rule, prisoners were not killed in Jimmy’s house. It was meant to be just for interrogation, although there was the occasional death. It was also revealed that Jimmy had travelled to Washington and killed one of Allende’s ex-ministers and a North American woman who happened to get in the way. And that he had organized the assassinations of exiled Chileans in Argentina, and even in Europe, that civilized continent, to which Jimmy paid a brief visit with the diffidence of those born in the New World. All this came out. Maria had known about it for a long time, of course. But she wanted to be a writer, and writers require the physical proximity of other writers.”

One of the prisoners brought to the Townley-Callejas home was a Spanish diplomat, Carmelo Soria, who worked at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America in Santiago. Soria had used his diplomatic status to help Chileans fleeing political persecution find refuge in various embassies around the capital, actions which drew the attention of the DINA.  His body was later discovered in a car sunk in a canal.

And what became of this odd couple?  Townley was later extradited to the United States, where he entered the federal Witness Protection Program in exchange for testifying in the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington. Callejas remained in Chile, and in 1989 I managed to interview her at her Lo Curro house, which has since been torn down, while researching my first book.

“If there are any doubts about what really went on under the regime, well, I had it straight from the horse’s mouth,” she told me. “These army people, the captains, the majors, when they talked about assassinations it was as if they were talking about the last movie they saw.” She showed me passages from a short story she had written in English, about a butterfly and an emperor and said she was trying to write in mostly in English.  She later wrote a memoir, Siembra Vientos (now out of print but used copies are still being sold on Amazon).

There is more background in Spanish on this and other cases presented in Los Archivos del Cardenal at