Chile has one of Latin America’s strongest economies, but many struggle to get by in a system shaped by its disgraced dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

Graffiti in Concepción, Chile
Graffiti in Concepción, Chile (photos by Christopher Alexander Gellert)

By Christopher Alexander Gellert

The country was littered with flags this past weekend. You couldn’t walk down a street without seeing them flying in yards and from apartment windows.

In Chile, September 18 marks the South American nation’s independence from Spain. For many, the holiday is an excuse to eat and drink until your stomach inflates like a loaf of bread.

Triumphant patriotism isn’t just a display of people’s pride in their country. By law, citizens are enjoined to display the flag or risk a fine.

In the United States, Chile has a triumphant glean — steady economic growth and low corruption — although honestly it’s hard to stand out when your neighbors are narco-states, oil dictatorships or riddled with corruption.

I arrived in Chile last February to teach English at a professional institute. My experience has given me a window into the country’s problems through my students and in conversations with my colleagues.

My teaching has brought me face to face with education reforms being pushed by President Michelle Bachelet — reforms that reveal much about Chile and its biggest challenges.

A socialist in the post-modern sense of the word, Bachelet was elected in large part on a promise to make education free. But as she recently admitted in public, that campaign pledge was “unrealistic.”

These are some of the same problems citizens face in the U.S.

In drafting the education reforms, Bachelet’s cabinet ran into entrenched interests that support the status quo — wealthy citizens who are happy with their schools, reluctant to pay taxes and happy to see for-profit institutions earn a dollar on a failing public model.

That model suffers from seemingly intractable problems: poorly trained teachers who are unable to instruct the subjects they are assigned, well qualified but under-paid teachers confronted with overflowing classes, students with a wretched home life who face crushing student debt.

These are some of the same problems citizens face in the United States.

I have been sensitized to how Chile is an heir to North American problems. Chile’s economic model is born of the Chicago school of capitalism, promoted by an élite cadre of Chilean economists who studied at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and who transformed the economy in the image of his free-market, business friendly blueprint.

To implement his policies they had to wait for a coup d’État.

Law school occupied by students in Concepción, Chile
School of Education occupied by students in Concepción, Chile

If you want to understand Chile today, you have to fathom how the country changed after Augusto Pinochet seized power on September 11, 1973, following the assassination of the democratically-elected Communist president, Salvador Allende, in a coup apparently condoned by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

During Pinochet’s regime, dissidents were imprisoned, the media was censored, social sciences and the humanities were barred from universities and those deemed hostile to the regime lost their jobs or fled the country.

Pinochet stepped down in 1990 after losing a plebiscite two years earlier, but his constitution, his appointees in the Senate and the thrust of his economic policies remain in place.

While the country’s gross domestic product is relatively high for Latin America, income is more unevenly distributed in Chile than in any other country in the 34-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In a 2011 study, the World Bank said that 38% of Chileans found it difficult or very difficult to live on their income, well above the OECD average.

A friend at university who recently resumed teaching classes after months of student strikes noted that communist slogans and colors have re-emerged in recent protests.

Still, it’s common in the West for someone to note the atrocities of Pinochet’s regime before adding, “But look at the economy.”

That is the greatest lie of all, and Pinochet’s most pernicious legacy.


Christopher Gellert
Christopher Alexander Gellert

Christopher Alexander Gellert is an English teacher at DuocUC in Concepción, Chile. A U.S. citizen who has lived and studied in France, his poetry has appeared in Belleville Park Pages, where you can read “Chopping Onions” and “Nights of Sleeping”. He also writes critical essays for Soonest Mended.

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