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Tsunami Case Haunts Bachelet’s Campaign for Chilean Presidency

The latest twist to an ongoing case could see former Chilean president and current candidate Michelle Bachelet investigated by the public prosecutor—but has the media blown it out of proportion, and does the Chilean public care?

Santiago, Chile—When Socialist head of state Michelle Bachelet handed over Chile’s presidential sash to billionaire Sebastián Piñera on March 11, 2010, the halls of Congress literally shook as a tremor hit the port city of Valparaíso. The country was still reeling from one of its worst natural disasters in history—the 8.8-magnitude earthquake of February 27 and its resulting tsunami, which together left over 500 people dead or missing.

Three years on, as Bachelet vies once again for the nation’s highest office, the quake’s reverberations continue to be felt in Chilean politics as the judiciary attempts to establish culpability for the failed tsunami warning.

Despite being cleared of mismanagement by both police and public prosecutors, Bachelet has still not managed to rid herself of the legacy of “27/F,” as it has been dubbed by Chilean media—at least not in terms of judicial proceedings or newspaper columns.

In the latest twist to the saga earlier this month, Raúl Meza, a lawyer representing the families of tsunami victims, successfully used a quirk in Chilean law to bring charges against the former president.

With elections scheduled for November 17 and the country in full campaign mode, the Chilean press jumped on the story, the more sensationalist elements foreshadowing the spectacle of a presidential candidate being cross-examined before the court.

But for Héctor Hernández, director of Universidad Diego Portales’ School of Criminal Law, the recent decision by the Court of Arbitration came as no surprise. Hernández explained that this type of complaint is rarely dismissed, regardless of its legal basis, and emphasized that only a lawyer who “doesn’t know his job” would see such a complaint rejected.

“By law, the judge cannot reject this complaint except on technicalities, or if under no conceivable circumstances it could be true,” he said. “For example, if Bachelet had been outside of Chile at the time of the earthquake, if she were somewhere where it was impossible to contact her. But the president was in the National Emergency Office [ONEMI]. So I am not surprised at all by the decision, and from a legal point of view, it bears no reflection on the merit of the case.”

Meanwhile, Partido Socialista (Socialist Party—PS) representatives accuse Meza of achieving exactly what he set out to do—generating negative press for their candidate and linking Bachelet to the biggest failure of her administration.

Meza, a member of the Renovación Nacional (National Renewal—RN), the center-right party of President Piñera, ardently denies the claim, saying he is merely seeking justice for his aggrieved clients.

Francisca Quiroga of the Instituto de Asuntos Públicos de la Universidad de Chile (Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Chile—INAP) sees truth in both arguments. Quiroga says that while the victims’ family members are motivated by a desire for justice, the case may also reflect a new strategy by Bachelet’s political opponents.

“In the early days of the [Piñera] administration, there was a concerted effort by members of the government to link [Bachelet] to judicial inquiries in the 27/F case,” she said. “But rather than creating a negative public image of Bachelet, it had the opposite effect.”

Quiroga argues that the public perceived the former president as a victim of an unfounded campaign. Faced with her unflinchingly high approval rating, conservative politicians changed tack, instead using “external actors” to discredit Bachelet.

For Quiroga, the Chilean public has already disassociated Bachelet from the 27/F case and is—for better or for worse—judging her on both personal attributes and other legacies of her term in office.  

“The 27/F case says a lot more about the Chilean media than [it does about] the public. People have not reduced Bachelet’s role as president to 27/F case, but focus rather on the bonuses her government delivered and its development of a social security network,” she said.

She argues that far more damaging to Bachelet’s chances of reelection in 2013 was her handling of the first crisis of her administration: the 2006 high school movement dubbed the “penguin revolution.” During those protests, Bachelet placated hundreds of thousands of student demonstrators with promises of change to Chile’s segregated schooling system, but was unable to pass substantial reforms through Congress.

Seven years on, Chilean students continue to protest in a new movement that has gained far wider international attention and had even more profound repercussions on Chilean society than its precursor.

But to read local papers, or to listen to the country’s politicians, one would think that Chileans were more concerned about Bachelet’s role in the 27/F case than whether to believe her endorsement of a free, quality university system. That is just one more sign that the country’s media and political class have not yet made sense of the profound changes occurring in Chile.

*Joseph Hinchliffe is a Chilean-based journalist and editor-in-chief of The Santiago Times. Follow him on Twitter: @joe_hinchliffe.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Michelle Bachelet

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