Bachelet Asks for Trust as She Tackles Chile’s Inequality

President Michelle Bachelet pledged to push ahead with policies to overcome Chile’s “violent breach” in equality as she looks to restore faith in a government buffeted by weak economic growth and allegations of graft.

“We will not postpone our commitment to change, our word is firm,” Bachelet said in her state of the nation address in Valparaiso. “I invite you to believe, not because I am saying it, but because together we have demonstrated there are reasons to regain trust.”

Bachelet’s popularity fell to a record low after corruption allegations ensnared politicians from both sides of the political divide and her own son. Sluggish growth also led her to become the first Chilean president in more than 25 years to remove her finance minister last week. As trust in the government declines, students have taken to the streets to demand the government fulfill pledges to guarantee free higher education.

Bachelet stood in an open-top car as it drove through some empty streets on the way to the congress building after police cordoned off the area because of student demonstrations. By the time her speech finished, rioters were setting up barricades in near-by streets, attacking shops and throwing stones at police.

Inside the congress building, Bachelet announced reduced health-care costs for the elderly, free higher education for the poor as soon as next year and lower energy costs.

“Chile is living one of the greatest transformational processes of its history,” Bachelet said. “We have heard the call of reality and are acting resolutely.”

Economic Growth

Gross domestic product grew 1.9 percent last year, down from 4.1 percent in 2013 as an investment boom in the mining industry dried up and investor and consumer confidence declined.

Bachelet stressed the regional nature of the slowdown in growth in Thursday’s speech and highlighted that Chile’s jobless rate is little changed, limiting the impact on people’s welfare. She said the government has raised investment and said they would do more to lift productivity. Some had expected more.

“She tried to regain her campaign speech with topics like equality, but she didn’t take care of today’s reality,” said Patricio Navia, assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. “She didn’t even mention measures to boost and recover economic growth.”

Neither did Bachelet give details on plans to overhaul the constitution drawn up under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, merely reiterating that a debate on the changes would start in September.

Bachelet’s approval rating fell 9 percentage points to 29 percent in April from November, the lowest level in either of her two administrations, according to a survey by the Centro de Estudios Publicos. The survey of 1,434 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

In July 2014, four months after beginning her second term, her approval rating stood at 50 percent.

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