Chile's Moderate Radical Who Wants to Dismantle Neoliberalism

  • Presidential hopeful Atria looks to push ahead with reforms
  • Government should remove free market from social provision

Fernando Atria is no firebrand. He doesn’t thump the desk and threaten to smash the opposition. Yet, he is the only presidential hopeful from Chile’s ruling coalition who clearly states he wants to dismantle the country’s neoliberal economic model in the face of bitter opposition from the business community.

“The transformation of the country is necessary to end the current crisis,” the university professor and lawyer said in an interview in Santiago Tuesday. “This is a process that has no way back.”

Fernando Atria

Photographer: Cristobal Palma/Bloomberg

Chile’s economy is entering its fourth year of sluggish growth, with President Michelle Bachelet’s decision to raise taxes and spending and bolster the power of labor unions blamed by many business leaders for a drop in investment. While other candidates on the left stress the need to rebuild an understanding with big business and focus on boosting economic growth, Atria highlights the need to push ahead with reforms.

The groundswell of popular protests over the past six years means there is no return to the past, he says. The economic model put in place during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in which private industry took over the provision of basic services is no longer practicable.

“Education, health-care and social security can’t be handed to the powers of the free market,” said Atria, 48, who teaches at the Universidad de Chile. “Citizens feel that the law is not on their side.”

Thinking the Unthinkable

Atria says he would think what many regard as the unthinkable, such as closing down private pension funds and handing management of people’s savings to the central bank or another body.

“Why can’t we even discuss different management like that,” Atria asks, without spelling out specific proposals. Whatever the final solution, the current pension funds have made “exaggerated profits” that need to be reined in.

Given their majority in both chambers of Congress, Bachelet’s administration could and should have done far more to dismantle the neoliberal system, he said. Instead, many members of the ruling coalition “got a case of vertigo” and instead looked to negotiate accords with the opposition, leading to a series of half-baked measures that satisfied no one.

"The opposition will say that transformation makes the crisis deeper,” Atria said. Reforms must “create spaces for equality, which doesn’t mean finishing with the free market. It means things like education is not the place for the free market to grow and develop.”

He denies that makes him a radical, saying that he is simply proposing an economy more in line with the social democracies of Europe.

Atria will run in primaries for the Socialist Party on April 23, and if he wins, participate in primaries for the ruling coalition on July 2. After that, there is just the small matter of winning the national vote in the presidential election of Nov. 17.

Atria currently trails behind former President Ricardo Lagos and ex-TV pundit Alejandro Guillier to run as candidate for the ruling coalition. After spending most of his working life in academia, Atria has a long way to go to win over even a significant minority of Chile’s electorate.

-- This article is part of a series of interviews with Chile’s presidential hopefuls. For more on the other candidates, see the stories below:-

Chile Presidential Hopeful Looks to Old Trick to Revive Growth
Insulza Says He Is the Man to Restore Chilean Business Sentiment
Kast’s Radical Plan to Transform Chile; Overhauling the Overhaul
Chilean Candidate Ossandon Backs Free Markets With an Iron Fist

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