December 21, 2017
By Patricio Abramzon
Former President Sebastián Piñera won Chile’s presidential election on Sunday, December 17. His triumph demonstrates a turn towards the center-right in a region that has been dominated by leftist movements for over a decade. In 2012, Piñera became the first Chilean president to visit Israel, a fact that sets great expectations for the future of bilateral cooperation.
Hours after the results came in, AJC Latino spoke with Marcelo Isaacson, Executive Director of the Chilean Jewish community, about what the changes of government and Congress entail.
AJC: Chile elected Sebastián Piñera for a second, non-consecutive term, succeeding Michelle Bachelet who, herself, replaced Piñera in 2014. What does this pendulum between the left and right and between these two personalities mean for Chilean politics?
MI: It is, clearly, a manifestation of dissatisfaction. Social dissatisfaction during Bachelet's first government (2006-2010) prompted citizens to vote for the center-right party. In the following elections, the discontent persisted, so Chilean citizens decided to return to the path forged by the center-left that governed the country for almost twenty years after Pinochet. But the results were not as expected – over the last three years, the country’s social and economic indicators have not been encouraging. Issues such as health, education and safety are very important for Chilean society, and Piñera focused heavily on these issues throughout the campaign.
AJC: Could we say that a new Congress has emerged from these elections?
MI: Yes, indeed. The electoral system has changed: now there’s a proportional distribution of seats. The political balance within the Chamber of Deputies has changed as well. Also the number of seats has increased: we went from 120 to 155 representatives. This will probably influence government policy. On the one hand there is the executive, and on the other there is the legislature, both of whom will have to work together in order to achieve progress in the country.
AJC: How has the Jewish community experienced this process?
MI: Just like the country has. The Jewish community is a reflection, a photograph of what Chile is, and within our community we have an important political transversality. There are supporters from all sectors. Without a doubt we have an emphasis on the relationship between the government and the community, and with the state of Israel. We are certain that we will be able to establish a relationship of trust with the incoming government, similar to the one we have built with the current one, where the Jewish community will be able to continue contributing in different aspects of the country, from education to health, and business. Certainly, we believe that this government will seek improved ties with the state of Israel.
AJC: On that note, Sebastián Piñera was the first Chilean president to visit Israel.
MI: That's right. In 2012, President Piñera paid a historic visit to Israel. It was the first time a Chilean president stepped on Israeli soil. And according to the comments and statements at the time, he felt very comfortable during his visit. It is possible that this government will repeat the visit and promote concrete initiatives that began during his first term. To give you an example, during his visit to the Mount of Olives he said he would personally make sure there’s a free trade agreement between Chile and Israel. We hope that President Piñera will be able to materialize these plans in the years to come.
AJC: What political changes would you like to see happening in matters that concern the Jewish community?
MI: At the local level, we expect the government to maintain a balance on issues that matter to us as a community, such as the Law against incitement. The Jewish community has been working on this issue for months. Recently, President Bachelet submitted the bill to Congress, which is a kind of upgrade to the antidiscrimination law enacted in 2012. Hopefully, this government will provide the necessary support so that we can pass this law. And on the international front, we seek balanced positions on the conflict in the Middle East; we expect the government to be a guarantor of peace. We hope that there will also be a change in Chile’s voting pattern in the United Nations, because historically it has voted in favor of the Palestinians or against Israel. It is also our wish that the new Minister of Foreign Affairs will promote closer ties, exchange, and collaboration between Chile and Israel.
AJC: Chile is home to the largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East and the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is very strong compared to the rest of Latin America. Did they have any influence on the election campaign?
MI: The truth is that we have not heard any of the two candidates mention it at this point. Basically because, although the Palestinian community is the largest outside the Middle East and are very active at the BDS level, this movement now has more presence in the university environment. It still does not transcend the boundaries of academia. Neither candidate understands what BDS really is, and let's hope it stays there and starts to recede. Now, as representatives of the community, we follow this issue very closely, in order to respond accordingly.
AJC: There will be new faces in Congress and in government offices, and you will have to present the agenda and positions of the Jewish community. What will be your message?
MI: We will not start from scratch, because we have a significant network of friendly contacts in Piñera’s political sector. There are issues that matter to us and are also part of the national agenda such as education, health and the economy. In that sense, we can contribute both at the community level and through our links with Israel. We believe that Israel has a lot to offer to Chile, especially in the areas of innovation, water management, development, technology and safety. And that is going to be our message. We have led numerous delegations of political leaders, opinion leaders and academics to Israel, thanks to the implementation of the successful model of Project Interchange of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organization with which we maintain a close collaboration. The testimonials of the participants of these programs have been many and very good, with respect to how they have changed their concept of what the conflict in the Middle East is and what the opportunities for collaboration are. Many of the high-ranking participants expected to see a country devastated by the war. However, they end up seeing a first world country, with the most advanced technology, infrastructure, social integration and levels of coexistence. In short, this is a series of aspects they could have never imagined from Chile.
Patricio Abramzon is AJC’s Assistant Director for Latino and Latin American Communications