The Culture Wars Come to Chile

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Her economics may be pretty conventional, but in the social sphere, Chile's agnostic, no-longer-married-mother President Michele Bachelet is revolutionizing this traditionally conservative Catholic country. The government is tackling the problem of teenage pregnancy by handing out morning-after pills to 14-year olds without their parents' permission. A bill to allow terminally ill patients to choose a "merciful death" was recently introduced to the legislature, and there is growing momentum behind calls for a civil-union law that would extend the legal benefits of marriage to gay and unwed heterosexual couples. The legal system is struggling under the weight of divorce suits — Chile only legalized divorce in 2004. In a society traditionally ruled by men, the President and half of her cabinet are women.

Hardly surprising, then, that right-wing conservatives see Bachelet's government as a menace to traditional values. "This is the ideology of liberation from taboos, blocks, burdens and traumas that promises happiness for all. A happiness that never arrives" says Gonzalo Rojas, a law professor, columnist and self-declared supporter of former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. He summarizes the new social ethic as "I demand, the State grants, society accepts, and critics stay away," and he likens it to the "me" generation of the United States in the 1970s. He laments what he sees as the failure of the sustained economic growth promoted by Pinochet's radical economic reforms to produce equivalent moral development.

Nor is Rojas a lone voice of despair. "This agenda goes against the fundamental values of the Christian Western society," says Marco Antonio González, director of Fundación Jaime Guzmán E., a right-wing think tank. He condemns liberals for wanting to put education and health under state control and for leaving personal morality to the individual.

The liberals counter that the social changes being challenged from the right are products not of any government agenda, but simply of the increased personal freedom brought to Chile by economic growth and globalization. Eugenio Tironi, an influential sociologist, sees it, perhaps ironically, as the outcome of Pinochet's own economic liberalization policies. As prosperity grew, the society first rid itself of the General's authoritarian rule, and then began to tackle some of the conservative shackles on personal freedom. Chilean society itself had become more liberal, he says. "What conservative society would dare elect as president a woman, a leftist, a victim of human rights violations, and an annulled mother?"

Education expert José Joaquín Brunner agrees that as Chileans have become more prosperous and better educated and informed, they make decisions in their private and public life more independently. Says Brunner, "The law has adapted to those changes, but I don't think it has prompted them."

The way Chileans relate to authority has changed too. "We went from a vertical, almost reverent style, to a more horizontal and participatory style," Tironi says.

The Bachelet administration has canvassed expert and citizen opinion in the course of recent efforts at education and welfare reform. Brunner says surveys show people are shedding their traditional submissive attitude toward authority and instead adopting a level of mistrust, which may actually help build a more democratic society.

The institution most challenged by the new wave of social liberalization is the Catholic Church, which resisted the passing of a divorce law two years ago and has decried the availability of morning-after pills to teenagers. The Church remains a moral beacon for the nearly 80% of Chileans who call themselves Catholic, but even for many of them, its discourse is sometimes at odds with their lifestyles. But even as a wave of social changes animates debates in the media, school board meetings and Sunday family lunches, a recent opinion survey by the MORI organization suggests Chile's values may not be quite as liberal as the recent trends suggest.

"People are more accepting of alternative lifestyles, but most regard their family and traditions as the most important, and oppose abortion," says Cristóbal Huneeus, research director of MORI Chile. At this point, only a few are concerned about gay rights, euthanasia and other progressive issues. And while many welcome the changes, some wonder if they can make Chileans happier.

But the well-being of Chileans may be determined less by their level of personal freedom than by the lifestyle created by economic changes. In a new book, Tironi argues that Chile went from a European-style development model with a welfare state, to a U.S.-inspired model, with increased competition, entrepreneurship and risk and more working hours. "That means less time for friendship and community," he says. "That may make countries more competitive, but it makes people less happy, especially when per capita income is less than $10,000 a year." Brunner adds that inequality remains a hurdle: While rapid economic development continues to be a priority in Chile, there's also a need for better income distribution and education and a stronger welfare net and social ties.