Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

November 4, 2003

 

The Pedophilia Scandal

 

How It Started

The September 2003 arrest of sport gymnasium businessman Claudio Spiniak on charges of having a pedophilia ring caused comprehensible commotion among Chileans. After a series of corruption scandals that had affected Concertación politicians and a couple of pedophilia scandals that hit the church in 2002, the Spiniak case was bound to be another worrying evidence of how permeable Chilean society is to ills that affect other emerging democracies. The revelations that sadomasochist practices were common in the parties and orgies celebrated by this ring, that street children were often recruited as prostitutes for such parties, and that a number of videos of explicit sexual content involving children were found helped captured media attention. Yet, the revelation that some Carabineros (police) were involved in the pedophilia ring, the slow pace that the judge in charge of a previous drug case involving Spiniak had acted and the rumors that some influential businessmen were engaged in protecting the offenders generated reasonable dissatisfaction. However, it came as a surprise that the Spiniak scandal moved from the criminal pages into the politics pages of newspapers after October 3.

 

Seeking to push forward an initiative that she had championed in the Chamber of Deputies, RN legislator Pía Guzmán actively joined the public call for harsher penalties for pedophiles and producers of pornographic material involving children. Guzmán and PDC Deputy Patricio Walker had began pushing for this legislation in mid 2002 when a television news program reported on the crimes of a pedophile that used his small school bus transport company to recruit victims. Guzmán and Walker had efficiently and diligently seen the new legislation make its way through the Chamber of Deputies and were highly respected as authorities on the subject matter. On Friday October 3, during an interview in a morning television program, Guzmán candidly answered a question about what other people could be involved in the pedophilia ring. When asked if there were politicians involved in it, Guzmán responded affirmatively, stating that there were politicians from the Concertación and her own rightwing Alianza coalition. Later during the day, she clarified that there were three legislators involved, two from the Alianza and one from the Concertación.

 

To be sure, a biweekly magazine of limited circulation had published the day before a report on the pedophile ring claiming that affluent business leaders and some politicians were often guests as the parties, and presumably orgies, that Spiniak organized in his rented residence in Santiago’s most expensive neighborhood. Yet, it was Deputy Pía Guzmán’s revelation that broke all hell loose in Chilean politics. Later that day, conflicting reports filled the news waves and created a major earthquake within Guzmán’s Alianza por Chile coalition. A website reported the names of the alleged two UDI senators involved in the ring, but Deputy Walker, whom apparently had access to the same information as Guzmán, insisted in that there was no evidence to credibly associate any legislator with the pedophile ring. Guzmán and Walker openly broke their successful intra-coalition association in favor of children victimized by pedophiles a couple of days later in a lived television interview. The person that Guzmán claimed was the source of her information, a woman activist whose child had been a victim of a pedophile case and who headed a non-government organization devoted to fighting pedophile crimes, also disavowed Pía Guzmán. Guzmán’s own party asked her to resign from her post as party vice-president and expressed solidarity with those legislators accused of pedophile crimes without apparent evidence. But RN insisted in that Guzmán had made a mistake in reporting, and validating, a rumor only because of her proven commitment to protecting children.

 

Guzmán’s accusation, however, seemed to have found immediate credibility among public opinion. Although none of the highly respected polling companies has yet published a study of how Chileans have reacted to this scandal, lesser-reputed polls and other forms of measuring public reaction seem to indicate that many Chileans believed Guzmán’s accusations to be true. The perception is that Chileans are predisposed to believe that politicians are corrupt and that they will be very easily persuaded as well if pedophile accusations surface.

 

It might have been that fear—combined with the fact that two of three legislators accused were UDI militants—which led the largest conservative party to launch a visceral counterattack on Guzmán. Accusing her of irresponsibly seeking media attention, dishonest behavior and even mental insanity, UDI leaders displayed an unparalleled sense of unity and cohesion defending the senators allegedly involved in the ring. Yet, when RN came short of joining the UDI in disavowing Guzmán, when the public opinion perception seemed to be that politicians were exercising collective self protection and when Guzmán was cheered by the attending public at the first Chamber of Deputies session after her accusation, the UDI modified its strategy, claiming that Guzmán was part of a well-orchestrated plot designed to damage the UDI and its presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín.

 

That was when things got murkier. The UDI has repeatedly changed its story about the plot, accusing Concertación legislators, television reporters, media outlets and even a priest of being a part of this complot against the UDI. Yet, just as Guzmán made her accusation without any apparent evidence, the UDI conspiracy theory lacks anything other than shaky circumstantial evidence. In the mean time, the new judge in charge of the case has been moving quickly to produce results. New arrests have been made and several new leaks, including the apparent murder of at least one minor, have further enraged public opinion against all those involved and allegedly involved in the pedophile ring.

 

What Does It Mean for the Alianza?

Not to say that the relationship between RN and UDI has ever been an example of friendship and trust, the scandal has severely damaged relations between these two parties. RN president has struggled to show some cohesion in a party where some leaders want to crucify Guzmán to show their support for the UDI and Joaquín Lavín’s presidential aspirations while other RN leaders have publicly stated that they believe Guzmán’s accusations to be true. Pińera has insisted in claiming that Guzmán made a mistake in making her accusation but has also insisted in that she has not lied. Pińera’s inability to align her party leadership behind a unified position might cost him the RN presidency and will further weaken his standing in public opinion polls. Yet, more importantly, the lack of cohesion and internal unity displayed by RN appropriately calls into question the legitimacy and credibility of that party. More than a party, RN has consolidated itself as the place where all those conservatives who are not UDI militants can form an electoral pact to better negotiate with the more disciplined and ideologically coherent UDI.

 

The UDI’s visceral reaction to the accusations can generate sympathy among analysts and other politicians. But the verbal violence with which a bunch of male politicians vilified one of the few women who actively participate in politics did not bode well for the UDI in terms of public opinion. The erratic claims and arguments made by the UDI linking an unlikely group of people to the alleged plot against Lavín have further eroded confidence on that party’s ability to appropriately respond to a political crisis. Visceral reactions can be understandable, but they are certainly worrisome when utilized by a party well positioned to win the 2005 presidential election. Cooler heads are needed when political, social and economic crises knock the La Moneda Presidential Palace doors.

 

UDI president Pablo Longueira has paid the heaviest political cost for the way his party has handled the crisis. Longueira’s aggressive manners and bully tactics have not played well against Guzmán’s fragile image and powerful accusations. Because the UDI closed ranks behind the two accused Senators and its party president, the whole affair partially resembles a typical David and Goliath story, where David is a woman Deputy who has championed the protection of victimized children. Longueira has been under heavy stress and it has showed. The UDI president linked a priest to the complot against the UDI and supported his claim by stating that late Senator Jaime Guzmán (UDI party founder assassinated by leftwing guerillas in 1991, a year after transition to democracy occurred) told him so. Longueira acknowledged that he prays to Guzmán on a nightly basis.

 

The relations between RN and UDI have hit rock bottom. RN’s Pińera was quick to respond to Longueira’s allegations that he, instead, prays for his friend, not to his friends and that the UDI might soon seek to involve Mickey Mouse in the alleged plot. UDI reacted by stating that Pińera has not credibility with that party. A possible way out of the crisis will be a change of command in RN. Former RN president and a well-respected centrist Andrés Allamand might decide to come out of retirement to head the party. But any future RN leader will still face a fractured party. Moreover, the relations between RN and UDI will continue to be marked by profound mistrust and, in some cases, open mutual disrespect and aversion.

 

What Does It Mean for the Concertación?

The Concertación has been quick to underline the need for unity and cohesion for a coalition to be successful in government. No doubt, the Concertación will actively seek to use this scandal as a way to lure support away from popular Santiago mayor Joaquín Lavín. Although Lavín has made every effort to stay out of the scandal, the fracture between RN and UDI has forced him to encourage a mediated solution to the impasse. The Concertación will make every effort to make sure that Lavín pays a heavy electoral price for the scandal, but it is unclear what it is the best strategy for the Concertación to follow. The PDC has stayed out of the controversy and it seems to be paying off. Most people have already forgotten that one of the legislators allegedly involved in the pedophile scandal was supposed to be a PDC member. The PPD and PS have been more vocal to criticize the UDI. That has allowed UDI president to claim that some PPD legislators are also involved in the alleged plot.

 

At any rate, the Concertación has found new unity and strength in the scandal that affects primarily UDI and RN. If a year ago, the reports about corruption among Concertación legislators motivated PDC president to declare that the Concertación was dead, this new scandal has shown that the Concertación has resurrected.

 

 

What Does It Mean for Politics in Chile?

At the end of the day, the scandal will be costly for the reputation of the Chilean political elite. Surely, the most damaged party will be the UDI. To a large extent, the UDI has brought this upon itself. For years, that party built popular support by campaigning against politicians. Thirteen years after the transition to democracy, public opinion sees the UDI as yet another party. The lack of credibility suffered by political parties, and promoted by the UDI, has now also reached the UDI.

 

This scandal can be seen as additional evidence of the need for strong leadership that is responsive to the intricate and complex dynamics of Chilean society. Guzmán’s accusation caused such uproar because she has earned legitimacy as a defender of victimized children but also because fierce media competition leads news outlets to actively seek scandals to improve their ratings. The way RN and UDI have responded to the crisis shows how little professionalism continues to exist in the way political parties handle media relations. Although it is unclear how this will play out against Joaquín Lavín’s presidential aspirations, the scandal has reinvigorated Concertación politicians and has conveyed the impression that the Alianza’s lack of unity is already affecting Lavín’s chances in 2005.

 

In The Mean Time, President Lagos…

President Lagos’s popularity remains strong. He seems posed to finish his term with a higher popularity than when he began in 2000. As the economy continues to recover, Lagos can also take credit for new jobs being created and for the growing optimism reported by most polls. Lagos’s decision to accompany his wife to Boston for a complex medical surgical procedure also helped the president consolidate his approval ratings. Because the president has wisely stayed out of the current scandal, focusing on government initiatives and stressing the need to protect children from future abuses, his approval rating is bound to improve as many other Chilean politicians are expected to see their own approval ratings fall. President Lagos is the Concertación’s greatest asset, but it remains unclear how the popular president will seek to transfer his popularity to his government coalition in the upcoming 2004 Municipal and 2005 presidential and parliamentary election.

 

Looking Ahead to the Rest of the Year

The optimism has not resulted in mayor legislative accomplishments. The so-called pro-Growth legislative package continues to advance more slowly than predicted by even Lagos’s critics. The probity and anti-corruption package has definitely lost steam and is about to be fully forgotten. The government decided not to send the appropriate legislation to implement fines against those who violate campaign-spending rules. Part of the initial legislation was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Tribunal on technical grounds, but the government chose not to insist with new wording to legalize penalties against excessive campaign expenditures. Lagos’s health reform initiative has also made slow progress. Discrepancies with Christian Democratic leaders have continued to derail some of the government initiatives.

 

But the government is unlikely to pay a heavy political cost for these shortcomings. With Chileans captivated by the pedophile scandal, little attention is being paid, even by legislators, to congressional activities. Timing, however, is not on the government’s side. 2004 will be marked by the Municipal elections, widely seen as a pretest of the upcoming 2005 presidential and legislative elections. Getting legislation passed through Congress next year will be much tougher. So, at the end of the day, some of president Lagos’s legislative initiatives will be among the victims of the current pedophile scandal.