Elections in Chile – Why Do We Care?

On November 17th, or in the runoff a month later, a new president will lead the Republic of Chile. It will most likely be Michelle Bachelet, who served as the President of Chile between 2006 and 2010, and whose government promoted free trade and had a notable Jewish representation. In case of an old-new Bachelet administration, I argue that Jerusalem needs to strengthen cooperation with Santiago with regards to Iran and Hezbollah, garner Chile’s support in the U.N. Security Council, and push for the signing of a free trade agreement between the countries.

The Republic of Chile is a South American country located in the Southern Cone of the Americas. Chile borders Bolivia, Peru and Argentina and it is a politically stable, developed nation of 17.2 million people with a high-income economy. The country leads Latin American nations in income per capita, human development, economic freedom, state of peace, and low perception of corruption. In 2010, Chile, as Israel, joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and in recent years has been the fastest growing economy among its member states. Chile was a founding member of the United Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), to which Israel is a permanent observer.

Chile achieved its full independence from Spain in 1818. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the country experienced severe political polarization and turmoil which culminated in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. This violent coup evolved into a 16 year period of military dictatorship under the control of General Augusto Pinochet. During this dark chapter of Chilean history, at least 3,200 people perished (by murder or by disappearing) and more than 38,000 people were imprisoned and/or tortured.

November 17th 2013 will mark the sixth Chilean presidential elections since the return of democracy in 1989. The first four elections (1989, 1993, 1999 and 2005) were won by a coalition of center-left socialists and Christian Democrats. The previous elections in 2009 was won by a right-wing coalition led by Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman, who is constitutionally barred from serving two consecutive terms as the President of Chile. According to a survey of the country’s leading pollster, the Center of Public Studies, the socialist Michelle Bachelet is likely to head back to La Moneda, the presidential palace, only four years after she left it.

Bachelet, the first woman to be elected president in this deeply conservative country, was one of Chile’s most popular leaders. At the end of a four year term, her public approval rating has skyrocketed to 83%. During her tenure, Bachelet’s government made an effort to turn Chile into a regional leader; Santiago signed the 2008 Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) establishment treaty, turned the rivalry with Bolivia into a friendship based on mutual trust, as well as signed ten free trade agreements with countries such as India, Australia, Japan and Vietnam.

From the Jewish State’s point of view, it is worth mentioning that under President Bachelet the Chilean government had an impressive Jewish representation – Eduardo Bitran, Minister of Public Works, who is now a close advisor to Michele Bachelet, Minister of Planning and Cooperation, Clarissa Hardy, Minister of Mining and Energy, Karen Poniachik, and Deputy Foreign Minister, Alberto Van Klavren, who is a strong candidate to be the next Chilean Foreign Minister in a Bachelet administration. Naturally, a strong Jewish influence in a future Chilean government could assist in furthering the relations between Jerusalem and Santiago.

The State of Israel and the Republic of Chile have maintained friendly ties since the latter recognized Israel’s independence in February 1949. The cordial relations blossomed during the rule of General Pinochet. At the time, Jerusalem was a major arms supplier to Chile selling air-to-air missiles, anti-tank weapons and helping Santiago develop its own aircraft industry. Since 1989 the relationship has been characterized by a commercial and cultural cooperation. Recently, ties have intensified and broadened in scope; an official visit of President Piñera in Israel, cooperation and sharing of intelligence regarding the Iranian influence in Latin America, the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in relation to the establishment of bilateral consultation between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and joint initiatives in the fields of agriculture and health.

Approximately 20,000 Jews live in Chile and they benefit from freedom of religion, although minor anti-Semitic incidents have taken place in the last few years. Most of Chile’s Jews emigrated from Germany, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine after World War I, or arrived on Chile’s shores as Holocaust survivors during a second wave of immigration after the Second World War. Besides being involved in politics as mentioned above, members of the Jewish community in Chile have made significant achievements in various fields, such as commerce, art, television and culture. Chile is also home to more than 300,000 Chileans of Palestinian decent, whose generations have followed the first Arab immigrants. Although practicing Christianity, the Palestinian Chileans keep their Arabic traditions and most of them have shown significant concern with the future of the Palestinian people. The fact that Chile hosts the largest Palestinian community outside the Middle East could explain why Santiago was among the first to recognize a Palestinian state and voted in favor of a United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution to dispatch an international fact finding mission to “investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

If front-runner Michelle Bachelet holds onto her substantial lead and becomes the next President of Chile, the Israeli government should:

a. Improve cooperation with Santiago with regards to Iran and Hezbollah’s terrorist, subversive and criminal activities. During the last decade, Iran has been trying to strengthen its foothold in Latin America and gain economic, political, religious and cultural influence. As in other regions in the world, the Islamic republic is using terrorism and subversion to achieve its goals in Latin America. According to Roger Noriega, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, the Islamic Republic is operating a terrorist network with operatives in Chile. This network could attack Jewish or Israeli targets, as Tehran did before, such as the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina, in which 85 people were killed and more than 300 injured. Iran is also trying to export its Islamic Revolution to Latin America by financing the construction of Islamic “cultural centers”, providing locals with political and religious training in Iran and sending clerics to preach against the U.S. and Israel. In Chile, for instance, Iran is operating an Islamic center in Puerto Montt. This center is run by Sheik Karim Abdul Paz, a disciple of Mohsen Rabbani, an Iranian cleric who played a major role in the AMIA bombing.

Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, is also very active in the Latin countries. According to Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Chileans officials have identified a few import-export companies, mainly located in northern Chile, that have been suspected as serving as shell companies for Hezbollah’s drug-trafficking networks in South America. The proceeds of crimes are being used, among others, to purchase arms and harm Israel.

b. Sign a free trade agreement with Chile. The Israeli government in recent years has made a strategic decision to significantly increase and improve the economic relations with Latin American countries, especially with Mexico, Peru, Columbia and Chile. These four countries, which in June 2012 established the free-trade Pacific Alliance, encompass Latin America’s fastest growing economies, accounting for over 35 percent of its gross domestic product. Israel’s free trade agreement (FTA) with Mexico entered into force in 2000. In August 2011, a FTA came into effect between Israel and the Mercosur bloc, consisting of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. Moreover, Jerusalem and Bogota signed a bilateral FTA five months ago, which aims to increase trade and promote investments.

Since Bachelet’s government was pro-free trade, Jerusalem should pursue a FTA with Santiago. The countries already explored the possibility with a joint study group on the feasibility of a free trade agreement, which concluded that a FTA will “have a positive impact on the economic relations of the two countries…facilitate the reciprocal investments and creation of new enterprises…and create the general framework for a substantial increase in their cooperation activities.”

c. Win Chile’s support at the United Nations. Chile was elected to serve as one of ten non-permanent members of the Security Council. Chile will serve as a non-permanent member starting January 1st of 2014 for a two year term. Despite the fact that the ten non-permanent Security Council members have little influence on the council decision-making, as the Council’s five permanent members enjoy the power to veto any resolution, there are exceptions – an example of this being Japan’s role after the nuclear test by North Korea. Chile’s possible support in future resolutions concerning Iran or Syria or voting against resolutions that condemn Israel could be useful for Jerusalem. In addition, Israel needs Chile to support resolutions to extend the mandate of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which was established to maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. UNDOF is on the verge of collapse due to the withdrawal of contributing countries after troops were kidnapped and wounded as a consequence of the Syrian civil-war. Furthermore, Jerusalem does not want to see Santiago withdraw its troops from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, which assists in supervising the observance of the truce between Israel and its neighbors.

About the Author
Ohad Shpak is a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat, the world's first crowdsourced consultancy. Ohad was part of the political team of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. and worked for the Israeli Ministry of Justice and the Middle East Media Research Institute. A StandWithUs fellow, he holds a law degree from Hebrew University and now lives in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter at @OhadShpak