After a four-year debate, the Chilean Senate has passed a bill allowing for same-sex unions. The law passed on Wednesday with a vote of 25 to 6, with three abstentions.
Under the new law, called the Acuerdo de Unión Civil (Civil Union Accord—AUC), same-sex couples are afforded many of the rights of married couples, including health, inheritance and pension rights. The law was originally proposed under the Sebastián Piñera administration, coined the Acuerdo de Vida en Pareja (Couple Life Agreement—AVP), and has been advocated for publically by President Michelle Bachelet, who promised to pass the AUC during her latest presidential campaign.
“We’re very happy that the State recognizes, for the first time, that same-sex couples also constitute a family and deserve protection,” said Luis Larraín, president of the LGBT rights group Fundación Iguales.
While the bill has now passed the Senate and the House of Representatives (on a vote of 78-9), it still needs to be approved by President Michelle Bachelet and then will go to the Constitutional Court. Upon its final approval, Chile will be one of three South American countries to allow same-sex civil unions, along with Colombia and Ecuador. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay allow same-sex marriage.
Taking the next step to same-sex marriage remains unlikely in Chile, which has historically conservative laws based on Roman Catholic ideology. Divorce was illegal until 2004, and Chile is still one of the few countries in Latin America where abortion for any reason is illegal.
Just days after a bomb exploded in a Santiago metro station, Chile commemorated what is perhaps the most divisive event in the country’s modern history—the September 11, 1973 military coup that interrupted Chile’s democracy, and ushered in the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
In a speech at the presidential palace, La Moneda, on Thursday, President Michelle Bachelet linked the two events, saying that “there is no room for violence and fear” in Chile. Calling democracy the country’s “most precious asset,” Bachelet went on to declare that “we will not allow the culture of respect, of rights and of peace that we are celebrating today, which belongs to all of us, to be trampled, abused or scorned by anyone.”
The day, however, was marked by violence and signs of general unease. According to local reports, confrontations between security forces and protesters left 10 police injured and led to the arrest of at least 30 individuals. Police sources also reported receiving 35 false bomb alerts over the course of day. It is unclear who is responsible for the false alerts, or whether they are related to Monday’s bombing. Authorities are still investigating Monday’s attack, though government officials have blamed “terrorists.”
The government also announced yesterday that it intends to repeal the country’s 1978 Amnesty Decree Law. The law covers the period from 1973-1978, and critics say that it shields members of the Pinochet regime accused of human rights abuses from prosecution. The effort to repeal the law was announced by Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez. In an unrelated event, a national legislator, Rosauro Martínez, was arrested in connection to the death of three Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left—MIR) activists in 1981.
On Wednesday morning, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet pledged $510 million for the restoration of Valparaiso after large wildfires devastated parts of the city in April. The blazes lasted several days and killed 15 people and destroyed or damaged at least 15,000 homes in the port city, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
The money will be disbursed over eight years and will be divided into three tiers—the city overall, neighborhoods and individual homes. Destroyed homes will receive almost $100 million, with the rest of the money being put towards urban development, cultural spaces, public transportation and city infrastructure to reinforce and protect inhabitants from future fires, including safety devices such as fire alarms and sprinklers. Seventy-one percent of the restoration and construction is expected to be completed by March 2018.
President Bachelet said that the plan’s benefits would go beyond Valparaiso and is meant to reactivate the Chilean economy. “This plan is about more than normalizing life in the city; it is a commitment to change the urban development of the country,” she said.
While the plan will help the 2,600 families affected by the fire, it is facing criticism for being too narrow in scope. Renzo Trisotti, deputy of the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union—UDI) party of Chile’s Tarapacá region expressed his concern with the omission of the northern regions of Chile, also affected by natural disasters earlier this year. “Five months after the two earthquakes affected the northern regions, there are still families living and tents and there is no plan for reconstruction,” he said.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet unexpectedly canceled her trip to Venezuela for today’s Mercosur Summit yesterday afternoon. Alvaro Elizalde, a spokesman for the Bachelet administration, confirmed that Heraldo Muñoz, Minister of Foreign Affairs, will represent the Chilean delegation at the summit in Caracas.
In addition to the Mercosur meetings, Muñoz will also meet with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and with the Venezuelan opposition coalition Mesa De Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Coalition–MUD), at their request.
Muñoz is expected to express Chile’s interest in restarting and facilitating the stalled peace negotiations between MUD and the Venezuelan government. It is unclear whether he will address the continued imprisonment of opposition leader and former mayor Leopoldo López of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party.
President Bachelet’s absence was attributed to a winter cold and emergency meetings regarding her signature tax, healthcare and education reform.
Chilean Minister of Health Helia Molina set out on Thursday to clarify the government’s position on legalizing therapeutic abortion—abortion only in cases of rape, putting the life of the mother at risk, and the inability of the fetus to live outside of the womb. Molina said that the government was not promoting a law that would allow the voluntary termination of pregnancy under any circumstance, and that the proposed legislation would be formally debated in congress.
The announcement comes a day after Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in an interview in Spanish newspaper El País that she would send the legislation to congress in the second half of the year. President Bachelet’s spokesman, Álvaro Elizalde, has since referred to the headline as misleading.
The president the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union–UDI) opposition party, Ernesto Silva, expressed his disapproval at the president’s proposal on such a controversial topic, stating, “like the immense majority of Chileans, we are always advocates for the defense of life.”
In Chile, abortion was legal for medical reasons until 1989 when former President Augusto Pinochet’s military government instituted a total ban on the practice. Abortion has become a hot-button issue since the return of democracy. The Chilean right, including ex-President Sebastián Piñera, has been vigorously opposed to the practice of abortion in any form. In 2013, Piñera controversially praised an 11-year-old pregnant girl for keeping her baby after being raped, and has recently reiterated his position opposing therapeutic abortion legislation.
Bachelet has had a busy first 100 days, successfully passing a tax reform that would fund her sweeping reforms to make education free at all levels, and proposing policies towards reconciliation with the Mapuche–Chile’s largest indigenous minority–including increasing political representation and returning land to the Mapuche in Southern Chile. In total she has completed 91 percent of the 56 measures she intended to propose during her first 100 days.
On June 10, 2014, a ministerial commission in Chile rejected the HidroAysén project, an $8 billion joint venture of the Spanish company Endesa, S.A. (51 percent), which is a subsidiary of Italy’s Enel, and the Chilean company Colbún S.A. (49 percent).
Recently-inaugurated President Michelle Bachelet had stated that she would not support the project, and her ministers of agriculture, energy, mining, economy, and health agreed. Nevertheless, the country faces a challenge of energy poverty and high costs, which President Bachelet must address going forward.
The HidroAysén plan was to build five hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in the Patagonia region in the south of the country. The rivers–located in the Aysén region–are in an area of Patagonia that is virtually empty. The project developers viewed the plan as potentially very lucrative since the region receives steady rainfall.
HidroAysén was initially approved in 2011 during the administration of former President Sebastián Piñera, but popular protests derailed the environmental impact study. According to one estimate, more than 70 percent of Chileans opposed the project, and they took to the streets to express their disapproval.
This week’s likely top stories: U.S. Congress considers sanctions against Venezuela; Uruguay’s José Mujica visits with Barack Obama; the leader of the Zetas may be dead; Brazil faces new obstacles in World Cup preparations; Michelle Bachelet visits Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.
U.S. Congress Pushes for Sanctions Against Venezuela: The United States House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday recommended the passage of a bill that would sanction the Venezuelan government for human rights violations committed since nationwide protests started in February. The sanctions would include banning visas and freezing the assets of Venezuelan officials involved in the abuses. On Friday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called the proposed sanctions a “stupid idea,” and on Sunday, the Venezuelan government announced the release of 155 protesters who had been arrested in raids on street encampments last week, although some 160 protesters remain in jail.
Mujica Meets With Obama in Washington DC: Uruguayan President José Mujica is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday in Washington DC. Along with a discussion of hemispheric politics and trade, Mujica and Obama are expected to discuss Uruguay’s offer to receive five prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Mujica is also expected to seek Obama’s help in fighting a $2 billion lawsuit by tobacco giant Philip Morris, which is suing the South American country for a 2009 anti-tobacco law that the company says violates its intellectual property rights. Mujica is in Washington DC until Thursday, when he is expected to make a presentation before the OAS on the legalization and commercialization of marijuana.
Zetas Leader Believed Dead: Galindo Mellado Cruz, accused of being one of the founders of the Zetas Cartel in Mexico, is believed to be one of five people killed in a shootout in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, on the Mexico-U.S. border. Although Mellado, also known as “El Mellado” or “Z-9”, no longer held a position of power in the Zetas, he was one of the 30 founding members of the cartel, who were originally part of Mexican special forces. The Zetas collaborated with the Gulf Cartel until the two cartels split, provoking a territorial battle that was particularly deadly in Tamaulipas. The Zetas reportedly control more territory than any other criminal gang in Mexico and are notorious for extremely violent and gruesome crimes.
Brazil World Cup Preparations: As rumors circulate that the International Olympic Committee has considered moving the 2016 Olympic Games to London, Brazil is stepping up security preparations for the World Cup, deploying more than 30,000 troops to the country’s borders to target illegal immigration and the trafficking of drugs and weapons. Meanwhile, about 7,000 members of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Homeless Workers’ Movement—MST) have set up camp outside the new Arena Corinthians in São Paulo to demand affordable housing for working-class Brazilians and to protest rising prices and expenditures on World Cup stadiums. Arena Corinthians will host the opening match of the World Cup on June 12.
Bachelet Meets with Fernández de Kirchner: Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has arrived in Buenos Aires to meet with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, marking Bachelet’s first international visit since the beginning of her second presidency. The leaders will meet on Monday and primarily discuss reviving the Treaty of Maipú, which was signed by the two presidents in 2009 and sets out to create a bi-oceanic railway network between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. In addition, the presidents will discuss Argentina’s plans to join the Pacific Alliance and relations within the more protectionist Mercosur trade bloc.
On Tuesday, March 11, in her first act as senate president, Senator Isabel Allende will place a red, white and blue sash over the shoulder of Michelle Bachelet, officially making her the first re-elected president of Chile’s modern era.
It will be a moment loaded with symbolism of the country’s struggle to break the shackles of a recent dictatorship and age-old traditions of patriarchy and machismo. Both Allende and Bachelet lost their fathers in the days following the country’s September 11, 1973 military coup
Salvador Allende, Senator Allende’s father, was the first democratically-elected Marxist head of state in Latin America. He took his own life in the presidential palace, rather than submit to the military forces that bombed La Moneda palace and maintained power for the next 17 years with a reign of terror and unimaginable atrocity. His daughter escaped with her life and was forced into exile for the duration of the dictatorship. She returned to pursue a long-standing and distinguished career as a parliamentarian and champion of progressive causes.
Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet died from torture at the hands of his former military colleagues for remaining loyal to President Allende. His daughter was captured and imprisoned before she, too, made it out of the country and lived in exile.
Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile to practice medicine and eventually went on to become health minister, then the first female defense minister in Latin America and, later, Chile’s first female president. She left office with an enviable 84 percent approval rating. During the Piñera years, she became the inaugural head of UN Women, earning the praise and esteem of world leaders. She returned, triumphant, to sweep first the primaries, followed by the first round of general elections and finally the runoff vote.
But these potent and evocative narratives obscure another reality—just how difficult this term will be for Bachelet.
Likely top stories this week: Salvadoran presidential candidates are running neck-in-neck; former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe wins a Senate seat; Chilean President-elect Michelle Bachelet meets regional leaders before her inauguration; UNASUR countries gather in Chile to discuss Venezuela; Brazil inaugurates its ninth World Cup stadium, with three more to go.
Salvadoran Elections Remain “Too Close to Call”: Salvadorans went to the polls on Sunday in a runoff election between presidential candidates Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Norman Quijano. The country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal asked both candidates to refrain from claiming victory until the results have been fully calculated—which may take until Thursday, according to officials. Vice President Sánchez Cerén, of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional—FMLN) and a former guerrilla, was just ahead of Quijano, of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista—Arena) party, in the latest polls, with a razor-thin .22 percentage point lead.
Uribe elected to Senate in Colombian Elections: In Sunday’s legislative elections, President Juan Manuel Santos’ coalition claimed 47 out of 102 Senate seats and 92 out of 166 seats in the Lower House, while voters elected former President Álvaro Uribe of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) to a seat in the Senate. Uribe has been highly critical of Santos’ government’s peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) in Havana. Santos congratulated Uribe and said, “I hope that we can leave aside the hatred and resentments, and can work for the country.” Santos is running for re-election in May’s presidential elections.
Bachelet to Meet with Maduro Before Inauguration: Chilean President-elect Michelle Bachelet will have an intense day of meetings before her inauguration on Tuesday, including a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other regional leaders. More than 20 countries are sending representatives to the inauguration. Vice President Joe Biden will represent the United States, and met with Bachelet this morning.
UNASUR Meeting in Chile: Latin American foreign ministers and heads of state in the Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas—UNASUR) will meet in Chile on Wednesday to discuss the political unrest in Venezuela, where an estimated 21 people have died in continuing protests. This morning, the Venezuelan National Guard reportedly dismantled barricades in the city of San Cristobal. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced the UNASUR meeting last Thursday, adding that the Venezuelan president “would never be capable of repressing his own people.”
Brazil Inaugurates World Cup Stadium: On Sunday, Brazil inaugurated its ninth World Cup stadium in the Amazonian city of Manaus. The stadium, Arena da Amazonia, was inaugurated a month later than expected and is still not yet fully completed, but 20,000 people attended a regional championship match there on Sunday. Three workers were killed in the stadium’s construction, and it cost $70 million more than expected. Brazil still needs to complete construction on three stadiums before June: Itaquerão in São Paulo, the Arena Pantanal in Cuiabá, and the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden is set to visit Chile and the Dominican Republic with his wife Jill in mid-March. The visits will mark his third trip to the region. Biden will attend Chilean President-Elect Michelle Bachelet's inauguration before traveling to the Dominican Republic to discuss bilateral relations and regional cooperation with President Danilo Medina.
The vice president has been seen as an integral part of President Obama's Latin America strategy. Despite visits by both leaders to the region last year, the administration's foreign policy has focused primarily on Asia and the Middle East. The U.S. was seen as taking a positive step towards strengthening ties with the region last November when Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Monroe Doctrine had come to an end.
This year is critical for U.S. trade in the region as NAFTA turns 20 and the U.S. continues its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.