Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

Chile is taking the wave

Chile has a female president, a strong Catholic church, spicy soap opera on television and a ban on abortion. The conservative country is characterized by the value struggles of the modernization process.


By Larry Rohter, Santiago

[modernization] Chile is the most socially conservative and traditionally bound country in Latin America. At least that's what the Chileans are used to hearing and thinking about themselves. So how is it that the new president is not only a woman, but also an agnostic single mother?

Michelle Bachelets is 54 years old, socialist, pediatrician and has previously lived in exile. Her election victory in January was a clear watershed for both Chile and Latin America. At the same time, it has led the Chileans to wonder if their supposedly inhibitory and lateral society may have become more modern and far-sighted than they had thought possible.

In a much-commented book that came out before Bachel's progress, The Chilean Dream: Community, Family and Nation at the Bicentennial, sociologist Eugenio Tironi claims that modernization in Chile came in three waves. First the economic opening in the 1980s under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, then a political modernization in the 1990s after the reintroduction of democracy and civilian rule. In the book that came out one year ago, Tironi claims that in recent years it has brought a third wave; "A phase of cultural liberation, and a new moral climate." Overall, he concludes, Chile seems to be moving towards a liberal, North American social model. This is characterized by a growing individualism, disintegration of traditional family structures and greater social tolerance.

Abortion and eroticism

One sign of this shift is that nearly 60 percent of all Chilean children born last year were born out of wedlock, compared with less than half in 2000. Yet, for every sign of change, there is a counterexample to the stubborn traditional values ​​and resistance. towards more relaxed sexual and social standards.

The film censorship, which kept movies as Jesus' last temptation out of Chilean cinemas for 15 years, was discontinued in 2003. But unlike in Brazil, where a pop song called "Sin doesn't exist south of the equator" was once a major blow, not explicitly erotic magazines exhibited in Chile's store shelves, and nudity and frivolous talk are absent in the best broadcast time on television.

In the social sphere, divorce was allowed less than a year and a half ago, after more than a hundred years of debate. Before that, the Chileans could only have their marriage canceled through legal pretext. Abortion remains illegal, as are gay and lesbian interest groups, which are allowed in parts of Brazil and Argentina. Any discussion about assault pills or sex education in schools immediately stirs controversy.

Part of the opposition is due to the unusually strong position of the Catholic Church in Chile, it is far more conservative than its counterparts in, for example, Brazil and Peru. Under Pinochet's dictatorship, the Church, under the leadership of Cardinal Raul Silva Enriquez, was the most visible and effective defender of human rights through the Church's human rights organization. It saved dozens of opposition figures – some of whom are in power today – from prison and even from death.


Arturo Valenzuela is the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University and comes from a Chilean family. He explains that when democracy was re-established, the church handed over the bill to the democratic coalition. "Then it said 'we took care of you then, so do not try to introduce divorce' Still, those who handed over the bill were not the same ones who had protected the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. They represented a church that had moved to the right. "

The news media in Chile has historically been unusually conservative, and has thus helped to inhibit rather than promote new values, many social analysts say. Changes will also be enforced in this area as well, thanks to Chile's embrace of free market capitalism, originally forced by Pinochet's advisers, who were supporters of Milton Friedman.

For example, a leading Chilean TV station belongs to the Roman Catholic University. In order to gain viewership that attracts advertisers, the channel has had to resort to the same mix of reality shows and quirky soap operas as its secular competitors, including series about premarital sex and homosexuality.

Another factor that contributes to bringing about change has to do with the generation shift. More than half of the country's 15 million residents had not even started school when democracy was reinstated. This means that the authoritarian system of governance and value under Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship, including the emphasis on God, nation and family, is as pale a memory as Salvador Allende's previous emphasis on social solidarity and broad political commitment.

Still, there are some who claim that Chile has never been as socially conservative as one might have imagined before. Historian and social critic Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt, for example, talks about an "underground" Chile, where abortion, homosexuality and other socially condemned acts abound.

"It is not true that Chile is more godly or virtuous than other countries. Society is just much more liberal in behavior than in speech, ”he says. "What you find here is a situation that limits what you can talk about, but not what you can do."

An important event that brought "unacceptable" behavior to the surface took place on June 30, 2002, when American photographer Spencer Tunick came to the country to take a series of pictures of naked people in public places. For anyone who was used to thinking about the Chileans who cuddled, and predicted that Tunick would fail, it was a shock that 4000 people were willing to participate in the project one cold winter morning while the World Cup finals were being played.

The event became so significant that academics and journalists began talking about a "destape", or that the cork was taken out of the bottle, much like what happened during the rapid modernization process Spain experienced after Franco's fall. Others, such as the director of Latin American polling firm Latinobarómetro, Marta Lagos, argue that a more relevant comparison is Ireland, another Catholic country where pockets of traditional values ​​continue to coexist with more liberal and modern attitudes.

"The figures tell us that value changes in Chile are happening much more slowly than in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico," Lagos said. “We are changing, but we are constantly lagging behind when it comes to leaving the traditionally bound society for one that is more modern and open. The whole thing is whether you want to describe the glass as half full or half empty. ”N

© 2006 New York Times News Service

Translated by Anne Arneberg

You may also like