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Even before Michelle Bachelet began her second term she got a taste of the difficult regional climate she will have to deal with over the next four years. The Venezuela crisis – which was hard to ignore during her inauguration – exposes and highlights Latin America’s deep political polarization.
Bachelet has said that building relations with Chile’s neighbors will be her main foreign policy priority. Along with Heraldo Muñoz, the foreign minister and respected diplomat, Bachelet will try to move closer in particular to Brazil and Argentina – while at the same time staying involved in the Pacific Alliance with Mexico, Peru and Colombia.
For the new center-left government, Bachelet’s agenda has much merit. It will not, however, be easy to accomplish. Reactions to what is happening in Venezuela – which range widely, from solidarity with to sharp criticisms of the Maduro government – reveal that political unity is an elusive goal. The rift at the regional level is mirrored within Bachelet’s own Nueva Mayoría, whose divisions have surfaced in response to Venezuela’s turmoil.
Bachelet’s ability to bridge ideological differences – in Chile and region-wide – will be tested. Although her enthusiasm for the Pacific Alliance’s tenets of free trade and economic integration is likely to be more tempered than Sebastian Pinera’s, she will remain committed to this dynamic and promising integration scheme that could bring substantial economic benefits to Chile. For a country whose impressive economic performance can in part be attributed to its 60 free trade deals and its growing connections with Asia, the Pacific Alliance makes a lot of sense.
Unlike her predecesor, Bachelet will, however, be especially sensitive to how the Pacific Alliance is perceived in the rest of South America. She will downplay its ideological profile and emphasize instead its strictly economic character. She and Muñoz will try to avoid the risk of creating greater distance and dividing South America between the Pacific and Atlantic. Brazil especially – and Argentina too – will get special attention from the new Chilean government. In today’s regional environment, Bachelet faces a tough balancing act.
Success will not only require skillful diplomacy but also progress in pursuing important domestic reforms. If Bachelet’s ambitious agenda at home becomes complicated, it will be more difficult to contribute to greater political equilibrium in South America.
Much will also depend on the policies adopted in coming years by Argentina and, especially, Brazil, the region’s preeminent economic power, which faces critical choices. Brazil’s growth is sluggish and Argentina’s outlook is very difficult and uncertain. But Brazilian economic policy may take a more pragmatic turn after the October elections, as might Argentina’s, in 2015, as the Kirchner era ends. Greater moderation in both countries would make Bachelet’s diplomatic task easier.
No one has any illusions that Bachelet’s chief priority will be in Chile. She is committed to tackling inequality through a series of reforms. That is where she will, and should, invest most of her energy.
But with ample political capital and international prestige, she also has a chance to leave her mark on a regional landscape that is far from united. With skill and some luck, Bachelet could well be remembered as a leader who helped narrow gaps – not only in her own country but across the continent.