A Controversial Congress for Chile

Why would a country erect its new congress building nearly 70 miles from where its president resides? To some Chileans, the project makes perfect sense

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

GEN. AUGUSTO PINOCHET UGARTE will hand over the presidential sash to his civilian successor March 11 in the ceremonial hall of the new congress he ordered built in this port city, one of the most important monuments of his 16-year rule. Like anything associated with the Chilean strongman, the unfinished congress building is grounds for polemic and controversy as the fight over the symbols and trappings of power - as well as its more tangible manifestations - continues into the transition period.

Some of the newly elected deputies and senators are against convening congress in Valparaiso, despite the $40 million being spent on construction and another $10 million on furnishings. They argue that the physical separation of the executive and legislative branches will unduly complicate the business of governing and require most of them to maintain three offices: their home district; Santiago, the capital; and Valparaiso.

(South Africa is the only other country with its parliament and president in separate cities. The European Community also maintains separate economic and parliamentary capitals in Brussels and Strasbourg, France.)

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For politicians who grew up in the ``16 square blocks of gossip,'' as downtown Santiago, Chile, became known, it's hard to give up the dream of reopening the abandoned congress buildings within walking distance of La Moneda, the presidential palace. But Modesto Collados, chief engineer of the new congress and former economy minister under Pinochet, says the 100-year-old complex is a relic of another age.

``The old congress has no office space, no parking, no air conditioning,'' says Mr. Collados, ``and the telephone company tells me there are no new lines available.'' It has only a quarter of the new building's 60,000 square meters of total space.

Furthermore, Santiago already suffers from severe overcrowding and smog, especially in its tiny center, due to uncontrolled population growth and its built-in topographical nightmare. (It sits in a mountain-ringed, windless basin.) The addition of 1,000 new workers, counting members and their staffs, is almost unimaginable.

And everyone, Mr. Pinochet's backers and detractors alike, agree that regional development and decentralization are urgent priorities. Of nations with more than 3 million inhabitants, Chile is the most centralized in the world with 38 percent of its citizens concentrated in the capital (4.8 million out of about 12 million). Buenos Aires is a distant second with 30 percent.

Collados argues that economics are not the cause of the buildup since Chile's main products - copper, wood, fruit, and fish - all come from rural areas far from the capital. ``The only reason for the growth of Santiago is that it is the seat of political power. So why not divide it up?'' he asks.

Indeed, economic motives argue in favor of Valparaiso as the country's principal port, according to the chief builder. Chile's exports are the centerpiece of its economic growth, and the products are almost entirely shipped by sea.

Sea-freight has grown by tenfold in the last two decades to more than8 million metric tons.

Outgoing navy commander Adm. Jos'e T. Merino just ordered his branch's headquarters moved from Santiago to Valparaiso, the navy's sentimental home and site of its cadet school.

And modern telecommunications further obviate the need for ready physical access to other government offices, although Collados readily admits that faxes and telephones are no substitute for face-to-face meetings.

The government studied congress building in a dozen cities around the world, including Canberra, Australia; Dusseldorf and Bonn, West Germany; and Albany, N.Y., before setting out its requirements. A contest supervised by the Chilean architects guild was won by a firm composed of Pinochet opponents.

Guild president Eduardo Cuevas says the winning design ``met the functional needs'' of the congress although opinions naturally differ on its aesthetic merits. His personal view is that the chosen site takes advantage neither of Valparaiso's famous hills (the city is often compared with San Francisco) nor its sea front. ``And that's a pity.''

The site was made available by the substantial destruction caused in a 1985 earthquake to the hospital that previously stood there.

A more sensitive matter is the treatment of thousands of workers employed by subcontractors on the edifice. In visits to shanty towns atop Valparaiso hills, residents complained that they are hired for short periods at low wages, then fired to ``give others a chance.''

Collados replies he has nothing to do with labor practices and that a notorious booing incident when Pinochet went to inspect the building was the work of ``communists.''

``When I go see the work, they don't boo,'' he says.

A final decision on where to convene will have to await an early March sitting of the new legislature, but betting now is that with the money spent and the building built, congress will have little choice but to accept its new home. Members' substantial perks - free trips home, helicopter service from Santiago, housing subsidies, and the like - are also likely to distract them, once they settle into their new offices, from the inconvenience of Chile's physical separation of powers.

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