Slow Economy Worries Chileans

Businessmen say government spending, high interest rates hinder nation's economic growth

CHILE'S economy, one of Latin America's most vibrant in recent years, is beginning to slow down, and that is worrying some economists and business people."The destiny of the country is at stake. We need a big change in direction," says Jorge Desormeaux, an economic consultant at the Catholic University of Santiago. Mr. Desormeaux envisions two scenarios for 1992. The "austere" one includes less government spending, greater incentives for investment and savings so more jobs can be created, and an exchange-rate policy that is more favorable to exports, which are now one-third of the economy. In his "populist" scenario, though, the government won't be able to resist increased spending in 1992, an election year. Private-sector resources will go into consumption instead of savings and investment. Employment will stagnate, inflation will return, and exports will fall. Chile was the first Latin American country to liberalize its economy under Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who came to power via a coup dtat in 1973. Beginning in 1986, General Pinochet's privatization of the economy and its integration into the global context began to pay off. Gross national product began to grow at rates mostly over 5 percent a year, inflation stabilized at around 20 percent a year, and exports (mainly fruit, copper, and gold) took off as foreign investment poured in. Chile's foreign debt rescheduling, undertaken last year for its 1991-94 debt, has been called a "model for the rest of Latin America," in a United States Embassy report. Today, the debt stands at just over $18 billion. The worries began this year, after the civilian government headed by President Patricio Aylwin Azocar succeeded in cooling off the overheated economy it took over from General Pinochet's regime. Unemployment rose to 7.4 percent in the May-July period from 6.7 percent in the previous quarter. And investment is falling, with an expected drop of 5 percent this year, according to the national Confederation of Production and Commerce. Some analysts blame high real interest rates (about 10 percent a year), an overvalued exchange rate, increased government spending, higher corporate taxes, and excessive wage increases for these phenomena. With such concerns in mind, a group of businessmen recently began a dialogue with government officials. They want to see greater official incentives for saving and business investment. Other economists, politicians, and businessmen say the situation is far from critical, and welcome this year's forecast 5 percent growth of GNP to $31 billion. Still, they concede they are concerned about whether the economy will stay on track. "The Christian Democrats feed the fear with too many social programs," says a Chilean newspaperman. Chile has 5 million poor, who make up about 40 percent of the 13 million population. Mr. Aylwin's Christian Democratic Party forms the core of a center-left coalition that came into office in March 1990, Chile's first civilian government since 1973. The government attributes the growing joblessness to seasonal factors, and says falling investment reflects last year's completion of several large mining, energy, cellulose, and telecommunications projects. Partly to compensate, Aylwin has announced a $1.7 billion two-year infrastructure program, which will remove bottlenecks in Chile's ports, airports, urban transportation systems, and highways. The government also defends its social spending. "The public works will have no impact on the [federal] deficit, they are needed because the previous regime has neglected the country's infrastructure," says Genaro Arriagada, a federal deputy for the Christian Democrats. "And the wage increases are a necessary rectification of a policy of injustice," he adds, referring to a wage squeeze imposed during the dictatorship. Asked about these disagreements over policy, many Chileans almost apologetically drop all complaint, noting how much better off they are than their neighbors in Brazil and Peru. Cristina Bergamni, a preschool director in a Santiago shantytown, says the children's clothing has improved, especially in the last two years. "We had children without shoes, and mothers who wore plastic sandals without socks. Now, everyone has shoes," she says.

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