Chile's prosperity not for all. Workers wait in vain for economic benefits to trickle down
Concepci'on, Chile — If Gen. Augusto Pinochet's economic ``miracle'' is evident anywhere, it is in the bustle of this working-class port city. Ships bulging with exports - fruit, lumber, fish - fan out from here day and night. They bring back huge dollar earnings that make this country unique among the Latin debtor nations.
Alejandro Vidal unemployed until the age of 23, when foreign investment began to pour in three years ago, owes his job at the lumber mill to the government's policies.
So why did Mr. Vidal and thousands of the working class like him in areas of economic boom reject General Pinochet by the broadest margins in the Oct. 5 plebiscite?
As even government economists will admit, not everyone in Chile is feeling the effect of the upturn brought by new free-market policies.
``I've heard of the boom, but I don't feel it in my life,'' says Mr. Vidal, who admits he's glad to finally have a job. But by earning the minimum wage of only $55 a month he cannot afford to move out of his parents' home, and he can barely afford to buy his daughter her annual pair of shoes at half a month's salary.
It is the power of this sentiment that Pinochet underestimated when he campaigned heavily on the advancement and prosperity of Chile under his economic system. The general lost the plebiscite and must relinquish power in 1990. Polls now show that the economy was the primary concern of most voters - above human rights and democratic principles.
The iron-fisted control of Pinochet's military dictatorship has helped to enforce a wide-open free-market economy that encourages private enterprise, deregulation, and the promotion of nontraditional exports.
Consequently, Chile has paid regularly on its $20 billion foreign debt, inflation is held in check, and growth from huge foreign investment is creating jobs. It is a measure of national prosperity unheard of in most other Latin nations. Other Latin countries are having difficulty coaxing foreign companies to invest because of legal restrictions on foreign investment, and because of massive and inefficient state enterprises that weigh down the economies.
Chile's economic boom is a dichotomy of ``macro economics versus micro economics,'' says Hern'an 'Alvez, editor of Concepci'on's independent daily newspaper, El Sur.
``It's certain we have more exports and explosive growth and development of forestry, fisheries, mining, and agriculture. But the gains generated by the economy have not been gained in the social sector [among the people],'' Mr. 'Alvez says.
For months in this highly literate middle-class nation, this macro versus micro debate has been played out in dueling best-seller books: ``A Silent Revolution'' - praising growth and modernization - versus ``The Silences of the Revolution'' - criticizing the lack of redistribution of wealth.
``Though economic indicators have grown strongly, salaries and job security haven't improved much in real terms since 1973,'' says Veronica Miranda, an analyst with the Concepci'on Chamber of Production and Commerce. She says that more than 65 percent of the workers in the Concepci'on region receive less than the $140 monthly salary considered necessary for basic family needs.
One manufacturer here who asked not to be identified says the business community could raise wages significantly and still compete favorably on the world market.
For example, he says, ``Forestry is very badly paid'' at the lowest levels where local contractors (well known here for gouging workers) are in charge. ``The big guys work with the contractors and know very well what they're doing. At such low salaries, they could easily afford to pay 50 percent more a month,'' he explains.
This manufacturer, who says he is a government supporter but is often at odds with the other business leaders, notes that companies are already trying to be more responsive to workers, especially after the plebiscite results, which drove home the fact that just having jobs is not enough to satisfy workers. The business community wants to forestall labor difficulties that could grow as the political opposition is freer to exercise its voice in the new political climate, he says.
To accommodate its free-market policies, the government has retained restrictive labor laws. And that has created a dangerous imbalance that must be delicately changed, says Orlando Saenz, a Santiago business consultant and political opposition figure.
``We want to improve the distribution of wealth without damaging the nation's productive capacity,'' Mr. Saenz says. ``Labor [unions] have been kept out of the real market balance. That creates a system where distribution is unjust, because you're closing the mechanism for labor to have a voice.''
Joaqu'in Lavin, a pro-government economist and author of ``A Silent Revolution,'' says critics are confusing the effects of the 1983 world recession with the government's economic plan. He argues that the plan is only in its first stages in which jobs are still being produced. Higher wages, he says, come later when growth creates a better, higher-priced, market for labor.