One reason I chose Chile as my destination to teach English is because of its status as one of the most politically and economically stable countries in South America. The reliable source that is Google frequently told me that as far as South American cities go, Santiago comes out top in issues surrounding safety and democracy.
Although I cannot speak for the rest of South America, never having visited anywhere else apart from Chile yet, I can confirm that Santiago is a surprisingly safe capital city. I am living in central Santiago, which has surprised some émigrés I have met here who normally tend to live further up the central metro line in ‘quiklandia’ (a ‘quik’ is a Chilean term for the upper class). However, I have never felt unsafe walking around on my own in my neighborhood of Barrio Republica, despite sometimes not finishing work until 9pm (saying this, my housemate was yesterday mugged at knifepoint and on the same day there was a fight outside my house whereby four of five men violently beat up another man). But before yesterday at least, I always felt very safe.
In terms of democracy, Chile also seems to be politically stable. Since Pinochet’s military dictatorship from 1973-1990, Chile has had regular and fair elections, electing both liberal and conservative governments. Another comforting factor of Chilean politics is the lack of corruption in comparison to other Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina. Although it is by no means completely free from corruption, it was placed second behind Uruguay in a study of all South America in the 2017 Corruption Perception Index.
It therefore surprised me to learn about the nature of the Chilean newspaper industry, despite seemingly relatively strong democratic principles. In England, we are used to a wide political spectrum of papers, with opinions ranging from the left in The Guardian to the far right in the Daily Mail. I naively assumed that Chile would be the same, until a few of my students told me otherwise.
The three most popular newspapers in Chile (El Mercurio, La Tercera, and La Segunda) which dominate the newspaper industry are all center right conservative. In fact, there is not a single liberal daily newspaper sold in Santiago. This lack of diversity allows for little variation in political opinion and may help to explain why Chile is generally a relatively conservative country. This narrowly concentrated conservative press has its roots in Pinochet’s military dictatorship. El Mercurio and La Tercera, with a combined readership of around 400,000 in the 1970s were extremely influential in helping to discredit Pinochet’s political opponent Salvador Allende, the leader of the socialist party from whom Pinochet overthrew in the military coup of 1973. This set the stage for the monopolized conservative press that still exists today. During Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973-1990, El Mercurio and La Tercera were two of the very few media outlets allowed to continue. Both were closely aligned with Pinochet’s oppressive regime, that responded to any dissidence of opinion with imprisonment, and often torture and death. Indeed, the families who owned both papers during the 70s (the Eastman’s and the Copesa’s) still own these papers today. It could be that the conservatism of the press is a lasting effect of the strong censorship laws of Pinochet’s reign, and the political influence and power that these two media dynasties still wield today in Chile.
Several of my students, with professions ranging from doctors to journalists, lawyers, and cultural program directors expressed frustration, concern and even sadness at the lack of media pluralism in Chile when I asked them about it. Although undoubtedly Chile has come a long way since the dictatorship which only ended as recently as 1990, the newspaper industry is perhaps one area of Chilean democracy which still has much room for development.