Like nearly every political person in Chile, Laura Rodríguez chain-smokes and talks a blue streak. She is a congresswoman, elected on the Humanist/Green Alliance ticket to represent a district in Santiago. In a political environment marked by extreme caution--democracy is fragile, don’t jostle it, it might break--Laura Rodríguez is a maverick. With persistence and diplomacy, she raises issues which more established politicians of the Left and the Right would rather let lie--like divorce (which is still illegal), sex education, and responsible paternity. She has proposed allowing initiative petitions, and requiring members of congress to meet with their constituents.
Congresswoman Rodríguez believes that “any political movement that is incapable of drawing in the most dynamic social forces in existence today--youth and women--will go nowhere.” Chile cannot be in transition toward some past democracy, idealized by the older generation, she maintains. Today’s world is fundamentally new, the yearning for participation much greater, and the old ways of going about politics simply do not work. We spoke at the Humanist/Green Alliance office in Santiago in April.
What happened with the proposal you made regarding divorce?
We launched a preliminary bill to get people talking about it. We spent six months collecting opinions, gently initiating a discussion. And now next week we will formally present a bill to legalize divorce. Interesting things have happened. Polls say that some 70% favor the legislation. We are the only country in Latin America where you cannot get a divorce--along with Paraguay, and there the Congress has already taken it up. And we are one of the few countries in the world without any divorce laws.
This issue cuts across party lines. There are tendencies within each party, for and against. Of course the most conservative elements view it as the beginning of the unraveling of Chilean society, by undermining the family. We expect the bill to come up for discussion sometime during this legislative session.
A lot is said about the gulf between the political parties and grassroots movements. That the political class, which at one time had a real base of support, has lost touch with people’s needs.
Not only have political parties lost touch with grassroots organizations, the grassroots organizations have lost touch with the people. Nor can we say that all grassroots organizations have a clear political stance. The close identification people felt toward their political representatives at a certain moment in this country had a lot to do with the struggle against the dictatorship, the “No” campaign, the presidential and parliamentary elections. But the distance that now exists is not only a Chilean phenomenon. I’d say it’s happening across Latin America, and perhaps across the world. Traditional forms of politics no longer respond to people’s aspirations. Because people’s aspirations are no longer limited to pay raises; people have aspirations regarding lifestyle, different aspects of daily life, different values.
Perhaps here in Chile the process is more evident because we had to struggle against a dictatorship, but the old forms of doing politics are quite obsolete. Because the way one does things is part of what inspires people to get involved.
The Humanist Party has made some important advances in this respect. For example, if someone wants a particular issue taken up by Congress, we believe he or she should be able to petition Congress with a certain number of signatures. There are formal democracies in the world, and we have to work to make these more real. The degree of reality of a democracy has to do with the level of people’s participation, with plebiscites, referendums, permanent consultations, legislative petitions.
From where will these new forms of politics emerge?
They will come out of people’s aspirations and participation. First, we don’t believe this is the time for great leaders, but for team work. We also believe that any political movement that is incapable of drawing in the most dynamic social forces in existence today--youth and women--is a movement that will go nowhere. We believe that the traditional political parties, which continue discriminating against youth and women through “women’s auxiliaries” and “youth wings,” won’t go very far. Many people join our party for the simple fact that we don’t have a women’s or youth wing.
Do you believe that the coming period will be one of social change more than political change?
There is no doubt that this year should be one in which the government takes on the pressing social needs of our people. The great challenge is to maintain economic growth while attending to the serious needs in health, housing, education, etc. A large percentage of Chileans live in extreme poverty. In both the East and the West, the world is undergoing a great transformation. Both socialism and capitalism are in crisis. Neither system has been able to fulfill human needs. So I believe we need to rethink the whole notion of development. Is imitating Europe what will develop Chile? This is a different reality, born of a different history.
That is not a vision shared by many politicians in this country.
That’s right. But it is shared by many who are not politicians. That’s why I don’t believe in politics in the way it is being done. Traditional politics are in crisis. The gulf between politicians, social organizations and the people grows wider every day. We have the paradox of people being closer in touch with everything that happens in the world, yet feeling more and more isolated. People talk about the family being in crisis. It’s not the family, but human relations that are in crisis: family, work relations, friendships. Because the system teaches us to base these relationships on competition.
How did you get involved in politics?
I’m an industrial engineer. I studied systems analysis, computers. When I went to college I had the idea--along with many young people--that there I would be able to do everything I couldn’t do in high school: talk about everything, debate things, research, think, create. In college I found everything completely closed off, worse than in high school. I could never go into a laboratory and experiment with what I wished.
This enormous frustration led me in 1978 to join the Human Development Community, which is how the Siloista movement was organized at that time. I began to study the arms race, military versus social spending, and I started working with youth in poor neighborhoods on these issues. In 1984 the social affairs office of the community decided to found the Humanist Party. I signed up immediately.
The truth is that I never did any public work until the “No” campaign, when I first felt the need to take a public stand as a woman. This led the party to begin training women for political action. You can open channels for women to participate, but from childhood on girls are brought up to be quiet, to stay clean, and to not bother anyone. So we ran workshops for women and young people on getting involved in politics.
Are most of the Humanists young?
The average age must be between 25 and 28, and over half are women.
The reference points for most politicians are from the period before the dictatorship. I imagine that for most young people politicians are acting out something from ancient history.
That’s true. Today’s youth grew up under the dictatorship. In an atmosphere with few opportunities to participate, where young people had to hide in order to get together and play the guitar, where they were considered terrorists. Issues couldn’t even be debated, never mind confronted. So beyond providing work and education for young people, society has to make a concerted effort to encourage youth to participate.
The few young people I’ve spoken with seem to feel that Chile does offer them a future. They don’t feel the urgency to emigrate as in so many other countries.
There truly is hope in Chile. We’ve only had democracy for a year, and we can’t have run out of dreams yet. There is hope and that is very important. But we have to answer that hope, or it will turn into frustration, and then to resentment and violence.
A recent poll gave the Humanists around 1% support. Why so little?
You have to view these percentages as part of a process. We are the youngest party in the country, the only one to have been formed under the dictatorship. Some traditional parties get 5%, but they are in decline, living off their past. Our percentage is rising. I think it’s an achievement that they even include us in the polls. Before this they didn’t even ask about us.
Tell us about the Siloista movement which founded the party.
The Siloista movement arose in 1969, in an era when many movements appeared: anti-war, guerrillas, mysticism, etc. Ours grew out of a talk given by Silo, Mario Rodríguez Cobo, which he called “The Treatment of Suffering.” He talked about how people suffer psychologically from personal contradictions, about pain caused by social contradictions, by different forms of violence: economic, religious, psychological. People began to organize local groups in Argentina and in Chile. Then exiles helped the movement grow elsewhere.
Could it be called a cult?
It’s not a religion, in fact, we have people of many different religions. It’s more a sensitivity, a form of organizing, a way of looking at life, a way of working for social change. It connects people who understand that change must be personal and social simultaneously.
A final question: Is democracy here to stay?
In Chile, yes. There are no conditions for a coup. This is a great achievement: people recognize that democracy is the only viable way to organize society. Our work now is to make our formal democracy more and more real.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Mark fried is editor of Report on the Americas. He visited Chile and Argentina in April.