Neoliberal Economics

Chile Table of Contents

By the mid-1970s, the dictatorship switched from destroying the old order to constructing its version of a new Chile. The junta not only overturned decades of democratic government but also decades of statist economic policies, which had mainly protected industrialists and organized workers. The new economic program was designed by civilian technocrats known as the "Chicago boys" because many of them had been trained or influenced by University of Chicago professors. The government instituted a dramatic conversion to free-market economics in 1975.

After curbing inflation and returning a significant amount of property to its former owners, the administration embarked on a radical program of liberalization and privatization, slashing tariffs as well as government welfare programs and deficits. As a result, the economy grew rapidly from 1976 to 1981, a feat heralded as the "Chilean miracle." That growth was fueled by the influx of private foreign loans until the debt crisis of the early 1980s. Financial conglomerates became the major beneficiaries of the open economy and the flood of foreign bank loans. Exports of nontraditional commodities, especially fruit, timber, and fish products, also grew impressively; the value of new exportables came to equal that of copper sales. Despite high growth in the late 1970s, income distribution became more regressive and unemployment stayed in double digits. The underemployed informal sector also mushroomed in size. The regime responded with a "minimum employment" public works program.

In conjunction with the liberalization of the economy, the junta implemented a series of social reforms to reduce the role of the central government in social security, labor disputes, health care, and education. These reforms fit with the desire to shrink the central government, decentralize administration, and privatize previous state functions. Critics charged that the welfare state was being dismantled to leave citizens at the mercy of the marketplace. The regime retorted that it was focusing its social assistance on the poorest of the poor to meet basic needs, and it pointed with pride to improvement in such indicators as infant mortality.

The most important of the government's so-called modernizations in social policy was the 1979 Labor Plan. The regime had already outlawed the CUTCh, Marxist union leaders, several Marxist unions, union elections, strikes, and collective bargaining. Nevertheless, after bearing the brunt of repression in 1973-74, unions gradually revived in the late 1970s. Little by little, cooperation increased between Marxist and Christian Democrat union leaders, the latter making gains because the former were outlawed. Although a few unions supported the government, most firmly opposed the regime and its economic program. The Labor Plan sought to codify the dictatorship's antilabor policies. It placed stringent limits on collective bargaining, strikes, and other union activities, especially any participation in politics. Almost all labor unions rejected the Labor Plan and aligned with the opposition.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress