December 2, 2005

Chilean rightists woo votes from poor minority

By Pav Jordan

SAN ANTONIO, Chile (Reuters) - Along the waterfront in
Chile's huge port of San Antonio, unemployed fishermen and dock
workers say they've been left out of the good times in Latin
America's star economy and want a change in government in this
year's election.

Front-running candidate Michelle Bachelet and her
center-left coalition, which has run Chile since 1990, are
banking on the strength of the economy to help them stay in
power for a fourth term in December 11 elections.

But after 15 years of the same government, poor towns like
San Antonio - where the jobless rate of 20 percent is nearly
three times the national average -- are proving fertile ground
for inroads by the country's rightist opposition candidates.

"Lots of countries look at Chile from the outside as a
model (economy), but that is not true," said Hernan Jerez, a
54-year-old former dock worker who lost his job in a port
modernization five years ago, and is now a campaign volunteer
for an opposition congressional candidate.

All candidates are emphasizing the need to create jobs,
including Bachelet, opposition rightists Sebastian Pinera and
Joaquin Lavin and far-left candidate Thomas Hirsch.

Pinera visited San Antonio on the campaign trail to talk
about his promise to create 1 million jobs in Chile by 2010.

Jobless rates in San Antonio belie Chile's stable economy,
which draws job-seeking immigrants from neighboring countries.
In the last 15 years, Chile has cut poverty from 40 percent of
the population to 18 percent, one of the lowest in the region.

But residents in poor pockets like San Antonio say their
reality is far less appealing than the data that says Chile's
literacy, infant mortality and life expectancy are all at
developed world levels.

"You have to be inside Chile to see how we live. Here, our
families are suffering," said Jerez, dressed in the overalls
that were his uniform when he worked on the docks.

Chile's big cities do not have enormous slums like Brazil's
Rio or other large Latin American metropolitan areas, but there
are poor pockets both in the cities and in remote rural areas.
In the election six years ago, Chile's right-wing parties won
over many poor people who traditionally had voted for the left.


"The opposition does a lot better in areas where the
economy is not doing as well," said Patricio Navia, a political
scientist with New York University.

Navia said San Antonio, a small city of 80,000 people that
has been economically depressed for many years, could still
lean toward Bachelet because of the coalition's social programs
in the port.

But they haven't been enough for all voters.

Jerez says he has to tap illegally into power lines for
electricity and borrow money from his sister to get by.

He's volunteering to help the re-election campaign of
opposition Congressman Carlos Hidalgo because he feels the left
has not been able to solve San Antonio's jobless problem.

Hidalgo, from presidential candidate Pinera's center-right
National Renovation party, wants the town declared an emergency
zone and for the government to take drastic measures to train
workers and create jobs.

He says San Antonio's true jobless rate is much higher than
20 percent if you count those who have given up looking for

"The government is having a party because of low
unemployment, but unfortunately San Antonio can't join in on
the happiness," he told Reuters.

The port at San Antonio is thriving, due to leaping exports
and imports in Chile, but it is also highly mechanized.

Near San Antonio's town docks, and in neighborhoods
surrounding the central port area, men lounge against walls or
play soccer with children in the streets.

"They're out of work, what they need is work," said Rene
Ortiz, a fisherman and father of seven whose face is deeply
lined after years on the open sea.