Transit fiasco wounds Chile’s leader

Times Staff Writer

Barely more than a year in office, President Michelle Bachelet is suffering a sharp slide in voter confidence as her administration scrambles to salvage a botched public transport overhaul that has wreaked havoc in this capital.

The Transantiago plan, designed to improve the city’s chaotic system of buses and reduce pollution from the transit vehicles’ exhaust, has instead stranded passengers, generated marathon waits and overtaxed the city subway.

Scores of angry protests have erupted, and lawmakers, social activists, clergy and those at both ends of the political spectrum have condemned the project as an unmitigated, and preventable, disaster.


At this point, fixing the transit system is widely viewed as the biggest challenge facing Bachelet since she took office and one of the most severe political crises in the 17 years since democracy returned to Chile.

On Monday, Bachelet replaced four Cabinet ministers, including her beleaguered transportation chief, and offered an apology for the mayhem. “The inhabitants of Santiago, especially the poorest, deserve an apology from all of us,” Bachelet said.

Experts say there are no easy answers to the commuter snafu.

“There don’t appear to be any short-term solutions,” said Eugenio Guzman, director of the School of Government at Adolfo Ibanez University here. “The problem is the failure to anticipate what was coming, on both a political and technical level.”

Polls have shown the president’s popularity tumbling as low as 45%, a drop of about 20 points since she was sworn in as Chile’s first female president March 11, 2006. Voter confidence has eroded especially rapidly this month, as the issue has dominated headlines and Bachelet has appeared powerless to turn things around.

The conservative press has mercilessly attacked Bachelet, standard-bearer of the center-left coalition known as the Concertacion, which has ruled Chile since democracy was restored in 1990. One tabloid put the president on its cover with a dunce cap and the headline “Transanfiasco.” Speculation has already arisen that the debacle could help catapult the right into power when Bachelet’s term ends in three years.

Bachelet is immensely popular abroad, and many people inside and outside Chile have found inspiration in her journey from political imprisonment under the former military dictatorship to exile abroad to her return as a practicing physician, separated mother of three and eventual presidential election victor.

Chile is a close U.S. ally and the Bush administration has welcomed Bachelet as the kind of pragmatic left-of-center politician whom the White House can work with. She traveled to Washington after her election and met with President Bush. But domestic turmoil that has marred Bachelet’s term has caused even many allies to question her leadership style and skills.

A violent strike last year by students seeking improved schooling virtually paralyzed the public education system and forced Bachelet to sack her education minister, among other top aides. A subsequent scandal over the alleged misappropriation of government sports funds made the front pages for weeks.

Then, in December, the death of Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled from 1973 to 1990, led to the spectacle of tens of thousands of Chileans paying respects to a man despised by Bachelet and others who considered him a murderous tyrant. The president refused to grant Pinochet a state funeral, angering his hard-line supporters.

The transport imbroglio has already eclipsed those earlier episodes, observers say.

“There were many defects and one could have predicted that this would produce chaos,” Santiago Archbishop Francisco Javier Errazuriz told a radio interviewer.

Transantiago, launched last month, was supposed to improve the quality of life in this sprawling city of more than 6 million, not worsen it. Behind the effort was a push to make Santiago a world-class city befitting the economic growth of the past decade that has made Chile a model for development.

The project, costing more than $1 billion in public and private funds, involved the purchase of more than 5,000 buses, revised routes, integration of subway and bus services and use of electronic swipe cards to pay fares. The new buses would burn cleaner fuel, officials vowed, helping to diminish the capital’s severe air pollution problem. And the revised routes would ultimately be more efficient.

But the promised number of buses has yet to hit the streets, stranding tens of thousands of angry commuters. The president on Sunday pledged to seek “guarantees” from private transit firms to produce the missing vehicles.

Complaints are aired daily of people arriving to work late and exhausted after hours spent trying to get there.

Managers have cited lost productivity and a dispirited workforce.

“I used to be able to take two buses to my job; now I have to take three,” said Carmen Gloria Lemus, a domestic worker who commutes from her humble home on the city’s outskirts to the chic Las Condes district. “You get stepped on and crushed.”

Many commuters turned to the city’s subway, which had been viewed as generally efficient and modern.

But a near doubling of the passenger load has overwhelmed the system, forcing officials to close stations amid reports of commuters dropping from heart attacks and other ailments in the packed trains.

Bachelet’s supporters say the string of scandals that has tarnished her first year in office was inherited from her popular predecessor and political mentor, Ricardo Lagos. But Bachelet has drawn the most heat for the transit turmoil -- along with Ivan Zamorano, a onetime Chilean soccer idol who was the paid face of the Transantiago publicity campaign.

Zamorano was lustily booed when introduced at a concert here this month.

“I feel that I’ve been deceived just as much as the rest of the public,” Zamorano said.. “I think I’ve become a scapegoat.”


Special correspondent Claudia Lagos contributed to this report.