Ensouling Chile: Paula Escobar-Chavarría on Chilean Leadership

by Kristen Chapman

“Chile has achieved, in twenty years, so many things that are almost unimaginable,” began Paula Escobar-Chavarría, a 2012 Yale World Fellow and leading journalist from Chile. Escobar-Chavarría currently serves as Magazines Editor for Chile’s most prominent newspaper and is the author of four books on Chilean leaders and innovators. Thursday afternoon, Escobar-Chavarría came to the Yale Law School to speak to students about her most recent work, a fifth book which focuses on the role of Chilean Presidents in the country’s transition to democracy.

Addressing a room of some twenty students, Escobar-Chavarría described the importance of her work in context of Chile’s current political climate. Due to Chile’s recent transition to democracy in 1990, she says, a new generation of politically active youth is awakening.

This generation, however, is disconnected with those who live with the painful memory of Augusto Pinochet’s oppressive regime fresh in their minds. Escobar-Chavarría explained, “This new generation doesn’t feel the danger that we have felt because we have lived without democracy.”  As a result of this new climate, she feels that it is necessary to bridge the gap between the “wise men” that created democracy and youth activists.

Despite this disconnect, the country has successfully maintained a democratic government for almost twenty-three years. “Many Latin American countries should be thriving, yet they are not,” stated Escobar-Chavarría. Chile is different. It has experienced continual function of an efficient democratic system, peaceful transitions of power, economic growth, and a decline in poverty from forty to fourteen percent in seventeen years. Escobar-Chavarría’s research seeks to identify the variable that sets Chile apart.

Chilean leadership, she told the audience, is the primary mechanism. Through extensive interviews with four Chilean presidents, Escobar-Chavarría has found major commonalities among every president. These commonalities, she argues, are the key to Chile’s success.

First, every Chilean President has possessed what can only be called a sense of wisdom. More specifically, Chile has been free of ego-driven decision-makers. “All of the Presidents have put interests of the people first,” Escobar-Chavarría explained. “They knew when to give up, push, be unpopular, and say I’m sorry.” This, the journalist pointed out, is “a rarity in the political world.”

The second commonality has been the ability to unify one’s own coalition. Patricio Aylwin, the first President of Chile, best demonstrated this with the unification of the Christian Democrats. Although the party was fragmented in competing factions prior to 1990, Aylwin successfully united these political enemies, cultivating a force that was strong enough to defeat the opposing candidate.

Finally, Escobar-Chavarría noted that every president has been honest as a public servant. After completing their respective terms, each leader returned to their life as a middle class citizen without special privileges or an entourage. “You came to politics to serve and not to serve yourself,” the author confirmed.

Paula Escobar-Chavarría is proud of the progress her country has made and is optimistic for the future. “Chile,” she concluded “has a new face now. It has a new soul thanks to these men and women that have worked to make our country great.”

Kristen Chapman ’13 is a political science major in Ezra Stiles. Contact her at kristen.chapman@yale.edu