Thursday, March 15, 2007

All of Bachelet´s Friends and Relatives

In a TV interview on Sunday, the first anniversary of Michelle Bachelet's center-left government, the Chilean president was put in an uncomfortable position by a journalist who asked her opinion on the recent scandal denounced by Patricio Navia, a local political scientist.

"My son had the necessary qualifications so I don't see why he shouldn't have been hired," said Bachelet, South America's first female head of state.

Navia carried out an investigation that revealed how the children of high-ranking government officials (most of whom earn at least US$10,000 per month) obtained state funded scholarships to study in prestigious universities in the United States and Europe.

According to Navia, Bachelet's son, Sebastian Davalos, was hired to work in the Department of International Economic Relations (Direcon) in 2005 due to the influence exerted by his mother, who was then the minister of defense. Navia discovered that Davalos was the only student that was paid a monthly salary of US$500 during his internship, which lasted from March 7 to Aug. 7. At the end of the trial period, Davalos was the only student hired by Direcon from among a group of seven students with similar or better academic credentials than Davalos.

On Monday, Nicholas Monckeberg, a member of the right wing opposition has demanded that Bachelet explain whether her son was working at Direcon as an intern student or had been hired after the proper selection process that all other candidates have to go through.

"Do all intern students get to travel to international summits with all expenses paid, such as Bachelet's son?" Monckeberg said.

Ironically, the acts of nepotism described by Patricio Navia began during the 17-year dictatorship headed by the recently deceased Gen. Augusto Pinochet. After proclaiming himself president of Chile in 1980, Pinochet created the "Presidential Scholarship Fund" that apparently was aimed at allowing the best university graduates to continue their studies in foreign universities, with the only condition that after completing their course they would return to work in Chile. However, the majority of those who obtained the study grants had blood ties to the military government or were the relatives of army officers; for example, the brother of Cristian Labbe, then the head of Pinochet's bodyguards.

With the end of Pinochet's reign, a center-left coalition called the "Concertacion" won the elections, and has been in power ever since. It seems the Concertacion officials were of the opinion that Pinochet's "Scholarship Fund" was a good idea, since many of their children began obtaining grants to study in the most select universities. For example, the daughter of the current secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, was given a study grant to study in Holland. The son of President Ricardo Lagos, who governed Chile from 2000 to 2006, was sent to pursue a master's degree at Oxford University -- at present Ricardo Lagos Jr. is the spokesman for the Bachelet government. And the list goes on.

During the last days of February, the minister of planning, Clarissa Hardy, was forced to publish on its Web site (in Spanish) the full list of students that had been awarded a presidential scholarship since 1981.

During a press conference, Hardy was hard pressed to explain how her son Marco Schejtman Hardy obtained a grant in 1995 to study at the University of Cambridge, in the U.K., while his mother was a high-ranking official of the "Concertacion."

Is academic brilliance automatically inherited? Or is the fact that the same names keep appearing just a coincidence?

As a matter of interest, as I was writing this article and checking the list of names on the Ministry of Planning Web site, my computer began experiencing sudden operational defects. Also just another coincidence?

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