SANTIAGO, Chile – Faced with the lowest approval ratings of her career, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet acknowledged on Wednesday that corruption scandals had rocked the South American country but rejected any notion she might resign and sought to cast the situation as an opportunity.
Chile's corruption is among the lowest in South America. But trust in politicians and the business elite has been eroded amid a recent bank loan scandal involving Bachelet's son, as well as a campaign financing scandal involving right-wing politicians and the Penta Group, a prominent financial company. Another tax-related election financing scandal at Chilean SQM fertilizer company forced the resignation of its chief executive.
"There's a very serious crisis of confidence," Bachelet told foreign correspondents at the presidential palace. "But I'm convinced that this crisis is a tremendous opportunity for us to advance in fixing those loopholes, strengthening the institutions so these types of situations are never repeated."
The recent controversy involving her family has taken a particularly big toll on Bachelet's image, as she won the presidency last year promising to fight against Chile's inequalities. A recent poll shows Bachelet's approval rating dropped 8 percentage points in March to 31 percent, the lowest both for her current administration and her 2006-2010 presidency.
Bachelet said she's focused on pushing forward reforms, including an education overhaul, changing the dictatorship-era Constitution to make Congress more representative and reducing the vast gap between the rich and poor.
"We have to focus on recovering trust and making sure the institutions are seen as doing their job in a serious and responsible way," she said. "I think that's my duty, not improving my popularity ratings."
Chile, the world's top copper producing country, is considered one the best-managed economies in Latin America because of its prudent fiscal and macroeconomic policies and strong institutions.
Bachelet said that millionaires being arrested and the president's family being probed reinforced Chile's commitment to the rule of law.
The founders of the Penta financial company with interests in insurance, health and real estate were recently jailed while an investigation into tax evasion and bribery is carried out, and the president of Chile's right-wing Democratic Union party quit the party over that campaign financing scandal. Meanwhile, the fertilizing company SQM, which has some of the world's biggest reserves of lithium and nitrate, is being probed after accusations that it financed campaigns by the same conservative party.
Prosecutors are also investigating whether Bachelet's son, Sebastian Davalos, and his wife, Natalia Compagnon, got privileged access to a $10 million loan to buy land they later sold for about $15 million. The loan was granted after the couple met with a Banco de Chile vice president, Andronico Luksic, one of Chile's richest men.
Bachelet has said that she's lived through some "painful moments" as a mother and president. Although she declined to comment on the scandal saying it's an ongoing investigation, she dismissed recent rumors sparked by a political commentator that she's going to step down as a result.
"Imagine that? The president resigning. That's a constitutional rupture," said Bachelet. "The truth has to be told, so just in case - I never thought about resigning and I don't plan on resigning at any time."
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