SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile has made "extraordinary progress" in economic growth and poverty reduction, but high rates of inequality persist, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said Tuesday.
The Andean country has one of the strongest and most stable economies in Latin America, but it also has the widest gap between rich and poor among the 34 nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Chile "continues to tolerate levels of poverty and inequality which are very high," U.N. rapporteur Philip Alston said in a press conference in Chile's capital after meeting with President Michelle Bachelet, government officials, lawmakers and people living in poverty.
The world's top copper producer is seen as probably the best-managed economy in Latin America because of its strong growth, prudent fiscal and macroeconomic policies and strong institutions. But critics say policies launched under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet are still blocking social reform and fostering inequality.
Some of Chile's contradictions are in plain sight. Slum dwellers living in wooden shacks with zinc roofs at Campamento Juan Pablo II have a perfect view of elegant mansions, soaring skyscrapers and luxury car dealerships, just across a wide avenue in Las Condes, one of Santiago's wealthiest neighborhoods.
Alston said that though President Michelle Bachelet's efforts to reform taxes and overhaul education are positive, fiscal reforms alone will not be able enough to dramatically reduce the vast gap between rich and poor.
Schools in Chile were free before Pinochet ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools. Public education in poorer districts suffered even as a voucher system directed billions of dollars in public funds to privately run high schools.
Bachelet is partly financing education reforms by increasing corporate taxes gradually by 5 percentage points to raise some $8.2 billion. She says she's answering the call of millions of students who have staged protests since 2011 demanding deep changes in an educational system that fails them with poor-quality public schools and expensive private universities.
Labor law reforms are also needed to allow trade unions to defend the rights of workers effectively, and women's participation in the workforce needs to be improved.
The special rapporteur also said that Chile's record on the rights of indigenous peoples remains "the 'Achilles Heel' of its human rights record in the twenty-first century."
The Mapuche indigenous people resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years and their desire for autonomy remains strong. It wasn't until the late 19th century that they were defeated militarily and forced into the south- central Araucania region. Most live in poverty.
"Efforts to eliminate extreme poverty in Chile cannot succeed without a concerted focus on the situation of indigenous peoples," Alston said.