The Moneda Palace in Santiago is white, and remarkably small. I recognise it from photographs taken on 11 September 1973, in which the bombers close above seem small, too, like fat flies. I must once have seen this building and found it large – my father was British ambassador to Chile from 1961 to 1966. As children in Santiago we led supervised lives, between the garden, the Austin Princess and the Alliance Française school. I had a faint sense of who Salvador Allende was in 1964, when he stood for president against Eduardo Frei Montalva. I’m being taken to church and low on a wall there’s a poster with sad-looking crowds, flags and exclamation marks, and Allende’s massive spectacle frames.

In 1976, I was working for Chile Solidarity in Leeds, and getting a rapid political education. Some of the Chilean refugees thought I was working for the CIA. They had suffered violence beyond the imagining of our well-meaning spectrum of helpers, from church groups and the Labour Party to the Communists and International Socialists. The Chileans mapped the discords of Unidad Popular fiercely onto our own local squabbles. A decade later, in 1987, I went back to Chile during the preparations for a plebiscite on the continuation of the military junta. I was joining my mother on a nostalgia trip, she remembering the happiest of diplomatic postings, I looking for my ‘roots’. My old school, so bleak in my memory, hadn’t changed, but my eyes had: it is a Corbusierian gem. The most feared of my teachers, intercepted on perhaps his millionth entry to the same classroom, growled that ‘of course’ he remembered me. Our beautiful house had been converted into a computer centre: there was no sign of the swimming-pool that slopped out half its water during an earthquake, and the spreading fig tree that once held my mirador was now a stump. Santiago felt eerie, because of what I knew had happened there since I last saw it. The city looked primped, sedate; I don’t know what violence I expected on every corner.

By this time the dictator’s civilian economists had come round to the view that there was more money to be made under a controlled democracy. Parts of the right, along with the US, were ready for change. Surely the vote against the junta would be substantial? It wasn’t. There was harassment and assaults on pro-democracy campaigners in an exhausted, depoliticised society. The result was close: 55 per cent for booting out ‘Pinocho’.

I returned again this September, a few days before the 33rd anniversary of the military coup. There has now been civilian government for 17 years, exactly as long as the dictatorship lasted. The democratic transition was officially declared over last year by the Socialist president, Ricardo Lagos, after the reform of some of Pinochet’s most restrictive constitutional articles. This January, Michelle Bachelet, also from the Socialist Party and the candidate of the centre-left Concertación coalition, was elected president with 53.5 per cent of the vote, after a run-off against the right-wing credit-card billionaire Sebastián Piñera. I went back to celebrate her victory, and to attempt to gauge what a woman president might signify in such a socially conservative country. But my visit turned into a search, using women as my guiding thread, to understand the unexpected melancholy I sensed, the inhibition and muffled frictions. The government is already in trouble, and the transition is far from over.

There are, however, plentiful images of how far Chile has come. People stroll through the Moneda as a short cut, ignored by the carabinero guards; I was not searched or asked for ID in any ministerial building. An astounding symbol of free speech lies below ground in the Moneda’s culture centre, where cut-out figures of all the past presidents of Chile, from Bernardo O’Higgins to Lagos, dangle from nooses over the caption ‘Chile’s Pay-Back’. They are part of a funny, irascible show by the 92-year-old ‘anti-poet’ Nicanor Parra, the patriarch of a left-wing arts dynasty. Though the centre’s director was ‘coincidentally’ removed, the piece has stayed. ‘Let’s not get Parranoid!’ Michelle Bachelet laughed at the opening.

A working paediatrician who also studied at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, Bachelet embodies a longed-for spirit of reconciliation, a reforging of the bond between military and democratic values that was once central to Chile’s myth of itself. As Lagos’s defence minister from 2002, she was instrumental in getting a ‘never again’ declaration out of the armed forces. It was especially meaningful because her father had been an air force general who, refusing to go into exile, was tortured and murdered in 1974 for his loyalty to Allende. In 1975 the young Socialist medical student and her mother were themselves arrested. They spent several weeks in Villa Grimaldi, Santiago’s most notorious torture centre, until released through the intercession of friends of the family abroad. Bachelet has always kept silent about her mistreatment.

Her style marks a refreshing change: if Lagos ruled like a high priest, Bachelet’s manner is warm and unassuming. Her hobbies include dancing on the beach and holding girls’ nights with her ten ministras (to the resentment of the men, I’m told), and her agenda centres on social injustice. In its choice of a woman whose platform included gender parity in the cabinet, the country seems to be asking for a feminisation of the political culture.

Yet Bachelet’s victory remains in some ways an aberration. In genteel society, where the old proprieties have survived every revolution (almost everyone assured me of this Chilean ‘hypocrisy’), there is disapproval of her for being divorced rather than discreetly separated; worse, she is an avowed agnostic. One of her children was born out of wedlock, and she had an affair with a member of the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front in the 1980s, making her, for some, a ‘terrorist’s whore’. Nor does her victory reflect the status of women at large. One conservative friend I spoke to considers herself typical in mistrusting her own sex: ‘we prefer men for important matters. We don’t really believe in her, we gloat when she goes wrong.’ Well, women only got the vote in 1949, and divorce became legal – after years of negotiation with the Church – in December 2004. Before that, those who separated because they couldn’t afford annulment lawyers were barred from opening a bank account or starting a business in their own name. Shocking levels of domestic violence and child abuse across all classes are being uncovered by the family courts that opened last October. About a third of women work, some of them for half the equivalent male wage. Indeed, in modern Chile, futuristic touches that stun the foreigner – whether gender parity in the cabinet, or total immersion advertising techniques that turn Metro corridors and carriages into marketing/art installations – float high above a stratified society that seems mired in the 1950s. (The Metro shuts down at 10.30.)

The strong women of a generation ago were not the product of an evolving society, but created by events – and I don’t mean Allende’s experiment, in which women were mostly helpmeets. Mónica González, the country’s top investigative journalist, who was jailed for her human rights stories in the 1980s, credits the dictatorship for that brief awakening. ‘Since the people killed, imprisoned and disappeared were mostly men, women had to confront authority as never before. Facing up to the army and the police in search of husbands or sons, joining forces and speaking out politically, going to work for the first time.’ If a man did return from prison, he usually couldn’t get work, and women continued to support the family. During the banking crisis of 1981-83, whole industries were wiped out and the selective erosion of male authority was completed by labour schemes in which men were paid pennies to move piles of stones back and forth: ‘a deliberate humiliation in order to break the spirit of workers who’d always been proud of what they created’. A taxi-driver with whom I talked about those years told me that he went out begging for any menial occupation, not for the wages but ‘because my wife hated me’. Pointless labour was an old military punishment turned into a national strategy.

After 1990, the lid went back on the box for the majority of women. Democracy was back, so leave it all to Daddy. Despite this, some women, often those whose sheltered lives hadn’t been much changed by the coup, now found liberation. S., a landscape designer who was stuck for 25 years in an abusive marriage to a rich man, told me in the darkness of a night drive: ‘When that most violent of patriarchies was removed, I and many women I knew suddenly realised we didn’t have to put up with it any more, that society was now on our side.’ It was an alarming glimpse of what the elegant, professional, almost always separated women I was meeting might have gone through. I could never have asked them to say more. There’s a reserve in Chile that is usually ascribed to ancestry (European, that is; the indigenous component, more visible the lower you go down the social scale, doesn’t count): a mixture of Spanish-Basque pride and English stiff upper lip.

On the national level, this reserve means that a feudal agrarian society suddenly found itself under attack, first from the left and then from the right, by angry forces it had convinced itself did not exist there. They continue now to fight it out in whispers, as it were. Many compromises overshadowed the democratic restoration: over the dictator’s laws, which still resist essential reform; the political right, which was to continue running the economy while the centre-left Concertación coalition ran the enfeebled state, compensating with palliative measures those who lost out under neo-liberalism; and the Catholic Church, whose brave stand for human rights was to be rewarded by a resanctification of the traditional family. The military were loudly unrepentant for having ‘saved Chile’.

The real turning point came in 1998, with Pinochet’s arrest in London, where he had gone for an operation and to close an arms deal. People who felt oppressed by the continued military oversight of the transition, epitomised by the dictator’s controlling presence as senator for life, describe it as a heavy weight falling from their shoulders. The prestige of the armed forces collapsed overnight, and soldiers took to wearing civvies in public to avoid harassment. When the House of Lords cravenly sent the faker home as mentally unfit to stand trial, the Frei Ruiz-Tagle government, having publicly pleaded that he should be tried in Chile – while seeking to rush through a law granting him permanent immunity – was compelled to allow the trial to go ahead. Pinochet’s parliamentary immunity was lifted by the supreme court in 2000, and the lawsuits erupted. It’s a slow, insanely technical process. By last September, of 467 prosecutions brought against violators of human rights, 99 convictions had been obtained. Pinochet, who has excellent lawyers (including Pablo Rodríguez Grez, the former leader of the fascist terrorist group Patria y Libertad), was on bail while being investigated only for crimes in which there is ‘evidence’ of his involvement: the ‘Caravan of Death’ (1973), when more than seventy dissidents were summarily executed by an army unit travelling through the provinces; Operation Colombo (the murder of 119 people, camouflaged as internal score-settling) and a couple of other murders. Among them is the assassination in 1993 of Eugenio Berríos, one of his own men; Berríos designed the bacteriological agent that allegedly killed the former president Frei Montalva in 1982. Given the difficulties with the Chilean system, there seemed a better chance of nailing Pinochet for the embezzlement, tax evasion and passport forgery uncovered by the US senate in an anti-terrorist bank trawl after 9/11. His assets had been frozen, and he was having to sell his medals to pay the bills. After I left Chile, however, some long-standing cases moved forward. Pinochet was indicted on 59 counts of kidnapping and torture at Villa Grimaldi, and, two days after his 91st birthday in November (when for the first time he admitted ‘political responsibility for all that was done’), a new indictment charged him with the kidnapping and murder of two of Allende’s bodyguards during the Caravan of Death. He is now once more under house arrest, pending bail and appeals.

Mónica Rodríguez, whom I met on 11 September at a late-night memorial meeting outside the National Stadium (where thousands were held and many executed in the weeks following the coup), has spent 16 years fighting for a monument to female victims of the repression; she yelled over the music that ‘they’ are dragging out the legal niceties, hoping that Pinochet will die first. At the meeting we were treated to Unidad Popular films and rousingly raised fists; for the first time, Socialists and Communists, who have long been estranged, were holding a joint do. Beyond the carnations and candles in the bars, the grotesquely jolly Disney figures of a funfair could be seen: the right-wing mayor of the commune had arranged this, I was told, as a way of giving this rally the finger. The streets were deserted because here and there bands of young marginals were performing the rituals with which they always mark the anniversary: torching cars, putting up barricades and fighting with the police. During the official procession, hooded ‘anarchists’ threw a Molotov cocktail at the Moneda, flames leaping from a window in sinister reminder of what happened 33 years ago.

I attended a quiet, devastating vigil in the ruins of Villa Grimaldi. Only the tall iron gates remain standing, locked for ever. The site, planted with native trees – silver birch, ceibas and araucarias – was dotted with candles burning beside small cartouches, made from the mosaics of the old floors, indicating where, for example, the Chile Houses had been – cramped vertical closets where prisoners stood for days on end between sessions with the Grill or the Submarine. Trembling in the ghostly space that was once the women’s cells, an unknown woman began telling quiet stories of horror, but also of love and solidarity. This was not ‘obstinate memory’, as in the title of Patricio Guzmán’s film – in which he shows his own The Battle of Chile to uninformed schoolchildren – but helpless memory. The attempt to prosecute Pinochet is more sincere than Rodríguez and others believe, but its slowness is painful. And truth is mocked along with justice, when those responsible won’t say what happened to the 1197 ‘disappeared’. In October, however, continuing international pressure to repeal one of the main instruments of impunity – the Amnesty Law of 1978 – led to serious discussions within the Concertación, raising the hope that hundreds of cases may one day be reopened.

What might the tilt towards female empowerment mean? Does it arise from a belief that men are incorrigible watchers of one another’s backs? A desire for human, as well as macroeconomic, progress? It doesn’t seem to reflect a second wave of female assertiveness, despite the rush to get divorced (55,000 cases this year, the majority brought by women), which is more a matter of formalising old separations and obtaining the novel benefits of alimony and child maintenance: 31 per cent of Chilean households are headed by a woman, and 58 per cent of children are born out of wedlock. Divorce has probably come too late to bring marriage back into vogue, not least because men now have to support ex-wives. Women are still not ‘full juridical or cultural subjects’, as the National Women’s Service recently admitted, but at least the state now offers better physical protection. If you’ve taken out an injunction against a violent man, and he shows up, you call the carabineros and they are there in five minutes; both working-class población women and social workers assured me this was true.

I failed to find any working-class women’s organisations in Santiago, perhaps because of the revived importance of women’s charities, which operate in parallel with the government’s endeavour to build ‘a system of social protection founded on rights’. I was pointed to a project in La Legua, one of the city’s most deprived and drug-ridden poblaciones, once a hive of Socialist and Communist militancy and savagely repressed by the secret police, but it turned out to be a sponsored centre for herbal remedies. I began to think that this combative, politically aware society – and especially its women – had been so ruthlessly crushed it must start again from square one.

But we shouldn’t forget the radical step represented by gender parity in the cabinet. For Clarisa Hardy, the elfin, 60-year-old minister of planning (welfare), the presence of women in positions of power means that politics is catching up with reality. ‘There’s an explosion of citizens’ demands in which the diversity and heterogeneity of society are made visible,’ she says. ‘Liberal ideas are more common than we think, cutting across the left-right divide and setting the traditional, conservative, hegemonic discourse into its proper perspective.’ Presidents Frei and Lagos began to address the problems of female and family life and brought more women into high-ranking posts, but Hardy reckons that at their tempo parity would have come in 2050. Thanks to Bachelet’s determination, not only has the government imposed fairer representation in terms of gender; it has also ‘challenged the reproduction of power, opening it up to uncertainty and risk’. Yasna Provoste, a PE teacher turned education minister, exemplifies this readiness to contemplate appointments from beyond the inner circle. She is young (36), of mixed race and modest background, and one of a minority of ministers from the provinces. As a regional administrator, then governor, she ‘never felt overt discrimination’ from her peers. ‘But I can see,’ she said, ‘that male politicians feel threatened by the emergence of women. So they try to discredit us on some other pretext; discrimination is never straightforward.’

Karen Poniachik, the mining and energy minister, has been given a hard time by some, on the pretext that since she’s not a mining engineer she should at least have some political experience. Her career was built, partly in the US, in the media, finance and investment. I was warned by her male aide not to ask questions about her love life or shopping, as interviewers apparently do, but as I settled down beside this charmingly unceremonious 41-year-old, she started to tell me about her boyfriend. Poniachik enjoys the dual challenge of her post: in charge both of the copper industry that generates Chile’s comfortable trade surplus, and of the energy sector, whose shortages make expansion and foreign investment a priority. She, too, thinks that fairer representation for women is just the first step in bringing ‘diversity’ to the decision-making process. While big business remains clubbish and unmeritocratic, she says, the public sector is sending a crucial signal by removing questions about gender, age and so forth on job applications.

Behind their technocratic language there’s such fresh, adventurous élan about these ministers that it seemed possible to ask whether women do exercise power differently. Even if the Chilean experiment comes nowhere near providing an answer to this charged question – Congress is only 12 per cent female, the Senate 5 per cent – the strength in numbers enjoyed by women leaders puts them in a good position to consider it. A strong affirmative would come from the all-female governors of the VIIth Region, an agricultural province not noted for its feminism. In a magazine interview one of the four, known as the ‘coven’ for their weekly sisterly huddles, said: ‘There was the need for a feminine sensibility, for doing things out of love, for authorities who don’t behave like demi-gods but like common mortals.’ Provoste and Poniachik were more guarded, citing some women’s greater approachability, talent for teamwork and administrative scruple. But the most far-sighted analysis is that of Hardy, who is a former psychologist and whose book about women and power in Chile, Eliterazgo, came out last year.

I doubt any of the men in a cabinet meeting are wondering if there’s loo paper at home, as I do. There is a difference – but it’s not intrinsic. Women are socialised outside the brutal competitiveness of male power structures, and bring these softer, horizontal practices along when they get into power. All of us help and advise each other, but our support circle also includes outsider men. If power could be made more democratic overall, with more rotation, this would undermine the traditional reproduction of power within a handful of families and networks, requiring everyone to persuade rather than impose.

At present, Bachelet and the others are on trial. ‘We’ll have made it when we’re allowed to govern as badly as a man!’

The presence of more ‘outsiders’ in this administration is perhaps a factor in its perceived chaos and indecision. Are people already missing a strong hand? Bachelet’s ratings fell from 62 per cent on election in January to 44 per cent in July. The president’s erratic handling of school demonstrations in June, followed by a loss of face vis-à-vis the traditionally detested Argentina over gas prices, and growth figures of ‘only’ 4.5 per cent, were pounced on by her opponents. She has also lost popular support. Her notion of a ‘Citizens’ Government’, one which invited the public to articulate their needs, was derided from the right as more appropriate in a mother than a president. Her State of the Nation speech in May included a list of ‘female’ priorities, targeting the problems of childhood and old age, and the terrible state of housing. There’s a visionary pre-school programme underway, and the announcement of free healthcare for the over-sixties was extremely popular. However, not only has this government been seen to bow to private interests just as its predecessors did, dismissing citizens’ objections to ecologically and socially damaging projects such as the Pascua Lama gold mine or the Celco pulp factory, but recent negotiations with public sector unions have broken down. ‘People who believed her when she called on them to become “the agents of their own destiny” are pushing it further than the government can accept,’ observed Pamela Pereira, a human rights lawyer, who was closely involved in the process that, by criminalising the Pinochet gang, encouraged the people to express their discontent. September saw strikes by teachers, health workers and council workers.

Bachelet’s fourth priority was ‘innovation and entrepreneurship’, and this rubric too implied a criticism of the country’s economic course. For while Chile is ranked 20th in the world in terms of economic freedom, it is ranked 50th for innovation. This can’t be unrelated to the passivity encouraged by the dominance of multinationals, under whose onslaught the latest manufacturing figures have slumped again. The invasion is visible. Under clumps of blue glass towers, central Santiago’s landscape of peeling family houses and 1960s blocks is plastered with loud graphic designs that look as if they’ve been cut out of magazines: the labels of corporate consultancies, investment services, malls, mobile phone providers and a staggering variety of banks. The capitalist free-for-all, accelerated under democracy, has led to what some people bewail as a new neurosis of ‘appearance’. From toting fake mobiles and parading large tins of caviar in their supermarket trolleys only to discard them before the till, the middle class has progressed to accruing the highest level of personal debt on the continent (‘the British of South America’ to the bitter end), as though this society that once hated ostentation has been drowning its traumas in a cult of objects it neither produces nor can afford. Apart from high finance, Chile’s development model relies on extraction: mining and forestry, the industrialised production of fish, fruit and wine. Environmentalists like Sara Larraín deplore ‘the logic of a colonial economy continued into the present’.

The devaluation of creativity stifles cultural energies. Pinochet did his best to repress modern culture, yet a striking art of resistance flourished. It has not been succeeded by much that’s worthwhile. The artist Livia Marín was born on the day of the coup against Allende and spent most of her childhood, so it seems to her, watching military parades and violent counter-demonstrations from her window overlooking the Plaza Italia. Partly in reaction to this brutal theatre, she began producing a minimal, subtle art that found few echoes in Chile; she had to emigrate to London in order to develop her work. The education market in Chile, Marín claims, has spawned a glut of flashy art colleges, but the serious art world is tiny, dominated by the generation of the 1970s and 1980s, who cold-shoulder any approach that isn’t politically engaged. Chile’s one great contemporary writer, Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003, stayed away after the end of the dictatorship. It is the business of a younger generation to find the idiom for a modern Chilean culture; I heard of uptown kids rapping over the music of the revolutionary icon Violeta Parra.

The situation isn’t improved by the fact that books are extremely expensive. Astonished by the prices in a bookshop – £15 for a slender paperback – I discovered there’s a huge tax on imported books, which almost all of them are. Clandestine presses make cheap facsimiles which are sold from the back of a van – if you’re lucky enough to buy something before the van speeds off at the sight of a police car. Apart from these heroic pirates, only the mini lending libraries in a few metro stations have looked to the city’s intellectual health. Well over a million books were lent out in the last decade, of which 96 per cent were returned; too many, I thought. At last, however, a major public library has opened in Santiago.

It is not immediately obvious to outsiders why so much of Pinochet’s legacy still remains, or how so much progress has been achieved despite its constraints. Some labour regulation has been introduced, leading to complaints that Chile is turning into Cuba, and there has been a reduction in the number of those in poverty from 45 per cent in 1990 to 18 per cent today. The web of complicities and conflicts that defines the incestuous world of Chilean politics is confusing; one friend, annoyed by my constant attempts to identify ideological camps, said it was no good being black and white, I must think in the subjunctive. To begin with, the four coalition parties are internally at odds, especially on ‘moral’ issues, where the other three face opposition from the Christian Democrats – a party that originally supported the coup against its present bedfellows. Yet it’s the Christian Democrats, along with conservative elements on the right, who are now calling for increased social spending. The centre-left coalition has constantly to woo the support of the opposition Alianza por Chile parties, even though the Concertación vote far outnumbers Alianza’s.

One reason for this deadlock is that since 1880 the leading media have been owned by men called Agustín Edwards. In 1970, the Edwards of the day, fearful for his investments, made a visit to Nixon to ask for help in preventing Allende’s inauguration. After that operation backfired, El Mercurio, Chile’s paper of record, co-ordinated a sabotage campaign with the same efficiency as it later concealed Pinochet’s atrocities. The Concertación regularly increases police powers rather than address the deep causes of crime when faced by the right-wing media’s exaggeration of crime rates. It is, in fact, forced onto the defensive on every progressive issue, from making commercial overtures to other Latin American countries that Chile is held to have nothing in common with to prescribing the morning-after pill for 14-year-olds. Bachelet’s tentative social policies hardly interfere with the free-market course maintained by her finance minister, Andrés Velasco, but are pilloried in the right-wing press as the cause of persistent unemployment and ‘loss of investor confidence’.

But the greatest obstacle to change is constitutional, which amounts to saying unalterable, for the Chileans are a law-loving people and even more attached to the proper forms since the recent destruction of all legality. (The dictator himself, who dressed up every outrage in juridical hocus-pocus, lost his core support only when revealed to be a common thief.) The handover deal negotiated by the junta after it lost the 1988 plebiscite bound future governments to respect the 1980 Constitution and the last-minute ‘Tying Acts’. It was agreed that no part of these could be changed without a majority varying from 4/7 to 2/3.

One law, the Binominal Act, ensures that in an election the minority Alianza always gets a seat alongside any Concertación deputy, thus making the requisite quorums unattainable. Governments have been confined to plucking at the edges of the straitjackets that keep Chile’s privatised health, education and pension systems in place. Commissions are regularly convened to try and identify areas of wriggle room; one is currently meeting to study the Binominal Act itself. Lately, another commission examined the pension industry, which leaves half the population unprotected while, according to Pereira, the industry’s directors wield more power than political parties. Result: much hand-wringing and no change, though the state was advised to fund a universal pension of around £75 a month.

The most fascinating talking shop at present is the Advisory Council for Quality in Education, forced into existence by a mass of fed-up schoolchildren. Last summer, thousands of such ‘penguins’, some as young as 11, occupied their schools and the streets to protest against the system established by the dictator one day before he left power, in the Organic Constitutional Education Act (LOCE). Enshrining the wisdom of the market, it created a tripartite system: excellent private schools for 8 per cent of students, subsidised private schools for another 42 per cent, and underfunded municipal hangars for the remaining 50 per cent. The Education Ministry’s role was to pay up evenhandedly, a peso to the councils, a peso to the subsidised schools. President Frei tripled teachers’ pay and tried to improve their training, while a reinflated ministry intervened to the extent that the Act allows at the ‘decentralised’ council level. But the ministry can exert little control over these poorer classrooms; as for the subsidised schools, any sharpster with a high school diploma can set one up where they please, with the result that more than sixty unprofitable communes offer no educational choice. Some of these education sellers, true products of the consumerist wave, falsify enrolment registers to get more money, charge illegally for materials, advertise non-existent facilities – the scandals mount, but ‘we can’t touch, it’s as if we had no hands,’ one ministry employee moaned.

Although working-class parents often get into debt in order to send their children to schools in the subsidised sector, the results don’t reward the sacrifice. Of students passing the university entrance exams in maths and Spanish in 2005, 58 per cent came from private schools, 19.4 from council schools and only 22.5 from the middle tier. Enter the ‘penguins’. At the start most of them were council pupils, but the movement quickly spread to all classes and parties. The children broadcast the discussions they held with the ministry in real time via borrowed mobiles and laptops to schools all over the country. Their representatives now sit on the advisory council set up to agonise over what is to be done, but their key demands, supported in a September survey by two-thirds of the public – repeal of the LOCE and a federal takeover of education – are unlikely to be met because of the quorum problem.

The rebel children mistrust journalists, and it took some pestering before I was allowed to attend an open-air meeting of their co-ordinating assembly. Rows of shivering teenagers settled on the steps of the Santiago Library to discuss the government’s plea that they should demobilise until the council gives its report. But according to the speeches I heard, this was a ploy to fob them off until the December holidays, when the more experienced leaders would leave school. At this point two panda-eyed girls came over. Daniela and Josefa, both 17, are training younger cadres in their schools to replace them, instructing them in how to conduct meetings, how to defuse partisanship, and how to follow the rules of transparency. Both had been shunted around the system according to the changing fortunes of their parents, leaving them angry about the bribery and personal contacts that condition access to schooling, and critical of the ‘materialism and racism’ encouraged by the market. What about freedom of choice? ‘Oh no, schools choose us.’ The girls feel part of a forgotten constituency. ‘The middle class suffers most,’ Josefa said. ‘The new rich are doing great with capitalism, and the working class is bailed out by state subsidies. We’re the ones who are insecure.’ They worry about a slide among their colleagues towards confrontation for the fun of it. ‘We need at least a card up our sleeve; we need to be strategic.’ (Sure enough, in October, sit-ins, whose purpose was less clear, were forcibly dispersed, and seventy pupils suspended for the year by the all-powerful local authority; Provoste is trying to have this sentence reversed.)

María Huerta, the spokeswoman for the children’s assembly, dealt crisply with the idea that the ministry’s hands are tied. ‘Of course they could change the law. They just lack the will.’ In this she speaks for the ‘real Chile’, as reformers now call it, whose citizens are challenging a government of women to look out of the boardroom into cramped homes, violent marriages, pointless classrooms and grasping hospitals. Further up the scale, a new civil society is coming into being, led by the intelligentsia. On a march against a lucrative municipal building project, the banners said ‘Stop Urban Massacre’ and a woman pushing a bike enthused about strength in unity. She’d never heard the Unidad Popular refrain El pueblo! Unido! Jamás será vencido! Nevertheless, as neighbours gathered in their lovely, threatened plaza, overlooked by a lacework of smog-smudged peaks, to proclaim the ‘new human rights’, the meeting’s blend of fraternity and folk music reminded me of the long-ago fundraisers in Yorkshire.

Not much more can be done to mitigate the inequities of public services without tackling their cause, and forcing constitutional change. It’s instructive, coming from a Britain that is moving in the opposite direction, to observe how hard it is for a withered state to regain essential redistributive and regulatory functions. Yasna Provoste has presented a bill calling for the establishment of a body to regulate education – similar to the one attempting to regulate the abuses of the health system – which would give more scope for quality control and allow heavier sanctions against cowboy entrepreneurs, but it would be a costly, bureaucratic stopgap. The transition’s compromises are coming under strain. When Camilo Escalona, the Socialist Party president, referred to certain corporations as ‘bloodsuckers’, there was an embarrassed shuffling: this, politicians of all parties said, was the unhelpful language of ‘a former time’. Escalona retorted that it was time to cut the hypocrisy and reintroduce risk into the national debate.

Harmony reigned, at least, over the preparations for Chile’s National Day, on 18 September, when in city squares and parks, traditional food, rodeos and hanky-waving cueca dances brought citizens together to celebrate a society of paternal landowners and simple tenant farmers. That society was swept away in the agrarian reform initiated by Frei Montalva, continued by Allende, and completed by Pinochet. If anyone’s feeling stressed – and Chile is the most medicated country in South America – a well-known pharmaceutical company has the solution, flashed up every five minutes on TV: 36 aspirins and a national flag, all for £2!

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Vol. 29 No. 1 · 4 January 2007

Lorna Scott Fox states that the House of Lords ‘cravenly’ sent Augusto Pinochet home as unfit to stand trial (LRB, 14 December 2006). In fact, a panel of Law Lords ruled 3-2 that he had no immunity from prosecution, opening the way to his extradition to Spain. It was Jack Straw who decided to return him to sender.

Jason Webb

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