Opposition Threatens to Impeach Ministers in Wake of Copper Scandal
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ A financial scandal at Chile’s largest state-owned company was growing into a major political battle Friday, with President Patricio Aylwin’s right-wing opponents announcing they would seek to impeach two of his Cabinet ministers.
The scandal has tarnished the image of the highly popular and respected Aylwin government in its final days. The 75-year-old president has been widely praised for his handling of Chile’s return to democracy since the long military rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990.
It’s unlikely the Chamber of Deputies, controlled by the president’s center-left coalition, would actually vote to impeach the two ministers, who have not been charged with any wrongdoing.
But the move by the two main opposition parties, National Renewal and the Independent National Unity, was seen as an attempt to embarrass Aylwin and his successor, Eduardo Frei, who takes office March 11.
Frei, the candidate of Aylwin’s coalition, won a landslide victory in last December’s election.
The crisis began two weeks ago when CODELCO, the state-owned copper company, announced it had lost up to $200 million as the result of ″deceitful operations″ by its chief broker in the world futures metal market, Juan Pablo Davila.
Davila was fired and three top executives of the company’s sales division resigned.
The government, police and a specially appointed judge are conducting separate investigations, along with audits ordered by CODELCO.
On Friday, leaders of the two main opposition parties said they would move to initiate impeachment proceedings against Treasury Minister Alejandreo Foxley and Mining Minister Alejandro Hales.
Although neither has been implicated in the scandal, both sit on CODELCO’s board of directors and therefore bear a political responsibility in the crisis, the opposition claimed.
Foxley and Hales said Friday they are prepared to face the impeachments, should they come. The lower house would have to approve the impeachment charges, which then would go to the Senate for trial.
″No one in this government will dodge his political responsibilities,″ said Foxley, who has won widespread praise, even from the opposition, for his handling of the economy during the last four years.
According to the constitution, ministers can be held politically accountable up to six months after leaving their Cabinet posts. But an impeachment after leaving office would have little practical effect, other than political embarrassment.
Pro-government politicians accused the opposition of seeking to politicize the crisis to gain support for their long-standing demand that CODELCO be sold to private investors.
″They are not really interested in the nation’s patrimony,″ said Gutenberg Martinez, president of Aylwin’s centrist Christian Democratic Party. ″They’re just trying to promote their efforts for the privatization of CODELCO.″
The government opposes the privatization. CODELCO is Chile’s biggest single source of hard currency, earning $3 billion a year through copper sales.