SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–To many Chileans the idea of quotas for female cabinet members is just the latest in a stunning turn of political events in this usually staid, conservative nation of 15 million.
"Fifty percent of my cabinet will be women," Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet promised a crowd of supporters last week. "We are going to set a standard for Latin America."
Chileans lived, and too many died, under a dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Since then, however, the return to civilian rule has left the country far more stable than many of its South American neighbors. Now the relatively staid nation may be on the verge of making history by electing a female president.
Current polls on the Dec. 11 election show Michelle Bachelet, 54, the country’s minister of defense from 2002 to 2004, with a staggering 24 percentage-point lead on her closest rival.
Her nearest competitor, Joaquin Lavin, a right-wing conservative Catholic, has been floundering since the beginning of the campaign. Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire businessman, is pouring millions into a last-minute campaign to oust Bachelet. Many analysts in Chile, however, say his money came too late.
Spirit of Inclusion
In a country where politics are dominated by traditional party structures and hostilities, supporters say they like the refreshing spirit of inclusion conveyed by Bachelet, a single mother with three children.
"Michelle makes you feel like we did it together," said Teresa Boj Jonas, a nutritionist who worked for the candidate when Bachelet was the country’s health minister, the post she held from 2000 to 2002. "The other day I went to a birthday party with 15 women and 10 men. They were all talking about Michelle Bachelet and her magic. She is awakening the idea that we need a new style of politics, not confrontational. She generates confidence."
Bachelet’s national star power became evident in 2002. Then, as the region’s first female defense minister, she drew curious crowds who wound up liking the woman who had survived the Pinochet regime brutalities and wanted to move the country forward.
During the campaign, Bachelet has maintained a sense of balance. In February she coordinated with her main opponent to plan simultaneous vacations so both could take a break from the race for two weeks. Until just the last month she has refused to campaign on weekends and is often seen at the supermarket or rushing to drop her children at school.
"People see me, they look at the coherence and (that) I am a mother, head of household," Bachelet told Women’s eNews in an interview at her campaign headquarters in a small two-story house tucked on a narrow street in the center of Santiago, the capital of Chile. "Today in Chile, one-third of households are run by women, we wake up, get the children ready and go to work. To them I am hope."
Story of Survival
That Bachelet is alive and able to run for office is a dramatic story of survival.
While socialist President Salvador Allende was in office, the U.S. government under Richard Nixon aided a military coup against him. After several attempts, the military took over on Sept. 11, 1973, and immediately began executing political and social activists.
In January 1975 Bachelet was arrested by a Chilean military squad. As a member of the outlawed Socialist Party, Bachelet was part of an underground resistance and one of thousands accused of being an enemy of the military government led by Army General Augusto Pinochet.
Bachelet found herself under surveillance and then the military sought to eliminate her.
But first the torture.
"It was horrifying," said Elizabeth Lira, a leading Chilean academic who has studied and researched human rights abuses in Chile. "You were arrested by 10 men, heavily armed. They smacked you, beat you, then half dressed in the middle of the night they threw you into a vehicle. Then you were packed into cells and trapped in a very small space."
"Our room had bars on the window," said Bachelet. "We had four or five bunks, and we were eight women. The beds were full, sometimes two women slept together, we didn’t all fit . . . We were blindfolded all day, we took them off, but obviously when the guards arrived we lowered the blindfolds. If not, they beat us."
Father Accused of Helping Allende
The 1973-1990 Pinochet government killed approximately 3,000 Chileans. Many of them, including Bachelet’s boyfriend, simply "disappeared" and their bodies have never been located.
Bachelet’s father Alberto, a general in the Chilean Air Force, was accused of working with the socialist Allende government. He was tortured by his colleagues until his heart collapsed. He died in a public prison cell.
Bachelet’s mother, Angela Jeria, was kidnapped together with her daughter and locked in a cage for five days without food. Their cellmates were raped by guards.
"You can’t just say that she was held for 30 days. It was 30 days of total fear," said Lira. "Rape was frequent. Plus the punches, sexual abuse, denigration. They had very long interrogations and the use of electric current was common. You had to listen to the others being tortured."
Thanks to their family connections to top military officials, Bachelet and her mother were spared death. Instead they were beaten, then exiled to Australia with orders not to re-enter Chile. Bachelet, ever the rebel, quickly helped organize Socialist Party resistance groups and secretly planned her return to Chile.
Specializes in Traumatized Children
From Australia, Bachelet moved to East Germany, where she helped rebuild the Chilean Socialist party.
The Pinochet regime, meanwhile, was assassinating and murdering its enemies, even some living in Europe.
Bachelet and her mother organized protests against the military junta that drew media attention and put pressure on the regime. "We were more dangerous outside than inside Chile," remembered Angela, Bachelet’s mother.
In 1979, the military surprised them and let them return.
By then Bachelet was a pediatrician who specialized in trauma to children who live under dictatorships or whose parents have been kidnapped. Her medical work drew national attention and within five years she was named minister of health, where she reworked the country’s policies to acknowledge AIDS and prenatal child care as priorities.
Bachelet also studied military history. She took courses, and in 1997 won a scholarship to to study at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C.
Building on that, Bachelet, in 2002, became the first woman in South America to serve as minister of defense; a surprising development for an army that had just years earlier held her captive and murdered her father along with allies. It was a sign to the military: Watch Out!
"It is easy to be so mad you can’t even talk to the military," said Lira, the professor. "But to make them realize they have chosen the wrong path! That is what Michelle Bachelet has done with her past."
Jonathan Franklin, originally from Lincoln, Mass., has lived and worked in Santiago, Chile since 1995. He currently writes for many publications including The Guardian (London), Rolling Stone (France) and GQ (Italy). He can be reached at [email protected].
For more information:
Who Is Michelle Bachelet?
Widows in Chile Seek Prosecution for Missing Kin: