A triumph in Chile

Print edition : February 10, 2006

Michelle Bachelet with outgoing President Ricardo Lagos in Santiago. - RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP

The election of Michelle Bachelet as the first woman President of Chile reflects the general trend in Latin America to back the Left.

THE convincing victory of the Centre-Left candidate, Michelle Bachelet, in the second round of the Chilean presidential election on January 14, is yet another sign of the consolidation of progressive forces on the American continent. Her victory follows on the heels of the electoral sweep by the Left in neighbouring Bolivia. Bachelet will now become Chile's first woman President and the second elected President in Latin American history.

Michelle Bachelet, representing the Socialist-Christian Democratic Concertacion coalition, which has been in power for the last 15 years, won with 53.5 per cent of the votes polled. Her opponent, the multimillionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera of the right-wing National Renovation Party, was quick to concede defeat.

In a way, Michelle Bachelet's victory was a foregone conclusion: In the first round of the election in early December, she had won around 46 per cent of the vote. The candidate of the united Communist parties, Tomas Hirsch, had won around 6 per cent. Though the Communist parties have serious differences with the Concertacion on major policy issues, their votes would never have gone to a candidate of the Right.

The right-wing parties are still unapologetic about the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Coincidentally, as Bachelet gets ready to take the oath of office, the Pinochet trial in Chilean courts may enter a decisive phase. General Pinochet has been stripped of virtually all his immunities. Despite claims of senility and ill health, Washington's favourite dictator may still spend his last days in a prison cell. Besides the innumerable cases regarding torture, he is also being investigated for financial irregularities and corruption during his long stint as president. Millions of dollars belonging to him and his family was belatedly discovered in a U.S. bank. The Bush administration has professed ignorance about its origin despite evidence in court indicating that the money was received as kickbacks from U.S. defence contractors and companies.

Many, including the new President, have first-hand experience of the brutalities inflicted by the military junta headed by Pinochet. Michelle Bachelet's father Alberto, an air force commander, was arrested after the coup against the Socialist President Salvadore Allende. He died as a result of the torture he underwent in prison in the early 1970s. Michelle and her mother were also incarcerated after the coup. They were later allowed to go into exile. Michelle studied medicine in Communist East Germany, which, along with Cuba and the Soviet Union, accepted many Chilean political exiles. She returned to Chile and started practicing medicine after the military government granted a general amnesty.

Michelle Bachelet renewed her links with the Socialist party and slowly worked her way up the ranks. In 1996, she enrolled for a programme in strategic studies at the National War College in the U.S. In a strongly Catholic country, Michelle Bachelet, a divorcee, is now a single mother with three children. She is also a confirmed atheist. At a victory rally in Santiago, she said that though she was a "victim of hatred" she had dedicated the rest of her life to "reversing hatred".

Supporters of Michelle Bachelet celebrate her victory in Santiago.-JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

Under President Ricardo Lagos, the first Socialist Party nominee to be elected President, she worked as Health Minster and then as Defence Minister. She was the first woman to hold the Defence portfolio in Chile. It is well known that Chile's top military brass continues to owe allegiance to Pinochet and his cronies. Many of them owe their present position to the former dictator. As Defence Minister, Michelle Bachelet was careful not to tread on the toes of the influential military which had once incarcerated her and her family.

Since Pinochet relinquished his grip on total power in the late 1980s, the Socialist party has been careful about its dealings with the military. The radicalism that characterised the Socialist party of Allende in the 1960s and 1970s is now a thing of the past. The party has instead transformed itself over the years into a social-democratic outfit. Chile under Concertacion rule was generally close to the U.S. on trade and foreign policy issues. However, to the credit of the Chilean government, it refused to be browbeaten by Washington into supporting the invasion of Iraq.

The "neoliberal" policies first initiated by the Pinochet regime have continued. Today, Chile is touted as a model of development by international financial institutions. The results of recent elections in Latin American countries have been a collective vote of no confidence in "globalisation". The Chilean economy is the strongest in the region but there are some signs of a downturn. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening and the unemployment rate is growing. Despite Chile's 5.5 per cent growth rate, unemployment has remained at 8 per cent. The richest 10 per cent of the population controls 47 per cent of the country's wealth.

Michelle Bachelet's election could be an important milestone for Chilean women. Divorce laws were only approved in 2004. Michelle Bachelet has pledged not only to promote women's rights but also to work for all marginalised sectors of Chilean society. She has promised to create one million new jobs and reform the health and pension systems. Chile's economy has been doing well mainly because of high copper prices and a healthy trade balance. Copper is one of Chile's major exports. On the campaign trail, Bachelet promised to put a break on the rampant privatisation of state enterprises and impose royalties on foreign firms controlling the Chilean copper industry.

On foreign policy, it is highly unlikely that Michelle Bachelet will lead Chile into the anti-U.S. group of Latin American nations led by Venezuela. She has said that she respects the world-view of leaders such as Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, and Evo Morales, the new President of Bolivia but added that there is "no need to transform Latin America into a cold war, where some are good and others bad". Under Michelle Bachelet, Chile will continue to support Washington's plan of creating a hemispheric free trade agreement. Countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay strongly oppose this move and have proposed a free trade agreement among South American states, excluding the U.S.

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