Mum set to shatter Chile's political traditions

Michelle Bachelet was a 23-year-old medical student in Chile when a gang of military men broke into her house and kidnapped her and her mother, Angela Jeria. It was January 1975, and the Chilean secret police officers were crushing protests and eliminating civilians on the orders of military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Bachelet, a popular and politically active student, was one of thousands accused of being an ‘enemy’’ of the new regime. ‘They put tape and dark glasses over our eyes,’’ she recounts.
‘They tortured me ... But they did not put me on the parillada [metal table used to torture prisoners with electricity].’’ In a nearby room, her mother was similarly tortured.

‘It was 30 days of total fear,’’ explains Elizabeth Lira, an expert on Chilean human rights. ‘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 family connections with top military officials, both women were spared death and instead exiled to Australia. Within five years, Bachelet returned to Chile and started working as a clandestine human rights activist.

Today she is the most admired politician in the country and on the brink of being elected president on December 11. Current polls show she has a comfortable 25-point lead over her nearest rival.

If elected, this single mother of three will shatter centuries of political traditions in Chile and South America. Bachelet would be the first woman elected president of a major South American nation. ‘People see I am a mother and head of a household. Today in Chile, one-third of households are run by women. They wake up, take the children to school, go to work,’’ she says. ‘To them I am hope.’‘

Bachelet’s candidacy has already catapulted women’s health and job issues to the forefront of the political stage. Her right-wing opponent, Joaquin Lavin, has proposed that housewives be given pensions when they retire at 65, and Santiago is now awash with photos of female candidates hopping on to the bandwagon.

‘She is awakening the idea that we need new style of politics, not confrontational,” says Teresa Boj Jonas, a nutritionist who worked under Bachelet in the health ministry. ‘She generates confidence.”

But that steely confidence was honed by one of the continent’s most brutal governments, the 1973-1990 military regime led by Pinochet, which killed about 3 000 Chilean civilians. In many cases their bodies were dropped from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean.

One of the ‘disappeared’’ was Bachelet’s then boyfriend, Jamie Lopez, who was tortured until he revealed the names of guerrillas fighting in the resistance against the dictatorship. Bachelet did not crack under torture. She kept her secrets and emerged, fortified, from the experience. From the moment she was exiled in 1975, she fought for democracy.

‘I noticed that one of the barriers to full democracy was the fault of understanding between the military world and the civilian world,’’ says Bachelet. ‘They spoke different languages. I wanted to help with that. I could be a bridge between those two worlds.’‘

Her hard work led to a surprise government job. In 2002, she was named minister of defence. To the arch- conservative and Catholic military, the appointment was a stark reminder that the authoritarian ways of Pinochet had ended. Never had a woman held that post in South America. Now she was commanding the same military that had ordered the deaths of her father, boyfriend and friends.

As she travelled around Chile in her new role, crowds gathered to get a glimpse of this new celebrity. Everywhere she stopped, citizens groped for a view and a chance to meet this gregarious minister. ‘It was like travelling with a rock star,’’ jokes Jeria.

As her popularity soared, a group of senators invited her to a secret meeting. Was she interested in the party’s nomination? Did she realise that thousands of citizens were asking them to give her the candidacy? Then one senator asked: ‘What do you want in life?’‘

‘Very simple. To walk along the beach, holding the hand of my lover,’’ she said. The men looked at each other, stunned. The most highly valued politician in Chile was putting politics below her personal goals of happiness. From that moment, the traditional rules of politics in Chile were shattered. Not only was a single mum on the path to take power in one of South America’s most macho societies, but she was doing it without the usual negative attacks that politicians use.

‘She is a great team leader,’’ says Jeria. ‘Chilean men love her charisma ... For Chilean women she is a model of what is possible.’‘

Those possibilities are being felt in neighbouring nations. In recent Senate elections in Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the first lady, swept into office. And now, in Peru, former MP Lourdes Flores is leading polls in the race for next year’s presidential elections.—

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