Bachelet, A Subtle Force
Friday, March 10, 2006; 12:00 AM
Michelle Bachelet is many things: socialist, agnostic, single mother, torture victim, former political exile and now Chile's first woman president. But as dramatic as these might sound, it is her subtler, more elusive qualities that best explain what kind of leader she will be for Latin America's most prosperous nation.
Politically, Bachelet represents continuity. With her inauguration this weekend, Concertación, Chile's center-left coalition, will enter its 17th year in power with its fourth democratically elected president since Gen. Augusto Pinochet's ouster. This is not the stuff of a destabilizing socialist revolution that keeps ideologues in Washington awake at night.
While her victory in a male-dominated society is remarkable, Bachelet has not been at the vanguard of a feminist movement struggling to break ground. More accurately, she has been at the forefront of a process of democratization where the entire society has become more open. From 2000 to 2003, the years during which she became minister of health and then of defense, women appointees to ministerial positions increased four percentage points to 17 percent of all cabinet-level positions. Far from fighting her appointment as minister of defense, Chileans -- civilians and military alike -- welcomed it.
Bachelet's journey to the defense ministry is extraordinary because of her deep and complicated connection to the institution. Her father, Gen. Alberto Bachelet of the Chilean air force, died after being tortured under Pinochet's regime in 1974. The following year Bachelet and her mother were also detained, tortured and later forced to live in exile.
Despite "a lot of pain in the country and a lot of personal pain," she told Washington Post reporters three years ago, she was able to find some sort of reconciliation for herself. She decided to do more to "build a bridge ... to find some common meeting ground and goals for reconnection."
And so she did. In 1995, 16 years after returning from exile to finish medical school and become a pediatrician, and five years after Chile's return to democracy, Bachelet became concerned that progress in establishing civilian control of the military was faltering.
Convinced that the civilian leadership needed to become much more familiar with defense issues, she began an advanced course of study on military strategy at the National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies (ANEPE) in Chile. Graduating at the top of her class, Bachelet in 1997 became the first Chilean woman to earn a scholarship to attend the Inter-American Defense College in Washington. After her return she served as an adviser to the ministry of defense.
By the time President Ricardo Lagos named Bachelet minister of defense in 2002, she had already earned the respect of the top brass. With a leadership style born out of "sincere collaboration and hard work," retired Col. Arturo Contreras Polgatti said Bachelet solidified her position with a very pragmatic and nonideological approach to problems. "She did not impose anything ... but was able to involve the (military) institutions in the processes for change," said Polgatti, who was then ANEPE's assistant director.
During her tenure, Bachelet continued modernizing the armed forces and, most importantly, shifted them further away from a domestic and repressive mission toward an international peacekeeping one. In 2003, Chile and Argentina began a joint peacekeeping operation in Cyprus. By 2004 Chile began its largest deployment abroad, this time to Haiti in a multilateral effort that includes forces from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Among the field of new Latin American presidents assuming office this year, there is no question that Chile's new leader stands out. But despite the many labels that always seem to accompany her name -- socialist, single mother, victim -- it is how she has transcended them that makes her a more unique, if perhaps a less conspicuous, leader. With a humility and warmth that strikes anyone who meets her, Bachelet was able to figuratively disarm and help transform a military institution once known as one of the most ruthless and undemocratic in the Americas.
As president, Bachelet would do well to mend Chile's strained relations with its northern neighbors, Bolivia and Peru. Such an effort could aid energy integration and spread Chilean prosperity and stability in the region. But that seems likely to depend on whether her neighbors are as ready, as her country was, to allow her subtler touch be a successful one.