By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 12, 2006
VALPARAISO, Chile, March 11 -- Vowing to capitalize on the surging spirit of equal opportunity that helped vault her into Chile's presidency, Michelle Bachelet on Saturday took control of a country eager to shed its dictatorial past and bolster its economic development.
Bachelet, 54, inherits a comfortable budget surplus and extensive international trade relations, but also persistent inequalities that she attributes to discrimination on the basis of class, sex and geography. By aiming to lift those barriers to prosperity, Bachelet hopes to build on outgoing President Ricardo Lagos's goal of reaching developed-country status by 2010, the final year of her term.
"The priority for my government is that there will be development for everyone, equally," said Bachelet, the first woman in South America to be elected head of state without replacing a deceased or disabled husband. "Chile will not be complete if its parts do not develop harmoniously together."
Bachelet is separated and a mother of three whose compassionate persona stands in contrast to the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990 and is accused of killing and torturing thousands. Bachelet was imprisoned and tortured during Pinochet's rule before being forced into exile in Europe and Australia in 1975.
Since being elected in January, she has shown a willingness to institute sweeping changes throughout Chile's governing class. She has supported a 50 percent quota for female hires throughout much of the public sector and has said she would explore the idea of forcing political parties to include a set percentage of women on their electoral tickets.
Her first act as president Saturday was to swear in a cabinet with 10 men and 10 women, almost three-quarters of whom were educated abroad, mostly in the United States and Europe. While some of the South American leaders who attended the inaugural ceremony -- particularly President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia -- have advocated more economic independence from international capitalism, Bachelet's team members are emphatic backers of the globalized, free-market policies that Chile has supported for decades.
"That kind of economic thinking is so ingrained in Chile that abandoning it would be kind of like the Vatican abandoning Catholicism," said Armen Kouyoumdjian, a country-risk strategist in Valparaiso. "Bachelet might be a former political prisoner, but in Chile the former revolutionaries today wear three-piece suits."
Bachelet's version of socialism reflects that of Lagos, who left office Saturday with an approval rating of 75 percent. He signed free-trade agreements with countries around the world, including the United States, and sought to significantly increase social spending in such areas as education and health care. Bachelet is the fourth president from a ruling coalition that has dominated politics here since Pinochet left office. During that time, the number of Chileans living in poverty has been cut in half.
Even so, almost one-fifth of the country lives below the poverty line, and social mobility remains dependent on family history and place of birth. Some of Bachelet's appointees said they hoped to apply lessons they learned abroad to their new jobs, working to restore what they value in Chilean society and trying to change what they do not.
"We learned things by living in other countries and by seeing how things are sometimes done differently," said Karen Poniachik, 40, who lived in New York for more than a decade before becoming minister of mining. "And I think that has an impact on how we will implement public policy."
Poniachik said one of the first things she will change as a member of Bachelet's cabinet is how people apply for jobs in the companies she will now oversee as chief of the country's most profitable business sector. Currently, she said, applicants must affix photos to resumes and list information including their ages, family histories and marital status. All of that information, she said, could unjustly affect a job prospect's chances.
"That's something I noticed that was done differently in the U.S., and it's an example of the ways we can use our experiences from abroad here," Poniachik said.
Bachelet lived in suburban Washington as a child before living in Australia and East Germany as an exile and active campaigner against the Pinochet government's policies. She returned to Chile in 1979, working as a pediatrician. Lagos named her as his health minister in 2000, then made her Latin America's first female defense minister in 2002.
"She's a strong woman, and with her becoming president it shows everyone here that a woman is just as capable as a man," said Consuelo Fernandez, 29, one of thousands celebrating Bachelet's victory in the streets of the capital, Santiago, this weekend. "I think for that reason, discrimination will improve under her and Chile can take another step forward."
Chile didn't legalize divorce until 2004, and it has the lowest percentage of women in the work force of any Latin American country, two reasons for its reputation as one of the most culturally conservative countries in Latin America. Bachelet's life has run counter to the traditions of strait-laced Chile at almost every turn. She has had children from different relationships, and in a predominantly Catholic country, she is unapologetically agnostic.
The emerging social changes that Bachelet represents have coincided with the declining influence of Pinochet, who faces court charges of corruption, tax evasion and human rights abuses. Although Chilean society was bitterly polarized in the years following his rule, the gaps in political thought have narrowed in recent years. During the election, Bachelet's conservative opponent -- multimillionaire Sebastian Piñera -- joined her in condemning Pinochet's legacy and campaigned for many of the same reforms.
"Their programs were actually very similar, so to describe this as the start of a completely new era is a bit of an exaggeration," said Antonio Horvath, a senator from the opposition National Renovation Party.
Yet the emotion shown by thousands who gathered in the streets of Valparaiso and Santiago on Saturday showed that a lot of people want to believe Bachelet's election represents a turning point. Women sobbed as they watched her wave from a convertible, men screamed, "We love you, Michelle," at her inauguration ceremony and schoolgirls leaned over barrier ropes to get a closer look at their new leader.
"I'm sensing in the street a sort of revolution, and I'm sorry that I didn't do a poll to measure it," said Marta Lagos, head of the polling firm, Mori Chile. "I was at a restaurant recently with my husband, and the waitress gave me the check -- she said it 'wasn't his anymore.' That might seem like a trivial thing, but you have to wonder if these are the kinds of things that make important changes in a society."