July 12, 2004
Chilean torture victim now rising political star
Knight Ridder News Service
SANTIAGO, Chile - The feared Chilean military once tortured Michelle Bachelet. Now it answers to her. She's South America's first female defense minister, and if opinion polls are on target, Chileans may someday call her president.
Bachelet, 52, a pediatrician by training, is a rising star in the Socialist Party, which leads Chile's center-left coalition government. And her life story is part of her appeal.
Bachelet and her mother were prisoners in Villa Grimaldi, a notorious detention camp where victims of the country's right-wing dictatorship were taken for torture.
Her only crime was being related to her father. Alberto Bachelet was an air force general in the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, which was toppled in a U.S.-backed coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet on Sept. 11, 1973. Alberto Bachelet was tortured at the air force academy and died in a jail cell in March 1974.
His wife and daughter were tortured, too. According to Michelle Bachelet, they were beaten while blindfolded, although she has never gone into details.
With her mother, Angela Jeria, she fled into exile in Australia in 1975. Her mother eventually settled in the United States; she in what was then West Germany.
Today, Chile's Socialist Party is back in power. And Bachelet, a single mother of a son and two daughters, is an unlikely defense minister in a country that remains the most solid U.S. ally in South America.
Since moving from health minister to the defense portfolio in 2002, Bachelet has improved civilian relations with the military and served as an example of forgiveness in a nation still haunted by Pinochet's 17 years of dictatorial rule.
''I never thought of revenge. It doesn't sit with me, with my personality. I think what is important to me is that we have a full democracy, that there are normal relations between civilians and the military,'' she said in an interview at the Defense Ministry.
She studied at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C., in 1997 after earning a master's degree in military science from Chile's Army War College in Santiago.
Efforts to try Pinochet and his generals for mass killings committed in the 1970s and 1980s continue in Chile, and it's not uncommon for torturers and the tortured to bump into each other on the streets. The man who tortured Bachelet in the 1970s now lives in her Santiago high-rise building. He exits the elevator when she gets on.
Many expected Bachelet's history to create tension within the military, but instead her exuberance has won over doubters.
''She has pushed reconciliation and has achieved good relations with the military,'' said Raul Sohr, a security analyst and director of the private Institute for Strategy and International Security in Santiago.
Bachelet would like to become the first female president of the conservative Andean nation, but the decision to run next year isn't hers to make.
''After October, the coalition to which I belong will define candidates and the procedures and mechanisms for their election,'' she said.
A June 27 poll taken by the conservative daily newspaper El Mercurio and polling company Opina S.A. shows Bachelet in a statistical tie with her likely would-be rival, conservative Santiago Mayor Joaquin Lavin.
Her closest rival within the ruling center-left coalition is also a woman, Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear.
Although socialists run Chile, it remains a deeply conservative country. It wasn't until this year that it passed a law allowing divorce. Despite their conservative family values and the machismo common in Latin America, Chileans appear ready for a female president.
''It can only be Chileans who have the final word in this respect, but polls show that apparently there has been a strong change in this area,'' Bachelet said, referring to a December 2003 survey by Fundacion Chile 21, a left-leaning think tank. ``Just a few years ago, this frankly would have been improbable.''
Fundacion Chile 21's survey found that 77 percent of Chileans felt the current crop of female politicians was qualified to become president, and 58 percent said the country was prepared to accept a female president. The nationwide poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.