In the name of the father: two women do battle for Chile’s future

  • Chile’s presidential election takes place in a month’s time.
  • With nine candidates in the running, two women clearly stand out from the pack.
  • Their fathers were friends – one served in the Army, the other in the Air Force.
  • But they chose different sides after President Allende was deposed in Pinochet’s coup.

It could be the screenplay for a Hollywood blockbuster. Two women, both daughters of servicemen, who played together as children on an Air Force base, meet again many years later as opposing candidates in a presidential election. In the intervening period, one of their fathers died, after being tortured in a center run by the other father, following a bloody coup d’état.

Life is sometimes stranger than fiction. In a month’s time, on November 17, the Chilean electorate will have to choose between two women who could not be more different, even though they started out following very similar paths.

On the left is Michelle Bachelet, aged 62, who was president of Chile from 2006 to 2010. Ms. Bachelet is enjoying record levels of popularity. Her father, Alberto Bachelet, was an Air Force officer who remained loyal to the Socialist president, Salvador Allende, while he was in power and, above all, following the Pinochet coup. It was because he held a position of responsibility under President Allende, as head of an organization charged with tackling the black market, that he was arrested in the days following the overthrow of the government on September 11, 1973. He died of a heart attack on 12 March 1974, after being tortured at the Chilean Air Force Academy.

Michelle Bachelet was working at that time as an undercover courier for the socialist resistance movement against the Pinochet regime. She too was arrested, held in secret detention and tortured. She later went into exile with her mother.

On the right is Evelyn Matthei, two years younger than Ms. Bachelet. It was her brother who was in the same class at school as Michelle when both their families were living on the Antofagasta Air Force base, in northern Chile near the Atacama Desert.

At that time, Fernando Matthei, himself naturally rather reserved, formed a friendship with the lively and talkative Alberto Bachelet. As a child, Michelle knew him as her friends’ father, and called him ‘Uncle Fernando’. He was posted to London in 1972; his daughter went with him. After the Pinochet coup, Matthei opted to support the dictatorship. He returned to Chile in January 1974 and became Director of the Air Force Academy, where Michelle’s father was to die.

More than 40 years after the fall of Allende, Michelle Bachelet wants to look to the future. “There was a time when I was full of pain and rage. Everything was very polarized. But many years have gone by, and now I want to understand what happened to my country and to make sure that it can never happen again.”

Evelyn Matthei denies as best she can having been on the ‘other side’. “In 1973, I was 19 years old and a student in London.” She entered politics only after the dictatorship had ended. But she campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote for Pinochet in the 1988 referendum, and for his return to Chile after his arrest in London in 1998. In an interview a year later, she spoke of her “profound respect and admiration for General Pinochet. I have never known anyone, other than the Holy Father, who has inspired me with such respect.”

Today, she prefers to stress the need for reconciliation between the ‘two Chiles’ and to speak out against violations of human rights. Above all, she focuses on progress made under the current president, Sebastian Piñera, also from the right. “Looking back, we can be proud. No other South American country has made as much progress as Chile – lowering unemployment, increasing earnings, reducing poverty and practically eliminating extreme poverty. We are on track to become a fully developed nation.”

But while Chile’s development is advancing fast, the country is still torn apart by huge inequalities. There is a vigorous revolt under way by students, who have been calling for free, high-quality education at all levels since 2011, in a country where young people and their parents incur massive debts in order to gain access to higher education. Faced with this, Ms. Bachelet’s manifesto includes a proposal for a significant fiscal reform, designed to raise $8 billion to be dedicated almost entirely to reforming the education system, to provide free higher education within six years. She also wants to reform the constitution – a Pinochet legacy – to address injustices in the electoral system and to introduce some flexibility into legislation which prohibits abortion under any circumstances.

While the coalition supporting her is not very popular, Ms. Bachelet herself is loved by many Chileans, who see in her comforting, maternal figure and smiling face the incarnation of a nation which has suffered but which has been able to rise again, recover its dignity and now wants to strengthen social cohesion.

As for Ms. Matthei, she is going through a difficult period. She was chosen as the candidate for the right only after three other candidates were set aside or had withdrawn. Her campaign is, therefore, rather last-minute, and she is mainly focusing on continuity.


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