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From torture victim to president.

Meet Michelle Bachelet, the new socialist president of Chile, and the first woman to head that country. She embodies Chile's transformation from the days of the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Her father was in the military but supported Socialist President Salvador Allende. For this, he paid a price when Pinochet overthrew Allende on September 11, 1973.

"My father was an air force general," she told The Progressive while still on the campaign trail. "The same day of the military coup he was arrested and accused of treason for collaborating with Salvador Allende's government. He died in 1974 of a heart attack after being tortured."

Bachelet calls the years after the coup "the most difficult period of my life." Resisting Pinochet, she secretly worked with the Socialist Youth while a medical student. But Pinochet's secret police caught up with her.

"Two secret agents abducted me and my mother and took us blindfolded to Villa Grimaldi, the dictatorship's main torture centre," she recounts. "There they separated us, and we were interrogated and abused physically."

Lucrecia Brito shared the cramped cell with Bachelet. "We could hear the screams from the torture chamber opposite our cell," Brito tells me. "She remained calm and tried to help us with her medical skills, singing with us in the afternoons, even though it annoyed our guards. They kept telling her that if she didn't collaborate, they would kill her mother, but she never broke down."

Thanks to family connections, Bachelet and her mother were released within months and exiled to Australia and, later, East Germany, only to return to Chile in 1979, despite their fear of arrest, to try to help other torture victims.

Now, Bachelet, a fifty-four-year-old former pediatrician, single mother of three, and lifelong Socialist Party member, will sit in Allende's old spot while Pinochet, ninety and facing corruption charges, remains under house arrest.

"Bachelet is like Mandela," says Hdctor Soto, editor of the influential Chilean magazine Capital. "Her family's military history and tragic leftist past made her the only person who could reconcile the civilians and the military."

Bachelet rose through the ranks of the Socialist Party after the return of democracy. As homage to her father, she joined Chile's most prestigious military academy, where she combined her studies with part-time work at the ministry of health. She was top of her class, winning a scholarship in 1997 to study at the InterAmerican Defense College in Washington, D.C. In 2000, she became health minister. Two years later, she was minister of defense. She played a key role in the historic 2003 declaration by General Juan Emilio Cheyre, head of the army, that "never again" would the military subvert democracy in Chile.

Still, Bachelet does not think justice has yet been done in her country. "Chile is now on the right path but much more needs to be done, especially by civilians who collaborated with the dictatorship," she says. She also wants them to vow to "never again support anyone attacking democracy."

She adamantly opposes amnesty, vowing: "I will never support any law that would pardon military personnel accused of committing human rights abuses during the dictatorship."

Bachelet's candidacy caught many by surprise in this staunchly Catholic, conservative nation. Divorced with three children, one out of wedlock, Bachelet prepares breakfast for her thirteen-year-old daughter and takes her to school before starting her day.

Bachelet didn't seek out the presidency, but since she was a popular figure in the cabinet of Ricardo Lagos, and he was term-limited, a group of senators invited her to a secret meeting in a Santiago apartment to see if she was interested in the party nomination. At one point a senator asked what she wanted in life. "Do you know my dream?" she answered. "Very simple. To walk along the beach holding hands with my lover," she told the stunned men, according to Ricardo Solari, her communications director.

Bachelet held many citizen gatherings before announcing her proposals, which called for a redistribution of resources to the underprivileged, especially pensioners.

"I think I can do politics differently because I'm a woman," she says. "People expect women to be more ethical and caring than men, even though the drawback is that the opposition is subtly exploiting Chile's profound macho culture by accusing me daily of lacking character and being a weak decision-maker."

Bachelet's victory reflects not only the warmth of her personality but also the country's booming economy and Lagos's popularity. Unlike Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lagos kept the economy open to the free market and muted any criticism of Washington. Bachelet has vowed to continue along Lagos's path, though with more of an orientation toward women and the poor.

Unwilling to take on Bush or those in Chile who have benefited from the free market, she defends a light version of Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas initiative. But she blends laissez-faire with government intervention.

"We need to balance political stability, economic growth, and successful social policies," she said. "This also implies reducing inequality by advancing in our education, providing greater government assistance, and encouraging entrepreneurship," adding that the well-being of the people is a prerequisite to achieve greater development.

In a scene almost out of an Ariel Dorfman play, Bachelet tells of an encounter she had that put her own experiences--and those of her country--in sharp relief.

"One day I was walking with my mother and we bumped into" one of her torturers, she says. "We identified ourselves, and what we saw next was a human being who was crying and lacked the courage to look in our eyes. A completely diminished character carrying a bag filled with guilt."

Alfonso Daniels is a freelance journalist based in London. He has written on South America for such British papers as The Observer, The Guardian, and The Sunday Telegraph.
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Title Annotation:Michelle Bachelet
Author:Daniels, Alfonso
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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