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A New Iron Lady for Chile

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This December, Chileans are expected to elect their first female president, who also happens to have been the country’s first female minister of defense and a single mother. Michelle Bachelet is well ahead in most polls, though carrying less than 50 percent of the likely vote, making it likely that her victory will ensue from a runoff election. Though well-liked and popular in her homeland, few outside Chile are familiar with her history or her proposals for Latin America’s most dynamic economy.

Bachelet’s success stems from her ability to project her status as a common Chilean, her anti-Pinochet credentials, and her Socialist Party affiliation, whose brand and reputation is in good condition after years of a booming economy under outgoing President Ricardo Lagos. Her gender seems not to have stunted her popularity, though she puts to rest any accusations of being soft on defense with her success in reforming the military, an institution historically dominated by the male elite. As minister of defense, she pushed through reforms to upgrade defense capabilities and include women in the military, making the percentage of female conscripts higher even than in the United States. A pediatrician by training, she also headed Chile’s health ministry until 2002, where she worked to reduce waiting times at public hospitals.

Her proposed economic policies are similar to those of her party colleague, Ricardo Lagos. As socialists, they are both committed to reducing the wide wealth gap and broadening access to education and telecommunications. Bachelet has proposed improvements to the country’s pensions system, famously privatized by the nation’s former secretary of labor and social security, Jose Pinera. Bachelet has said that she will maintain the current sales tax, crack down on tax evasion, and spend carefully the revenues produced by copper exports, which provide almost 15 percent of government revenues.

If Bachelet is in fact elected this Saturday, she will be the first Chilean leader to rule under the newly reformed Chilean constitution, signed by Lagos this September to reduce the entrenched control of the military over the country’s politics. Thus she will have the power to fire the armed-services commanders and summon the military-affiliated National Security Council, instead of the previous system that granted the NSC automatic advisory powers over the president. The reforms also changed the president’s term from six years to four to coincide with Congressional elections, giving Bachelet less time to prove her worth as just the second female ever to be elected president in a South American nation.

More background information at The Latin Americanist

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About Taylor Kirk

  • Outstanding job, Taylor! I would have never had a read on what was going on in Chilean politics had I not read this piece. Concise, informative, interesting stuff.

    One question: why is Bachelet an “Iron Lady,” let alone a new one?

  • Why thank you! Iron lady is what they used to call Thatcher, and since Bachelet will be Chile’s first woman, I connected the two. An alternative and perhaps better explanation is that I suck at making up titles! 😀

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Taylor, I have to second everything that Eric says about your piece. Great, informative job.

    Hopefully, this woman is a real socialist, instead of the phonies who run around in Europe and Israel these days.

  • Right, I’m familiar with Thatcher’s nickname, was curious why you’d apply the same moniker to a Latin American socialist… but I take your point very well. Any time a woman ascends to the highest level of government (assuming Bachelet does in Chile) it’s certainly very very newsworthy and important.

    I said this elsewhere, but I was impressed as hell with Mary Robinson (I believe), the former Prime Minister of Ireland. Super classy, super smart woman with, it would seem, a great degree of integrity on human rights and other issues.

  • troll

    were she a real socialist the CIA would be forced to send out a Pat Robertson hit squad to assassinate her


  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Troll, you may be right. But IMHO, the CIA has enough potatoes on its plate dealing with the Middle East and Central Asia.

    I’m not at all sure that the folks in the CIA have figured out that their biggest threats comes from Russia, and from Europe.

    I only hope that this woman is not some flunky for the EU. For all the trouble they have had getting their act together, Europe is an empire on the rise, and a threat to your country.

    As for Michelle Bachelet, she has already taken the whip and the chair to the Chilean military, something that really works in her favor. If she has been smart, she has a coterie of followers in the Chilean armed forces.

  • One reason I thought Bachelet deserved the iron lady moniker was her history in the Ministry of Defense. I may be wrong, but I think Thatcher was called that first with her activities in the Falklands (Malvinas) War. Not to say that Bachelet is militant in any way, but that both perhaps exhibit characteristics that some might have attributed to males.

  • RJ

    I might be wrong, but wasn’t the last socialist to come to power in Chile a fellow by the name of Allende?

    That didn’t turn out so well… :-/

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    RJ, you wrote,

    “I might be wrong, but wasn’t the last socialist to come to power in Chile a fellow by the name of Allende?”

    Troll already alluded to this in his comment #5. It may not have been a Yank who actually pulled the trigger, but it was the CIA who set things in motion in 1967. One big problem that Allende had was that he had never been the Minister of Defense in Chile.

    In the meantime, we should bear in mind that this lady is not yet the president of Chile, and things can always happen…

  • The current President, Ricardo Lagos, could be called a Socialist. If Bachelet is elected she has said she will carry on many of the same economic policies he did.

  • This story has been chose as a Blogcritics Editor’s Pick for the week, congrats!

    You’ve honored yourself up the right to select your favorite story over the next week for the new column, which will be published on Wednesdays or thereabouts. In any event, please feel free to nominate your fave piece under this week’s column. The time frame will always run between Wednesday (today in this week’s case) and next Tuesday night.

    Thanks and congrats again ~ EB