By Karen Calabria
SANTIAGO, CHILE -- Self-professed agnostic. Divorced mother of three. Amateur folksinger.
That’s hardly a recipe for political success in a country as devoutly religious and socially conservative as Chile.
But the South American nation’s first democratically elected female president, Dr. Michelle Bachelet, has never shied away from contradictions. If anything, she has created her legacy from them.
“We’ve opened the windows and doors to let ordinary people in, to encourage them to participate,” Bachelet told the New York Times, reflecting on the fractured aspects of her past that coalesced to win her the Chilean presidency.
She’s a political prisoner turned public servant who, as a government minister and Chile’s president, worked to establish a stable democracy during the transition from the brutal military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
She’s a physician — an epidemiologist and pediatrician — with a facility for healing equal to, if not surpassed by, her adeptness as a military strategist. She studied military strategy at the National Academy for Strategic and Policy Studies in Chile and at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington. In her first attempt to gain the highest political office, she emerged from the race as president, the first woman elected president of Chile.
And, at just 59 years of age, Bachelet is nowhere near finished. Recently appointed as the first head of the new United Nations agency U.N. Women, she continues to build her legacy — this time as one of the world’s most prominent activists for gender equality.
“In my family, I learned that all people should be equal in opportunities, and that justice was essential, dignity was essential. So it is in my DNA to believe in peoples’ rights and to believe we are all different and that it is great because that makes this world more interesting,” she said in an interview with Barbara Crossette that appeared in the Nation.
Those ideals experienced their first — and most trying — test during the 1973 ouster of then-President Salvador Allende by military strongman Pinochet. Her father, an Air Force general with a prominent position in Allende’s government, was taken into military custody for treason. He was tortured, and subsequently died from a heart attack as a result.
Bachelet didn’t let this deter her own political participation. Instead, she stepped up her commitment as a member of the Socialist Youth Movement. But her activities were curtailed when both she and her mother were detained at torture centers by the Pinochet regime before they fled the country for Australia in 1975.
In spite of what she endured in her early years of political engagement, Bachelet made a concerted effort to address inequities in Chilean society. As minister of health, which she became in 2000, under President Ricardo Lagos, she improved access to public health care. In 2002 she was the first woman in Latin America to be appointed defense minister. During her tenure she promoted reconciliation between the military and civilian society, reforming and modern
izing the Chilean military.
“Because I was a victim of hate, I’ve consecrated my life to turning hate into understanding, tolerance and, why not say it — love,” she said in her victory speech after the 2006 presidential election.
Although she began her career as a physician, quickly moving up the ladder to become health minister, she couldn’t shake the lasting influence of her father’s military background.
“I noticed that one of the barriers to full democracy was the [lack] of understanding between the military world and the civilian world. They spoke different languages. I wanted to help with that. I could be a bridge between those two worlds,” she told the Guardian of the graduate studies she undertook in military science that led to her eventual appointment as Chile’s first female defense minister in 2002.
Despite all her successes, Bachelet’s been no stranger to criticism. She’s been roundly criticized for her administration’s education policy, the failure of an ambitious public transportation plan and a series of endless labor disputes. But her approval rating is the highest of any president in Chile’s history, topping off at 84 percent when she left office in March 2010.
Yet no amount of success seems to diminish her determination to press forward with the next task. In July 2010, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed her as the first head of the organization’s newly created agency, U.N. Women.
Shortly after her appointment, U.N. Radio aired an interview in which Bachelet did not hesitate to outline some of the difficulties she faces in her new role. “In many regions of the world, women have a very difficult situation. They don’t have the same opportunities as men regarding the most essential human rights; women are discriminated [against], their rights are violated. There are still some places where women are mutilated. And so I am convinced that we need to work very hard to improve their condition, and I know it’s … very challenging work.”
And despite the legacy she’s already created for herself as one of the world’s female heads of state, Bachelet remains as committed to her vision of a better future as the youthful idealist that stood up to the same oppressive regime that had killed her father.
As she told the New York Times, “What I am mostly interested in, what I remain committed to, is less dwelling on the past than creating a better future.”