Chilean President Rides High as Term Ends
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
SANTIAGO, Chile — At first, breaking the gender barrier in South
America did not go smoothly for Michelle Bachelet.
In 2006, she had just captured the world's attention, becoming the
first woman to be elected president of this deeply conservative
country. And she had done it alone, without the famous husbands that
had propelled other female presidents in Latin America.
But one month after taking office, Ms. Bachelet faced huge student
demonstrations across the country. Her support fell further when a new
public transportation system turned chaotic, leading critics to
lampoon her with an image of her riding atop a city bus toward the
edge of a cliff.
"There was the distinct impression that she was not in control," said
Marta Lagos, director of Market Opinion Research International, a
polling company in Chile.
But with only five months until she leaves office, Ms. Bachelet is
increasingly likely to be remembered as one of her country's most
popular leaders. Polls this month show her public approval to be above
70 percent, and in recent weeks she has recorded the highest levels
since Chile went from dictatorship to democracy in 1990.
Analysts and pollsters attribute her stunning turnaround to her
handling of the economy during the global financial crisis and to her
decision to save billions of dollars in revenues from copper sales
during the last commodity boom. That aggressive saving gave the
country money to spend on pension reform and Ms. Bachelet's ambitious
program of social protections for women and children, despite the
Ms. Bachelet is among a handful of Latin American leaders, including
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, whose handling of the
crisis has strengthened their popularity. Both Brazil and Chile are
now emerging from recession, with Chile's government saying the
economy will grow by 5 percent next year.
Ms. Bachelet, a professed agnostic and single mother of three in a
country that legalized divorce only five years ago, shattered the mold
of traditional Chilean politicians in this Roman Catholic stronghold.
At the start, she said, the political establishment tried to portray
her as weak and disrespectful of the office of the president.
"It was an important challenge in the first few years," Ms. Bachelet,
58, said in a recent interview, noting the way other powerful women
had urged her to toughen up and "scream and insult" to be respected.
"I took a gamble," she added, "to exercise leadership without losing
my feminine nature."
Now, with Chile's presidential election less than two months away and
term limits preventing her from running again, rival candidates are
scrambling to be photographed next to her, including some who
initially criticized her for not spending the copper windfall during
As she took power, Ms. Bachelet introduced a cabinet of 20 ministers:
10 men and 10 women, a gender parity no previous Chilean president had
But her administration quickly stumbled in April 2006, when more than
100,000 high school students demonstrated for improvements in public
education. Her popularity falling, she replaced three ministers in
The following February, the introduction of the Transantiago public
transportation system, designed by the administration of her
predecessor, President Ricardo Lagos, turned into a major
embarrassment when it proved confusing and could not satisfy demand.
She replaced five more ministers in March 2007, three of them women
succeeded by men. By September, the outcry over Transantiago had
pushed her approval rating down to 35 percent.
"I have said it was a mistake," Ms. Bachelet said. "It was a good
idea, but it created problems for the day-to-day life of the people,
and that was not acceptable." She said she did what was necessary to
try to alleviate the problems.
Ms. Bachelet had faced worse before. Her father, an air force general,
was tortured for months under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto
Pinochet and died in prison. Military officials also detained and
tortured Ms. Bachelet and her mother before they were allowed to go
into exile in Australia. Ms. Bachelet returned in 1979.
After democracy was restored, she worked for the National AIDS
Commission. In 2000, President Lagos named her health minister, and
she drew controversy for allowing the free distribution of the
morning-after pill for victims of sexual abuse. Later, she was
appointed defense minister, the first woman in a Latin American
country to hold such a post.
But the economic front is where she turned around her presidency.
Ms. Bachelet resisted the cries of politicians to use revenues from
copper sales to try to close Chile's inequality gap, one of the
world's worst. Instead, during her first three years in office, her
government set aside $35 billion in revenue from the boom. When the
global financial crisis hit, the value of Chile's exports sank by more
than 30 percent. But by then Chile had nearly $20 billion invested in
overseas sovereign wealth funds alone.
"We have the distinction of perhaps having the only sovereign funds
that made money during the crisis," said Andrés Velasco, Chile's
Last year, after carrying high public debt for more than two decades,
Chile became a net creditor for the first time in its history, Mr.
With billions of dollars saved, Ms. Bachelet's government legalized
alimony payments to divorced women and tripled the number of free
early child care centers for low-income families. It added a minimum
pension guarantee for the very poor and for low-income homemakers. The
government is on pace to complete its goal of creating 3,500 child
care centers, said María Estela Ortiz, executive vice president of
Chile's National Board of Day Care Centers.
Ms. Bachelet, a pediatrician, said, "I believe that if you want to
fight inequality you have to do it starting at infancy."
Opposition politicians who once criticized her social-protection
efforts as a retreat to an era of big government are now saying they
will try to expand her programs to the middle class.
Her unorthodox style has left a mark on the country's political
culture, analysts said. During her state of the nation address in May,
she joked about losing a shoe while kicking a soccer ball at a stadium
inauguration, saying investment in four new stadiums would include
money for "the flying shoe." In the recent interview, she joked that
her gender parity plan for the cabinet was intended to ensure that
everyone had a dance partner.
That personal air has also inspired criticism, for example, when she
was photographed taking an early-morning ocean swim in Brazil last
year during a conference of regional leaders, or received popular
artists like Bono and Shakira.
"She did things that were not presidential in the eyes of the Chilean
establishment," said Ms. Lagos, the pollster. "It is very difficult to
go back. She lowered the presidency closer to the people."
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.