The Importance of the Bachelet Victory in Chile – posted 12/ 29/2013
When Michelle Bachelet won her December run-off election for the presidency of Chile, I was surprised how little attention the story received in the United States. Maybe it is because Americans generally pay little attention to any foreign news.
Bachelet, leader of the center-left coalition and the first female ever elected president of Chile (from 2006 to 2010) won an overwhelming victory over Evelyn Matthei, the right-wing candidate. Bachelet garnered over 62% of the vote. I think it was the first Latin American election where both major candidates were women.
This was not any old election. The story is deeply rooted in the history of Chile from the era of Allende and Pinochet and it has the flair of an epic novel. The candidates, Bachelet and Matthei, grew up living across the street from each other. They played together as little girls, riding bikes.
The girls’ fathers were best friends. Albert Bachelet and Fernando Matthei both had Air Force jobs. They shared a love of classical music and loved to talk sports, politics and philosophy. Bachelet gave Matthei two olive trees and a flowering cherry. Those trees are still in front of the Matthei house.
When President Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military in 1973, very tragic events were set into motion. Shortly before the coup, another Chilean general, Gen. Gustavo Leigh, who was a coup supporter, forced Gen. Bachelet to step down from his high ranking position in the Air Force. Apparently this happened because Gen. Bachelet was an obstacle to coup planning. Bachelet was loyal to President Allende and the democratically elected government.
After the coup on September 11, 1973, the military detained Bachelet and he was subjected to months of daily torture. Bachelet died in custody in March 1974 due to a heart attack almost certainly related to his torture. He wrote his son Alberto:
“I was detained incommunicado for 26 days. I was subjected to torture for 30 hours and finally sent to the Air Force Hospital. They destroyed me inside; they were exhausting me mentally.”
In early January 1975, the military also detained and tortured both Michelle Bachelet and her mother. They were taken blindfolded to Villa Grimaldi, a notorious detention center in Santiago. Because of sympathetic connections in the military, unlike thousands of others, Bachelet and her mother were exiled instead of being murdered. They first moved to Australia and then East Germany. Bachelet started study to become a doctor when she lived in East Germany. She moved back to Chile in 1979 and continued her medical studies, ultimately becoming a pediatrician.
Fernando Matthei rose to a higher position three months after the coup. He became head of the Air Force War Academy. Four years after that Matthei became the head of the Air Force.
Matthei’s office was not at all far from the place his former friend was being interrogated and tortured. Matthei did nothing to save his friend. He says he raised his friend’s treatment with Gen. Leigh. In 2009, Matthei wrote:
“He told me not to get involved in issues which were none of my business. I confess that I never went to see him in the basement of the academy nor in prison, something which I am ashamed of. Perhaps on that occasion prudence superceded courage.”
As for Evelyn Matthei, she moved into the private sector before launching her political career. She was a Pinochet defender late in the day. In 1999, when Gen. Pinochet was arrested in England for crimes against humanity, she and a small faction of right wing Chileans flew to London to publicly support the dictator.
Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer, added a further dimension to this story of which I was not aware. Also part of the recent presidential campaign was Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who was a candidate of the Progressive Party, a smaller party on the left. His father Miguel Enriquez had been a famous militant leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), a group that favored an insurrectionary approach to achieving socialism. Miguel Enriquez had been MIR General Secretary from 1967 to 1974 and he was a critical supporter of the Allende government. The military found Enriquez’s safe house in Santiago, surrounded it and shot him dead in October 1974. Miguel Enriquez had been organizing opposition to the coup from underground.
The 2013 Chilean election brought all this history center stage again. It also offered up continuing differences and visions about Chile and how to address its problems.
For someone who observed from the United States the devastating tragedy that was Pinochet’s coup, the victory of the Chilean Left is both deeply satisfying and inspirational. I wanted to say a bit about the lessons I see coming out of the election.
For leftists and progressives of my generation, the election of Salvador Allende in 1970 was electrifying. At that time, it was popular wisdom that no socialist could ever win a democratic election. Allende won in 1970 and then again in 1973. Allende proved the pundit class wrong.
I remember Henry Kissinger’s quote from 1970:
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”
The background role of the U.S. in the Pinochet coup remains a shameful episode in our history.
Allende provided the positive example of democracy and socialism that inspired Bachelet. Allende showed it was possible to win. I do not minimize any of the questions provoked by the coup about Allende’s strategy and whether the end result was inevitable. Those debates are important but I do think democracy remains the essential precondition for social change in both advanced capitalist countries and in countries like Chile which have a profound democratic tradition.
I think Americans can learn from the Chilean example. Instead of pursuing armed struggle, which likely would have guaranteed their extermination, Chile’s progressives redoubled their democratic efforts. Now on their agenda is addressing economic inequality, creating greater access to higher education and raising corporate taxes.
All these items could easily be on an American agenda. We face the same issue of extreme economic inequality. Nobody defends the economic interests of working people these days. Higher education has become ridiculously expensive. How about an agenda that stood for addressing unemployment, free higher education, health care as a human right, reasonable gun control, support for womens’ rights including abortion rights, opposition to racism and support for immigrants’ rights, support for LGBT rights, and an anti-imperialist foreign policy? Enough with the stupid wars that maim new generations.
I think American progressives and leftists need to learn how to engage electoral politics far more effectively. We give up too easily. I think we could learn from the Right on this score. I do give the Right credit for persistence. Their efforts to influence the Republican Party have been far more successful than the Left’s efforts to influence the Democrats. In saying this, I can hear the litany of complaints on the Left about the impossibility of electoral politics, Citizens United, and the power of money to buy elections.
Although it is about a decade old, the perspective I would advocate was outlined in James Weinstein’s book The Long Detour. To quote Weinstein:
“Building a national movement requires commitment to continuous electoral activity, year-in and year-out…In organizing such a new movement the left will have to think nationally – especially in terms of its program and critique of current government policies – but act locally and start modestly.”
I will write more about this but I did not want to get too far away from Chile. For those who would like to learn more about Chile and its history over the last 40 years I would suggest reading Ariel Dorfman. I am indebted to Dorfman for his articles in the Guardian and the Nation. He has a fine new memoir Feeding On Dreams which I would recommend. I also would recommend the wonderful Costa-Gavras movie Missing which starred Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. It tells an important story well and conveys a feel for the time.
It will be interesting to see how Bachelet and her progressive agenda fare.