Just-elected President Michelle Bachelet is a potential godsend to an uptight, sometimes suffocating Chilean culture. The baby boomer Socialist Party leader and pediatrician is not only Chile's first female head of state, she's also a feminist, an agnostic and a single mother of three children by two fathers.
Pretty far out, you might say, in a Latin American country that has the region's lowest percentage of women in the workforce; where even limited divorce wasn't available until last year; where abortion is outlawed; where one of the most-watched TV networks is run by an ultraconservative Catholic university; and in which the cultural margins are sometimes as pinched as the nation's string-bean geography.
Why is the country so tightly bound in antiquated class and social conventions? In part because of 17 years of the brutal and austere military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, rife with censorship, repression and a state-sponsored program of "family values" that set back Chile's cultural development for untold decades.
Bachelet's victory could help unfetter Chilean society. But for it to transcend purely symbolic dimensions, she is going to have to make some concrete policy changes that her predecessors haven't. For the last six years, her fellow Socialist, Ricardo Lagos, has sat in the presidential chair. And too often even his administration has been complicit rather than conflictive in dealing with Chile's ossified social structures.
Lagos has increased spending on health and education programs, but — like the two civilian presidents who preceded him — he steadfastly refused to alter Chile's underlying economic policies, which were drawn up earlier in the halls of American universities and then imposed by the bayonets of the former dictatorship. The defenders and admirers of these policies like to call them "free market." Critics more accurately describe them as a form of "savage capitalism" that operates with virtually no safety nets. Wages are low; workers lack rights; welfare doesn't exist.
Compared with its economically dysfunctional neighbors, Chile has, indeed, shown admirable growth and stability. What is too often overlooked is the high social cost racked up in achieving those goals.
For all its boasts of First World modernity, Chile still has one of the most unequal income distribution patterns on the globe. The ultra-rich live behind walled estates while most Chileans sweat out the rent and try to figure out how to get treatment at the local clinic.
Bachelet will make a real, rather than symbolic, difference only if she once and for all takes on this less-talked-about aspect of Pinochet's legacy. Her conservative opponent promised an immediate 100,000 jobs. With official unemployment at 8%, the new president should double that offer, perhaps achieving it through a vigorous public works program. She must also fix Chile's faltering privatized pension program, which even its conservative defenders admit needs reform and which fails to provide adequate benefits.
Chile's healthcare system and even its basic primary and high schools remain disfigured from Pinochet's obsessive zeal to privatize. A draconian anti-union labor code has also never been fully reformed. And the military still enjoys unfair perks at civilian expense.
Finally, there's the lingering issue of how to seek justice for past human-rights abuses. Bachelet argued during the campaign that this issue was old news. The outgoing Lagos administration also tried to avoid confronting the open sores of three decades ago and attempted, not very subtly, to pressure crusading magistrates to call off their prosecution of Pinochet and his closest collaborators.
Fortunately, those judges ignored the government pressure, and today a disgraced, 90-year-old Pinochet sits closer to trial than ever. There's still a final stretch to be traveled before Chile comes fully to terms with its bloody past. As a former political prisoner whose father died under torture and who was herself subjected to similar abuse, Bachelet has not only the opportunity but also the obligation to see through these final prosecutions.
Cynicism and apathy are rampant among Chilean voters. Their ballot choices are often made with considerably less enthusiasm than that attributed to them by foreign reporters. First came Pinochet, who made politics illegal and dangerous. And then came 15 years of civilian rule that produced as much disappointment as promise.
If Bachelet doesn't take bold steps to inspire and re-engage Chileans by making palpable and significant changes in their daily lives, the novelty of her gender will very soon wear thin.
Marc Cooper is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, and worked as a translator for former Chilean President Salvador Allende.
© 2006 Los Angeles Times