Alvarez-Rubio Cheers Chile’s Election of First Female President
Pilar Alvarez-Rubio is Chilean. She visited Chile in January 2006 and was there on January 15 for the runoff election between Michelle Bachelet, former exile, and Harvard-educated billionaire Sebastian Penera. Bachelet is the first female head of state in South America to be elected without her husband’s coattails, said Alvarez-Rubio.
“ I see Bachelet’s victory as a metaphor for the history of Chile,” said Alvarez Rubio, “because she represents all of the abuses and triumphs of Chile: she has prevailed after personal tragedies at the hands of Augusto Pinochet’s henchmen and years of exile; Chile has prevailed after 17 years of brutal dictatorship.”
Chile is the most stable country in Latin America, politically and economically, due to the four previous democratic presidents said Alvarez-Rubio. It has no deficit; it is a stable country; and the majority in government is the Center Left Coalition of Parties. Pinochet was the leader of a coup in charge of a military dictatorship for 17 years. In 1990, he sponsored a referendum that allowed the people to decide the next president. He lost and the coalition of Christian Democrats and socialists has been united since.
Bachelet is a socialist; she’s been separated two times, and has declared herself an agnostic in a predominantly Catholic country. She came back to Chile from exile with a medical degree in pediatrics to help children of disappeared and tortured people. She was mentored by former president Lago and he named her minister of health and then minister of defense, the first woman ever. Her appointment was controversial and shocking: She is the daughter of a general who had been tortured by military; as minister of defense, the same military officers must stand up and salute her.”
More Commentary from Pilar Alvarez-Rubio on the election of Michelle Bachelet(As told to Kathleen McPartland)
Bachelet represents such a departure from the traditional Chilean woman. She has been up front about her politics, religion, gender and marital status. She said to the military, “I am a socialist, an agnostic, separated and a women. Now, let’s work together!” To work with the military, she had to make peace with the people who caused her so much suffering. She had to forgive them in order to continue. She was firm, however, and managed to gain their trust. She demonstrated that a woman could be both kind and firm; that she could be compassionate and well informed.
The importance of Bachelet as a role model is tremendous. It helps transform the minds of women who, in the past, have voted against other women. A significant statistic from the election is that equal numbers of men and women voted for her.
As I mentioned, Chile is stable and the economy is good. Women have entered the political and job arenas. At the same time, women earn less; there is a high rate of wife abuse and intra-family violence. With the economy strong, Bachelet can tackle social problems. On her second day of office, she decreed that all people 60 years and older would have free health care.
One great moment for me was in Valdivia, a major city in the South. I had participated in marches in Santiago and talked with writers and ministers. I watched as old women, young people, people in wheelchairs went to the polls. Since it is mandated that everyone vote, everything closed. We took a river trip and returned after the polls closed and were greeted by the news that Bachelet had been elected.
Hundreds of people were walking around with flags and horns—we were in the middle of a spontaneous celebration, old and young, celebrating, opening champagne, and shouting, “Presidenta!” It was the most exciting vacation I’ve had in years: truly going back home.
Until that trip, every time I’d been back, it had been during dictatorship and moments of crisis. This time it was celebration and hope.
The key to Bachelet’s power to reform is not just placing the feminine in the public sphere, but the feminine with a gender consciousness to do away with inequalities.
Alvarez Rubio offered the following observations from an article by Mark Sinclair, who lives in Valparaiso, and is a former Minneapolis resident and a member of the Resource Center of the Americas. He wrote in his article, “Limited Justice: Chile’s Bachelet Seeks More Equity and Regional Cooperation,” that Bachelet will be challenged to fulfill her ambitious program, since the presidential term is now limited to four years and subsequent reelection prohibited by law. “The Concertacion majority in both houses of Parliament will assist her in pushing through key reforms, although frictions with coalition partners could limit her success. Growing government coffers, helped by the current high price of copper, Chile’s main export, will help to finance new programs.”
Bachelet’s top priority is the reform of the nation’s pension system, which was mostly privatized under Pinochet, wrote Sinclair. (An interesting side note: The architect of that privatization, Jose Pinera, an ex-Labor minister during the dictatorship, is advising the Bush Administration on Social Security reform.)
Bachelet supports stronger anti-discrimination laws and pay equity for women. She has pledged that the “most talented” women and men will be equally represented in her cabinet. She will push for constitutional recognition of Chile’s indigenous ethnic groups (principally Mapuche, Aymara, Quechua and Rapa Nui—about 8 percent of the population).
She will push for strengthening labor laws and easier credit for small businesses. She will most likely, said Sinclair, push to diversify and add value to Chilean exports and move away from dependence on extractive resource exports. However, “large mining, forestry and fishing multinationals still dominate the export sector and altering the rules of their economic game is unlikely in the short term, with the possible exception of stronger environmental regulation.