The President of Chile

Politics and Sex in Post-Pinochet Chile
Written by Marcelo Mendoza
Thursday, 31 May 2007
Source: Yes! Magazine

Her rise to power sent shock waves through Chile’s political elites, who still, after a year of her government, remain implacable. Between the lines, their message could be read as this: “She is a woman, she acts like a woman, and women don’t know how to exert authority.”

A close look at the private lives of ordinary Chileans reveals changes that were quietly laying the groundwork that made it possible for a woman to become president in spite of the conservative influence of the Catholic Church and the political elites.

But after Bachelet’s first year in the government, many of her critics maintain they were right, since the center-left coalition is experiencing its worst period and showing obvious signs of wear.

If Michelle Bachelet can be criticized for anything it’s her inefficiency in constructing a story, an epic of this new form of governing—that of a woman who wants to govern as a woman, with geniality and greater participation of ordinary citizens.

Women Take Power

As is true of almost all Latin American countries, Chilean society has always been patriarchal. Ever since the Spanish conquest, the figure of the “señor” or “lord” reigned supreme in the large, landed estates and later in the cities. Until the 1960s, women were largely excluded from government, work, and business; their lives centered on matters of the home and child raising.

Military dictator Augusto Pinochet embodied the most stereotypical characteristics of this machismo: those of the omnipotent and authoritarian man. He promised order and security in exchange for liberty and human rights. Lucía Hiriart de Pinochet, wife of the dictator, told women to take a secondary role in support of their husbands.

With the end of the dictatorship in 1990, the democratic coalition installed a more benign patriarch: President Patricio Aylwin. Ricardo Lagos, the third president after the dictatorship, also represented a patriarchal figure who, in moments of conflict, would bang on the table to get the last word—a practice that increased his popularity.

Michelle Bachelet does not fit any of these characteristics. She is a socialist, agnostic, and daughter of a general assassinated by the dictatorship. She is separated, with children from different fathers; her youngest was born when she was single. She is seen as unpredictable in her friendly, feminine, maternal ways.

As Lagos’ minister of health and later of defense, she was well-liked. It was citizens, not the political class, who invested in her candidacy and later in her presidency.

The fact that she has become president is the clearest sign of an erosion of traditional, masculine ways of wielding power. A snapshot of this change was captured on the day Bachelet was elected. Thousands of women gathered in Santiago de Chile’s main avenue wearing the tri-colored presidential ribbon as if to say that the power now belongs to all women.

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