Michelle Bachelet’s presidency comes to a tumultuous end less than two
weeks after her country withstood an 8.8 magnitude earthquake. Here, the author
assesses what her term in office has meant for women in Chile and what lies
|Chile's outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.
The massive earthquake that struck Chile before dawn February 27 prompted the
government to declare Monday this week a national day of mourning, and to
suspend International Women’s Day activities. Rather than deliver her planned
farewell address, President Michelle Bachelet, who in three days’ time would
pass the presidential sash to her successor, continued to work round the clock
coordinating relief efforts.
In a country where “Dichato” has become a household word, the 83 percent
popularity Bachelet had enjoyed up to the day before the quake was in danger of
being swept away as fast as the deadly tidal wave devastated the coastal hamlet
of that name after government officials discounted the possibility of tsunamis.
However, not only did her approval rating hold firm, but it actually climbed one
percentage point since the disaster, according to a public opinion poll of March
9. In defense of President Bachelet, her chief of staff suggests it was
Bachelet’s horizontal management style—her preference for teamwork and
propensity to listen to others—that gave a misleading impression of inefficiency
in the critical hours after the earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale
The criticism aimed at Bachelet and her government carries echoes of the
skepticism common during her election campaign that a woman could be capable of
running a country. Born less than a year before Chilean women won the right to
vote in presidential elections, Bachelet, a Socialist, agnostic, and single
mother of three, became the first woman to govern this nation of 17 million in
2006. A measure of the respect Bachelet garnered in office is that even the
conservative challenger Sebastian Piñera who succeeds her campaigned on her
coattails, reassuring the electorate that he will maintain the programs she
When the first democratically elected president took office in 1990 after 17
years of military rule, women represented 32 percent of the workforce. That has
changed dramatically, in part due to such innovations as the Women Heads of
Household Program Bachelet launched in 2007, which provides skill training and
free day care for employed mothers (10 percent of Chilean families are
mono-parent, headed by a woman). Women now represent 52 percent of the
workforce, albeit, concentrated in lower-paid service sector jobs and absent
from company boards of directors. In 2008 laws recognized the right of domestic
workers to earn the minimum monthly salary, gave mothers a bonus for each child,
and guaranteed economic support for women after divorce, legalized four years
Bachelet deepened gender equality policy initiated
by the three previous governments of her political coalition, which had been
formed in the wake of the Pinochet military dictatorship. In 1991, the National
Women’s Affairs Office to implement Chile’s CEDAW commitments was created, and
in 2003 a constitutional amendment recognized equality between women and men.
Her boldest move came two weeks after her inauguration.
Squarely addressing the reality that roughly 24 percent of all infants are born
each year to mothers under 20 years of age, this pediatrician-turned-politician
announced the country’s public health system would provide emergency
contraception to “everyone who requires it,” fully aware of the storm that would
ensue, primarily among the same conservatives who will soon govern Chile.
Feminists were disappointed that her platform never included
de-criminalization of abortion, banned even when life of the mother is at stake
by the Military Junta six months before returning the country to civilian rule.
The Intra Family Violence Law enacted in 2005 elevated domestic violence from a
misdemeanor to a criminal offense, yet the enforcing mechanism, critics note, is
Nor has the presence of a woman president translated into greater political
participation for women as a whole: no more than 4 percent of the Senate and 10
percent of the Chamber of Deputies are women. And future president Sebastian
Piñera has not emulated the initial gender parity of Bachelet’s Cabinet, which
never fell below 40 percent women. Piñera’s 22 Cabinet ministers, the majority
MBAs from Santiago’s Catholic University, include just six women.
A political pundit once called Piñera, whose father was a founder of the
Christian Democratic Party and older brother was Pinochet’s Labor and Mining
minister, “a social transvestite,” a political chameleon who tries to be all
things for all people. A multimillionaire and father of four, who lost his first
bid for president to Bachelet, his campaign appealed to the hard right, former
collaborators of the military regime as well as disenchanted former government
supporters. His electoral triumph spelled defeat not only for Christian Democrat
Eduardo Frei but also the political coalition that has governed Chile since
restoration of democracy in 1990.
How is it possible that a millionaire businessman is about to follow Bachelet
with her record-high approval rating into La Moneda Presidential Palace?
The coalition represented by Bachelet and Frei, the Concertacion of Parties
for Democracy, was formed in the context of the 1988 plebiscite that repudiated
Augusto Pinochet’s plan to retain power. Yet its four successive governments
kept de facto laws, including the Constitution, promulgated by the military
regime. It also deepened neo-liberal economic policy of privatization,
decentralization and deregulation of basic services first implemented by that
regime. In this sense, Bachelet was not an exception.
Twenty years later, the boundary lines between Concertacion and the right
opposition blurred. Furthermore, Concertacion parties had become so distant from
their popular base and wanting in young leadership that in Frei, they chose a
candidate widely perceived as lacking charisma and credibility. And a new law
impeded the nation’s most charismatic political figure—Bachelet—from seeking
reelection immediately after her first term in office.
Motivated by indignation and a sense of urgent need, women had been the first
to overcome fear and defend their families against the Pinochet regime’s
repressive policies. Defying water cannon and tear gas, feminists also held the
first mass demonstrations, rallying each March 8th under the banner
of “Democracy in the Nation and in the Home.”
Last week’s earthquake and tsunami exposed fissures that some observers say
may well be as devastating to the fabric of Chilean society as the 1973 military
coup toppling Salvador Allende. Monday evening the Women’s Social Movement, an
umbrella of 74 feminist organizations, convened a thousand people, collecting
basic necessities for victims, and pledging to address both the devastation and
the new political scenario with the same solidarity, organization, and resolve
that served them well in the past.
Josephina Hurtado, a director of the feminist collective Conspirando, paused
after the event to reflect, “Today we are talking about how to heal ourselves
after an earthquake – but the ethical, social and moral earthquake we
experienced since dictatorship still needs healing. Just as organized women
stood up to dictatorship, now we must come together to mourn, work through, and
organize to deal with the earthquakes upon us.”
Women's Media Center