Michelle Bachelet, 54, who will be sworn in as Chile’s next president this Saturday, discusses efforts to deal with her country’s difficult Pinochet legacy, Chile’s dramatic economic growth and Latin America’s leftward swing.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Bachelet, your country is experiencing growth rates most Europeans can only dream about and you’re being celebrated as the symbol of Chile’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy. Besides, you’re also a socialist even (US President) George W.
Bush can tolerate. Under these circumstances, governing must a lot of fun.
Bachelet: What’s most important to me is to be able to fulfill the hopes of as many citizens as possible.
You’re right, I am South America’s first democratically elected female president. I perceive running the government as an honorable task, but also one that comes with a great deal of responsibility. That’s because the Chileans expect me to pay more attention to social justice and bring more democracy to the country.
SPIEGEL: You are a single mother, a physician and an agnostic. You have appointed ten women to your cabinet, and as many men. That’s the equivalent of a small revolution in a country marked by such strong Catholic and male-dominated traditions. Has Chile changed that much?
Bachelet: Women are the heads of one-third of Chilean households. In other words, I’m a completely normal woman in Chile. In fact, we have experienced a cultural shift in the last 30 years. Many women run social organizations, are union leaders and play important roles in their children’s schools. The only place where women were still absent was at the higher levels of government. My predecessor Ricardo Lagos’s decision to place women in powerful positions in the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry was ground-breaking.
SPIEGEL: On Sept. 11, 1973, you watched — from the roof of the medical school — the bombing, ordered by General Pinochet, of the building that housed the offices of President Allende, the Moneda. Now you’ll be moving into that building. What does that dark chapter in history mean for Chileans today?
Bachelet: It’s part of our history. We must take pains to process the things that happened to us, in the interest of truth, justice and providing compensation for all victims of political violence, regardless of their political affiliations. Full respect for human rights, not just civil liberties, will play a very important role in my administration.
SPIEGEL: Are the recently begun trials of former military leaders splitting Chileans into two camps? Pinochet and his family are under investigation for tax evasion.
Bachelet: A country that has experienced such deep trauma as Chile can never be completely healed. I’m a doctor, so allow me to use a medical analogy to explain the problem: Only cleaned wounds can heal, otherwise they’ll keep opening up again, and will likely become infected and begin to fester. It’s clear to me that the truth must be brought to light. Of course, there are those — but they’re a minority today — who just want to sweep everything under the rug. In a constitutional state, the government must take steps to ensure that the judiciary can operate without obstruction. The fact that I was elected shows that Chile has a mature society. And that’s why most citizens insist that no one should be allowed to place themselves above the law and escape punishment.
SPIEGEL: Your father, a general loyal to Allende, was arrested, tortured and died as a result. As a politician, you have avoided talking about reconciliation with past adversaries. Instead, you’ve referred to the process as a “reencounter.” Why?
Bachelet: Reconciliation also means that the victim must forgive the perpetrator. But not everyone is capable of forgiving. It depends on the experiences of the individual, on that person’s ability to overcome them, and that’s not something that you can order everyone to do. But the government can establish the conditions under which the different camps can encounter one another in joint projects.
SPIEGEL: You and your mother were also arrested, and you were tortured at the intelligence agency’s notorious Villa Grimaldi prison. Years later, you encountered one of your tormentors in an elevator. Your eyes were bound when you were in prison, but you recognized the man by his odor. How did the two of you react to the encounter?
Bachelet: It just so happens that this man lived in our building and used the same elevator, quite a coincidence in such a large city as Santiago. It wasn’t easy for me at first. I found it deeply disturbing. It was also difficult for him, because we ran into each other at a time when he was facing various charges in court, charges for which he was eventually sentenced.
Perhaps it was even more difficult for him than it was for me. I had already reached a new phase in my life at the time. But whenever he saw me or my mother, he was forced to think of his own crimes, the crimes for which he would be held accountable.
SPIEGEL: You lived in East Germany after fleeing from Chile. (Former East German President Erich Honecker’s widow) Margot Honecker lives in Santiago today. Did you invite her to your inauguration?
Bachelet: I have only met her in person once here in Santiago. It was at the funeral of the president of the Chilean Communist Party. But I have always made it clear that I was treated very well in East Germany when I was forced to leave Chile with my family, and I have very fond memories of my temporary home.
SPIEGEL: What does the disappearance of East Germany mean to you personally? And what does the collapse of most of the world’s communist regimes mean to you as a socialist?
Bachelet: People must choose their own what type of society they want to build. The world has changed tremendously since the end of the Cold War. However, I do believe that many people still yearn for greater equity, that they finally want to see an end to poverty, a world in which everyone has the same opportunities.
SPIEGEL: You were Chile’s defense minister for almost three years. Do you believe that the military leadership can now abide by democratic principles?
Bachelet: Yes, all of our institutions operate democratically today. For some time now, the armed forces have accepted the fact that the president is their commander-in-chief, and that the president exercises this power through the defense minister. In our case, women will assume both of these offices.
SPIEGEL: Will women serving as commanders-in-chief be more successful at integrating officers into society who have spent far too much time rattling their sabers?
Bachelet: I made sure of that when I was defense minister. I completely opened up military service to women, and I made it possible for women to advance to the highest ranks. I also took pains to bring soldiers into contact with civilians, and I ordered military training to include instruction on the workings of the constitutional state and the importance of human rights.
SPIEGEL: Despite all progress, some still claim that there are two parties in Chile, the military and big business, and that if those two entities are fully operational, the country can even afford a socialist government. Is there any truth to that?
Bachelet: Pinochet no longer plays a role in politics. A military career is a profession like any other. That was something I managed to make sure of as defense minister. The military no longer holds any claim to power today. As citizens, soldiers have the right to vote. I don’t rule out the possibility that many voted for me. After all, they know me. The business community also knows that I will continue to encourage growth. But I have made it clear that decisions over economic development will have to be made as part of a social dialogue, one that involves the government, employers and workers.
SPIEGEL: Last year’s constitutional reform finally eliminated the system of appointing senators, which Pinochet introduced. As a result, your coalition of democratic parties has the majority in both houses of parliament. Which remnants of dictatorship do you still plan to wipe out?
Bachelet: The election system, most of all, because it doesn’t reflect the true relationship among the parties. We must also safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples in the constitution. One of my biggest concerns is to get citizens to be more involved. This is why I want to decentralize administration and give regions and municipalities the opportunity to make direct decisions.
SPIEGEL: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has invented what he calls the “axis of good,” in which he includes his country, Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the Bolivia of former coca farmer leader Evo Morales. Will you also become a member of this club?
Bachelet: I don’t want us to launch another Cold War, nor do I think it’s a good idea to divide the world in good and evil. One should never condemn any regime from the start. I want to work with everyone to combat the true threats to Latin America — widespread poverty and the fact that many, indigenous peoples in particular, as well as women and children, are not receiving their fair share of progress.
SPIEGEL: We’re likely to see a continuing shift to the left in this year’s elections in Latin America. What’s behind this?
Bachelet: Many citizens are dissatisfied with the way some economic models have affected their lives in the past.
SPIEGEL: Does the new Latin American left have a common denominator?
Bachelet: Our common goal is to enable our people to live better lives. But we use different strategies in approaching the shared challenge of bringing about more social justice. There are no standard recipes for all Latin Americans, not even in our cuisines. There are many problems — the energy supply, environmental issues — that individual countries can’t resolve on their own. The European Union could be our model in many respects.
SPIEGEL: Chavez is already calling on Chile to abandon its successful bilateral free trade agreements in favor of a Latin American alliance. Would you be open to the invitation, or is there a conflict in the works here?
Bachelet: I agree with many of my colleagues that we live on an extremely diverse continent. Nevertheless, I do believe it is possible to achieve a basic trade agreement in Latin America, one that we can all live with. I am optimistic that we will find this magic formula.
SPIEGEL: Will US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meet Chavez when the two travel to Chile for your inauguration?
Bachelet: It’s certainly possible that they’ll run into each other.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Bachelet, thank you for this interview.
The interview was conducted by Hans Hoyng and Helene Zuber.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
(c) SPIEGEL ONLINE 2006