Michelle Bachelet: from torture victim to two-time Chile president | world | Hindustan Times
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Michelle Bachelet: from torture victim to two-time Chile president

The socialist, agnostic pediatrician was tortured in the 1970s during Chile's military regime, lived in exile for years, came back to her country and worked in government when democracy was restored. With her re-election on Sunday, she now has a chance to cement her legacy as a transformative leader.

world Updated: Dec 16, 2013 14:27 IST
Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet made history by becoming Chile's first female president in 2006, and with her re-election Sunday now has a chance to cement her legacy as a transformative leader.

This socialist, agnostic pediatrician was tortured in the 1970s during Chile's military regime, lived in exile for years, came back to her country and worked in government when democracy was restored.

When she left office in 2010 after a four-year term during which she reformed Chile's pension system, Bachelet had a stunning 84% approval rating.

Bachelet went on to lead the newly created office of UN Women. But she returned to Chile this year saying "we knew there were things still to be done."

On Sunday, she trounced conservative Evelyn Matthei by winning 62% of the vote against 38% for her rival, according to official returns.

That gives Bachelet and her "New Majority" leftist alliance the kind of mandate needed to tackle her transformative agenda, which includes reforming the constitution, a legacy of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet; raising taxes, offering free college and legalizing abortion.

"We just love her because she is trustworthy, and because of her life story," said supporter Veronica Ramirez after Bachelet's re-election.

Michelle Bachelet waves during an event after her center-right opponent Evelyn Matthei conceded defeat. (AP)

Two generals, different paths

Bachelet was born in September 1951 in Santiago. Her father Alberto was an air force officer, and her mother Angela was an archeologist.

When she was young, her father was stationed at Cerro Moreno air base in far northern Chile, where among the neighbors was air force officer Fernando Matthei and his young daughter Evelyn.

Bachelet and Matthei, then aged six and four, were not close friends because of the age difference, but were acquaintances and sometimes played together.

Bachelet joined the Socialist Youth as a teenager and studied medicine, while her father rose to the rank of general and became a close adviser to elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

When right-wing officers launched a military coup in September 1973 that killed Allende, Alberto Bachelet was on the list of suspects.

The general was imprisoned at a military school and tortured, and died from his wounds six months after being released. The school commandant was Fernando Matthei, Evelyn's father.

A later inquiry absolved Matthei of any role in Alberto Bachelet's torture.

The Bachelets, however, remained "suspects," and secret police whisked Michelle Bachelet and her mother to a torture center in January 1975.

Over the years, Bachelet had revealed few details of her experience.

But during the re-election campaign -- a year in which Chile marked the 40th anniversary of the September 11, 1973 coup -- Bachelet said that she was personally interrogated by Manuel Contreras, the head of the country's reviled DINA secret police.

Contreras, now 84, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for rights abuses.

After being freed from detention, Bachelet and her mother fled to Australia and then moved to East Germany, where the future president completed her medical studies.

Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 with her young son, but was prevented from working as a doctor for political reasons.

She continued studying, specializing in pediatrics and public health, and in 1984, gave birth to a daughter. Her third child was born nine years later.

Supporters of Chilean socialist candidate for the New Majority coalition, Michalle Bachelet, celebrate in front of the party's headquarters in Santiago. (AFP)
Supporters of two-time president Michelle Bachelet wave flags in Santiago, Chile. (AP)

Dr Bachelet steps up to service

After democracy was restored in 1990 Bachelet worked for Chile's health ministry. But she was also interested in military issues, and in the mid-1990s studied military strategy in Chile and the United States.

In 2000, socialist president Ricardo Lagos appointed Bachelet health minister. Her success led her to become minister of defense in 2004, the first time a woman held the post.

By now, Bachelet was a political phenomenon. Bolstered by widespread support among women, and blessed with easygoing charisma, Bachelet launched her first winning presidential bid.

Supporters of Michalle Bachelet, celebrate in Santiago. (AFP Photo)

She offers a dramatic break from Chile's conservative traditional political class; she was a divorced mom and grandmother before Chile even legalized divorce in 2004.

As president, Bachelet reformed the pension system, improved health and social services, and focused on the well-being of Chile's working class and elderly.

Her tenure also coincided with a boom in global demand for copper, Chile's top export.

When she handed the office over to the current president, conservative Sebastian Pinera, Bachelet enjoyed record approval ratings despite criticism over the slow response to the massive February 2010 earthquake.