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 ahead.
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 struck.
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 forged.
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 earlier.
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 still ineffectual.
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.”
The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in the media.