September 29, 2007 1:03 am

First among unequals: Chile’s president

Night is falling in Santiago, and the roads are crammed with cars carrying commuters home. Shiny new white buses bowl along avenues that seem to lead directly to the feet of the silvery, snow-capped mountains encircling the city. But no one is looking at the spectacular scenery. At bus stops, long lines of Chileans wait patiently behind barriers for buses that appear slow to come.

I opt for the underground. There, the carriages are clean, and the service efficient – until you try to change lines. As I turn a corner into a tunnel, I walk straight into a huge crowd of people trying to inch en masse down a narrow set of steps to the platform. “It never used to be like this,” says the woman next to me.

Welcome to Transantiago, the city’s new integrated bus and metro system, five years and untold millions of dollars in the making. Launched in February, it was meant to impose order on a chaotic, unregulated transport system which had contributed significantly to congestion and pollution in a city of six million. Instead, it proved a fiasco. There were too few buses, coming too infrequently, and people had to walk to stops on new routes that turned familiar, no-transfer commutes into complicated journeys.

The overhaul of the capital’s transport system was devised under former president Ricardo Lagos, but his successor, Michelle Bachelet, has become its public face. Seven months since its launch, it has improved but remains flawed, unpopular and, some argue, emblematic of Bachelet’s own fortunes. She stormed into office 18 months ago, confident and accomplished. Now, after Transantiago, and mounting social and labour unrest, she appears wrong-footed. Bachelet is not the only leader to have stumbled in the early years in office, but as the first female president in a country where only a third of women have jobs, her fate has taken on an operatic magnitude.

Michelle Bachelet

Part of Bachelet’s current problems stem from how much was expected of her when she took office in March last year. She was a people’s champion after Lagos, the paternalistic statesman and her political maker, but also a mould-breaker in every way: a single mother and socialist, fluent in five languages, accomplished in both medicine and politics, and an agnostic in a land of Catholics. With her cropped blonde hair, dazzling smile and informal manner, she oozed charisma in a sea of suits.

Bachelet was elected with 53 per cent of the vote, and a month into her term she had approval ratings of 62 per cent. But in a poll released this month, that figure dropped to 39 per cent. Forty-two per cent of people disapprove of her.

Such a slide in popularity would worry any politician, but Bachelet has pinned her political fortunes on the people. On the campaign trail, she promised a new, participatory style of government that would continue pro-market economic policies begun under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. These have made Chile prosperous, but with an accent on social justice, education, pension reform, welfare, research and development and gender equality. She aims to empower ordinary Chileans by improving education, infrastructure and access to credit, and thus to shatter perceptions in the country that politics can only deliver for the rich upper class.

“She couldn’t care less about political power,” said Marta Lagos, a pollster and friend of all of Chile’s four post-Pinochet leaders. No one concerned with power for its own sake would voluntarily expose themselves to public ridicule in the way Bachelet has. In March, in a televised address, she apologised for the Transantiago mess, admitting it was an unmitigated disaster – particularly for the poor, who were most dependent on public transport. The following month, she confessed that her gut feeling had been that Transantiago was not ready for launch, but that she had allowed herself to be talked into it.

What might have been viewed as brave and candid came across instead as naive. Many people equated her touchy-feely presidential style with incompetence. It didn’t help that she had faced protests by students pressing for free bus fares, free college entrance exams and better school buildings, and had acceded to most of their demands, drawing criticism for being too permissive and establishing dangerous precedents.

Chileans are not impressed. Bachelet, once a ground-breaker, now finds herself described as a lame-duck president with nearly two thirds of her term left to run.

Latin America has had a handful of female presidents, but Bachelet was the first to become head of a significant country in the region without a leg-up from a politically powerful husband. When she tried to get a job as a physician in the 1980s, her surname was a hindrance. A decade earlier, her father, Chilean air force Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet, had, amid rampant inflation and food shortages, been put in charge of national food distribution by Salvador Allende, the Marxist president who took office in 1970, and whom the CIA had worked to destabilise. General Bachelet was arrested for treason on the day of Pinochet’s coup against Allende in 1973 and died six months later in jail of a heart attack brought on by torture.

Michelle Bachelet was 21 at the time of her father’s death. Two years later, she and her mother Angela Jeria, an archaeologist, were arrested by the secret police, blindfolded and taken to the notorious Villa Grimaldi torture centre. They were roughed up and psychologically tortured but were lucky: within weeks, they were released and fled into exile in Australia, where Bachelet’s older brother Alberto had been living since the late 1960s.

From Australia, Bachelet moved to Leipzig, East Germany, where she finished her training as a surgeon and met and married fellow Chilean exile Jorge Davalos, the father of her two eldest children, now in their 20s. Returning to Chile in 1979, she won a scholarship allowing her to specialise in paediatrics and public health, and after the end of the dictatorship, worked as a consultant to international agencies including the World Health Organisation. Subsequent military studies, including a spell at the prestigious Inter-American Defense College in Washington DC, paved the way for her to become Latin America’s first female defence minister in 2002, two years after she had joined Lagos’s cabinet as health minister.

Chile is widely perceived as being the most socially conservative state in an already macho continent. Pinochet’s regime – brutal, military and repressive – lasted 17 years until 1990, making Chile a later convert to democracy than neighbours which were also ruled by military juntas in the 1970s and 1980s. It has also been slower to empower women. There is a blanket ban on abortion in Chile, unlike in other Latin American countries, where it is permitted in a handful of instances. Divorce was only introduced three years ago.

Economically, Chile’s enviable income levels, investment-grade sovereign credit rating and solid economic performance make it the country other Latin American nations want to be when they grow up. But culturally, it is still behind, with the proportion of women in politics and public life far lower than, say, in Argentina, and fewer women in the workforce than anywhere else in Latin America.

Still, things are slowly changing. “The fact that Michelle Bachelet has come to government is a trigger for that change, and a product of that change,” says Andres Velasco, the finance minister. More women are heading households – as Bachelet attests: she and Davalos split up in the mid-1980s. She had another daughter, now 14, from a later relationship but never married the father and is separated from him.

The number of women-led homes in Chile is rising across all social classes, and now totals nearly 30 per cent overall – up from 20 per cent in 1990. Women work and earn more than ever before, though true equality remains a long way off. Chilean women still only earn three quarters as much on average as men, and the more advanced their education, the greater the gap: a university-educated women earns just 61 per cent of what a similarly educated man does.

Being a woman – or as Bachelet is fond of joking “a woman, a socialist, separated, agnostic: all the sins together” – has shaped both the president’s agenda and her approach to politics. She has said her style is one “which could be characterised as more feminine, but which in reality, I think is more modern”. Even so, it’s hard to imagine a male president using the kind of language that she sometimes does. She called a law giving women the right to breast-feed at work “just and beautiful”, and said of her own experiences at the hands of Pinochet’s torturers “because I was a victim of hate, I have dedicated my life to turning that hate into understanding, into tolerance and, why not say it, into love”.

She promised to do more for women and, in her first year, delivered not only the breast-feeding law in a country where women complain they have been subjected to illegal pregnancy tests at job interviews, but also set up hundreds of nurseries and shelters for victims of domestic violence. By presidential decree, and to the disgust of the Catholic Church, she made the morning-after pill available free to girls as young as 14, Chile’s heterosexual age of consent, arguing that since it was already available for women who could pay, it would be discriminatory not to offer it to poorer people as well.

But her boldest move backfired. Seeking to lead by example, she championed the cause of women by kicking off her government with a cabinet split 50-50 along gender lines. Critics complained that her team was mediocre, and that she was undermining the notion of a meritocracy. She stuck to her guns until Transantiago. In March, her first anniversary in office, she reshuffled her cabinet again, ejecting two senior women and drafting in some of the old guard.

Bachelet denies her experiment with equality has gone awry. “It’s not mathematical, it’s a concept,” she told me in an interview in the Moneda Palace. “I’m not just aspiring to a representative democracy, I’m interested in a democracy in which men and women are well represented.”

She stresses that her non-traditional approach to politics – including bringing together diverse “stakeholders” to discuss an issue, listening and then deciding – is not exclusively the preserve of women. Indeed, instead of identifying herself with prominent peers such as Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Segolene Royal or Argentine first lady and presidential candidate Cristina Fernandez, she compares herself to Spain’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. “He’s a man and yet he has the same kind of direct, simple leadership.”

Bachelet is clearly weary of, and hurt by, the kind of double standards familiar to women following “macho” career paths. “When President Lagos appeared moved by something, people said, ’how great to have a sensitive president’. I can’t help my voice cracking when I’m deeply hurt or moved by something, [so] I’m [perceived as] a woman who can’t control her emotions. If President Lagos spoke strongly, he was a man of character. If I do, I’m furious.” She says her pension reform bill gives the lie to critics who believed her approach – setting up a special council to study the issue – was typical of her inability to take decisions. She counters that consensus-building leads to stronger accords, and hopes that by next July her bill, now before the Senate, will have resulted in the biggest shake-up of the pensions system in 30 years, with retirees and even housewives – who have never had pensions – receiving monthly payments of $150.

Bachelet also admits to to certain qualities associated with alpha males. She is a workaholic, she has a strong sense of duty and loyalty and she is often portrayed as a micromanager who steamrolls members of her own team, eschewing advice and taking decisions alone. As one minister, who declined to be named, noted drily: “Sometimes officials can be surprised by decisions they were not consulted about.”

Her troubles didn’t end with the Transantiago apology. A five-week pay strike by subcontracted workers at the country’s state copper giant, Codelco, overlapped with a strike at the major Collahuasi mine and suggested rising union activism. A large demonstration in Santiago last month was called by an umbrella trades union group, her supposed allies, and attended by members of her coalition. Moreover, Chile has been subjected to gas shortages from its sole supplier, Argentina. And inflation is at a six-year high. “She’s only surviving without any worse problems because Chile is awash in money,” said one investment banker, referring to a bonanza of revenue from copper.

It would be wrong to lay too much blame at Bachelet’s door. She is the fourth consecutive president of the Concertacion, which came together to oppose Pinochet, and which is beginning to look tired after two decades in power. Cracks are appearing among its members, and it has been hit by a scandal over $800,000 that appears to have been siphoned off from a government sports agency and which the opposition says was funnelled into Concertacion political campaigns. (The scandal does not implicate Bachelet.) Genaro Arriagada, a veteran Christian Democrat and former minister, says: “There are two crises here. She has serious problems, but it would be just as unfair to blame Bachelet for everything as it would be to say this is a crisis of the Concertacion in which Bachelet plays no part.”

The jury is still out on whether the Concertacion will succeed in reinvigorating itself against the expected onslaught of billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera in the 2010 presidential elections, in which Bachelet cannot stand. Nevertheless, what some women’s groups feared may have already come true: a poor performance by Bachelet will almost certainly make it harder for another woman, such as Christian Democrat leader Soledad Alvear, to follow in her footsteps in the near future.

Can Bachelet recover? She says a pioneer has to be patient, but even her supporters say it’s going to be tough. With a four-year term instead of the six that Ricardo Lagos enjoyed, and midterm elections next year, she has precious little time left to turn things around. And yet whatever happens, all sides credit her with humanising politics. “She’s changed things much more than people want to accept,” said Marta Lagos. “I’m not sure her style will endure ... but there will, in Chile, be a before and after Michelle Bachelet.”

Jude Webber is an FT correspondent based in Argentina

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