Chile's Leader Under Fire

Chile's Leader Under Fire

By Shannon Sims

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet and Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (R) walk together before a press conference at the Moncloa in Madrid on October 30, 2014.
SourceDani Pozo/Getty


When a corruption scandal surfaces, education and social reforms tend to sink on the list of political priorities.

By Shannon Sims

Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent business, political and other world leaders.

Family dinners must be pretty awkward these days in the Bachelet clan. Chile’s leader, Michelle Bachelet, was riding a wave of policy successes — education reform! tax reform! electoral reform! — when the government started getting flak for cronyism. Now a corruption scandal has cast a pall over otherwise upright Chile, and right in the middle of it is Bachelet’s own son, accused of dodgy ethics in his acceptance of a business credit that would have been difficult to earn if it wasn’t for who his mom is.

It’s suddenly easy for folks to forget the major accomplishments Bachelet has pushed through during her time in government, both in her first term as president, from 2006 to 2010, and since she took helm again in March last year. Catalyzed by student protests during those early days in power, she pushed through important education reforms intended to address social inequality. And, in January, she changed her country’s electoral system, something many governments before had tried — but failed — to do. But Bachelet, who didn’t respond to a request to comment, must also contend with Chile’s staggering economic inequality. Only a small proportion of Chileans live in a developed country, while most live in third world conditions, says Fernando Rosenblatt, a politics professor at Universidad Diego Portales.

Still, Bachelet’s history shows that she’s overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. Born into a military family, she learned English while stationed in Maryland as a child. Back in Chile, following Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’etat, her father was detained and died in 1974. At home less than a year later, Bachelet and her mother were blindfolded and thrown into Villa Grimaldi, the most infamous of the secret detention camps, where she was tortured. “She sort of personifies the difficult years of Chile, because she lived it all,” says Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, a professor of politics at the Universidad Diego Portales in Chile. Bachelet managed to go into exile — first in Australia and then in East Germany, where she linked up with the Chilean socialist party’s outpost there and began her training to become a pediatrician. She returned to Chile four years later, finished her schooling and began to rise through the ranks of the Socialist party.

After winning Chile’s election in 2013, she returned for “Bachelet 2.0,” and for the past year she’s been on a roll.

In 2000, Bachelet was elected Minister of Health by President Ricardo Lagos and tasked with eliminating waitlists at public hospitals. She largely succeeded, and in doing so, proved herself an action-oriented politician. Next test: Ministry of National Defense. Her appointment there in 2002 was revolutionary, as she was a female doctor in a position traditionally held by male military leaders, and she became the first female to do so in Latin America. When floods struck Chile under her watch she mounted a tank, solidifying for many Chileans the image of a leader in times of trial. Four years later, she was president — the first Latin American woman to accomplish that without the help of a spouse’s legacy

Her first term in power was shaken by massive student demonstrations — the first of their kind in the democracy — followed by an unpopular subway reform called Transantiago, which drove her approval rating down into the 30s. And then, right at the twilight of her term in 2010, an earthquake led the media to predict she’d only crawl out of office. But, in a surprising turn, her response proved popular enough to buoy her approval rating up to 85 percent, and she sashayed away to become the head of UN Women.  

With her freshly brushed hazelnut bob and an emphatic nod over pearls, Bachelet could pass for Angela Merkel’s sister. Although the leader of a Catholic country, she’s committed several deadly sins: Divorced. Three children — from two men. And, in what could have been a dealbreaker for many, she doesn’t believe in the Big G upstairs. Instead, she says, “I am agnostic … I believe in the state.” As it turns out, the state believes in her. After heartily winning Chile’s election in 2013, she returned — for what Kaltwasser calls “Bachelet 2.0” — and for the past year, she’s been on a roll. 

But that doesn’t mean the country isn’t divided by her approach. Her tax and education reforms remain contested topics. Debates have morphed into street protests, as the country’s rising middle class have begun demanding more than they used to. The thinking, Kaltwasser says, is “OK, so we have democracy, but now let’s make it better.” Then there’s the corruption scandal she’s embroiled in, which has a way of paralyzing governments. Recent topics on the table used to be education reform and abortion, but today, all anyone can talk about is corruption.

If Bachelet handles the scandal correctly, perhaps through tough reforms against corruption, she could leave a legacy of a stronger rule of law in Chile, Kaltwasser says. The question is whether the doctor can cure the illness before it spreads, or whether it’s already too late.

For more from our Know This Name series, read about The Star of Argentina’s Political Stage and Vietnam’s POW Turned President.