Michelle Bachelet is poised to become the first woman president of one of Latin America’s most conservative countries.
The story could have come straight out of one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez′s novels of magical realism. But Michele Bachelet is no figure of any literary laureate's imagining. Three decades after being tortured by Chile's military, the 54-year-old Socialist has emerged as the clear favorite to win Sunday's election for the presidency of her country.
A new poll shows that Bachelet has consolidated her significant lead over rightist billionaire Sebastian Pinera. The survey, released today by Market Opinion Research International (MORI), found that 45 percent of those polled said they would vote for Bachelet over her rival. If she wins, she would not only would make history as the first woman to lead her country, but would also send a strong message to a Latin America dominated by machismo and revenge—and one which is shifting steadily to the left.
Bachelet's message is one of reconciliation. Although she says that she is still haunted by the physical and psychological pain of being "mistreated" during General Augusto Pinochet′s dictatorship, she has expressed pity toward her torturers who, she says, now carry a "bag of guilt" so heavy they cannot look her in the eyes. She realized this, she recalls, when she found herself face to face with one of her torturers in the elevator of her new apartment block several years ago. "I have tried to channel the pain into a constructive realm," Bachelet has said repeatedly.
Bachelet's personal history has helped to fuel her political popularity throughout the campaign. Her father, Alberto Bachelet, was an Air Force general who supported Salvador Allende's Socialist regime. He died of a heart attack in a prison camp where he had been tortured—one of approximately 3,000 Chileans who disappeared or were killed during the Pinochet years. Bachelet's boyfriend, Jamie Lopez, was also among the murdered. Bachelet—herself detained when she was a 23-year-old medical student—subsequently went with her mother into exile in Australia.
Five years later, Bachelet returned to Chile and started working as a clandestine human rights activist. Intrigued by her father's obsession with defense issues, she later decided to study this field in Washington as well as her native country.