Ex-prisoner seen as Chilean president

Published October 23, 2003

SANTIAGO (Chile): In 1974, soldiers blindfolded and beat Michelle Bachelet in a prison camp. Now thousands of servicemen salute her when she reviews troops at Chile’s annual military parade.

Bachelet, 52, a doctor, former health minister and Latin America’s first woman defence minister, is the face of the dramatic power shifts in Chile, where socialists ran things in the early 1970s, were quashed in a military coup and a long dictatorship and then returned to power as moderates.

She is also high on the list of possible presidential candidates ahead of 2006 elections.

“The very fact that women are being mentioned as possible candidates for the first time in Chile’s history is an advance, not just for women, but for democracy,” Bachelet said. She said it was too early to say whether she will seek nomination as a presidential candidate.

Bachelet does not like to talk about it, but she and her mother were arrested and held at a concentration camp for several months after the September 11, 1973, military coup that launched the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The two then went into exile for five years. Bachelet’s father, an air force general who worked in the socialist government of ousted president Salvador Allende, died in 1974 of a heart attack in a prison where he was tortured with electric shocks.

FIGHTER JET CONTRACTS: It may seem improbable for a centre-left woman with such a background to oversee Chile’s goose-stepping military. But Bachelet’s obvious patriotism, her father’s aviator background, her strategy studies in the national military academy and a previous post as adviser to the defence minister, all boost her credibility.

The trust is such that the military backed her when a magazine published a report, which she denied, that she had belonged to an armed rebel group after returning from exile.

Bachelet, who now has a female counterpart in Colombia, has moved forward with big weapons purchases, such as a $660 million contract to buy 10 F-16 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, and the planned $1.2 billion purchase of six navy ships, three new and three used.

More importantly to many Chileans, under Bachelet the army deepened its commitment to respecting human rights. Some 3,000 people died in the early years of the military government, and thousands more were imprisoned and tortured.—Reuters

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