Chile Politics — 24 September 2013

 In Chile, two women are battling for the presidency.  This is only the second all-female contest in recent history–the first was in Senegal in 2012. That both candidates are women is notable, for one, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, was most recently head of the organization in New York whose short name is “United Nations Women.”

 Michelle Bachelet leads the coalition on the left. As president, she was not allow to run again 4 years ago as no president can secede herself or himself.  On the right, is Evelyn Matthei.  She took the helm as the candidate for her coalition, when Pablo Longueira, who won the primary, pulled out of the race after suffering a nervous breakdown.

 There are actually 9 candidates for the presidency here, including a third female, but the chance that anyone beyond the candidates from the leading two parties will make it to the second round of voting is practically zero.  When the military regime gave up power in 1990, it left behind a political system in which the top two candidates from each election win.  That way the right wing cannot be outnumbered and outvoted by the majority.  Changing this system is a priority of left-wing.

 One cannot talk about current political events in Chile without mentioning the human rights abuses of the former military government.  This is especially true this time around for two reasons.  First, September 11 marks the 40th anniversary of the coup that toppled the democratically-elected Marxist President Salvador Allende. Second, and more remarkably, one candidate was a victim of the regime while the other’s father was complicit.

 Michelle Bachelet’s father was a general in the air force who was tortured to death by the military regime, accused of treason for his service to the Allende government.  Evelyn Matthei’s father was a general in Pinochet government where he became head of the air force and Minister of Health.  Fox News in the USA said that Matthei oversaw the school where General Bachelet was killed, but that is simply not true.

 After her father’s death, Michelle Bachelet continued as an partisan in the militant wing of Young Socialist party.  She was captured and tortured two years after her father.  This is a topic that she does not like to discuss.  Evelyn Matthei says she also was was a victim.  As a child of the head of the air force, she says she was subject to much bullying in grade school.

 Even President Obama addressed Chile’s violent past when he visited two years ago. He mentioned America’s role in helping foment the chaos that led to the military coup.

 Democracy was restored in 1990, but that does not mean the arguing has stopped.

 The television news this month has devoted many hours of programming to retelling events of the past including never-before-seen footage and photos taken by an American combat photographer who had most recently worked in Vietnam. He was the only photographer around with combat experience, so he continued to snap photos as the rest of the press corp took cover as bombs and bullets rained down on the president palace, La Moneda.

 Given the timing, President Piñera, a moderate on the right whose party is part of Matthei’s coalition, finds it necessary to say something about events of 40 years ago.  He held a commemoration at La Moneda.  Evelyn Matthei has said she would attend. Three fringe candidates came.  Michelle Bachelet did not attend.

 The extreme right is still smarting over the assassination of their political idealogue and  founder Jaime Guzman by left-wing militants in 1991–he was a key figured in the Pinochet regime. His killers are living under political asylum in Cuba and Argentina.  The UDI urged president Piñera to bring up the topic when Raul Castro recently visited the country. The militants left behind in Chile have folded back into the communist and socialist parties.  Their leader is a senator now–he ordered the rocket attack that almost killed General Pinochet in 1986.

 There is not much open discussion regarding who is to blame for the military coup.  The right blames the left.  The left blames the right.  Whenever the topic of political reconciliation and the right’s participation in the military regime is broached, the president of the UDI, Patricio Melero, calls on Michelle Bachelet to talk about the killings and kidnappings that occurred in Eric Honecker’s East Germany–Bachelet, like so many Chileans, was pressed into exile.  For a time she live in East Germany.

 Not all voices on the right are as pointed.  Recently Senator Hernan Larrain of the UDI said, “I ask forgiveness, this is my voice for reconciliation.”  That was considered a major gesture towards reconciliation here.

 The head of the election commission too has been affected by reflections on the past.  Juan Emilio Cheyre, a retired general from the Army, recently admitted that he had handed over for adoption a child whose parents were assassinated by the Chilean Army–as a young sergeant, he had been told the parents blew themselves up with a bomb.  In a remarkable live television event, the General and the adopted boy, now a grown man, confronted one another in front of the cameras.  The next day, Cheyre stepped down.

Former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos recently penned a biography for which President Bill Clinton wrote the introduction.   Lagos said that Chileans have a character flaw which he fears at any moment can well up into violence.  There will certainly be violence on September 11 this year as there is each each year on the anniversary.  Hooded militants will take to the streets to set fires, burn buses, and bash in store fronts.  The police will spray them with tear gas and water cannons in scenes eerily reminiscent of events 40 years ago.  The only difference is this time around, the police will not use live ammunition.

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