With Sunday's election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, three of Latin America's most pivotal countries are now led by women. There is symbolic unity, but very different types of leaders.
BUENOS AIRES — With Michelle Bachelet’s clear election victory, making her president of Chile for a second time, the three countries with greatest geopolitical pull in Latin America’s southern cone are now led by women.
Alongside Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Bachelet represents the third leg of the stool. Yet the gender coincidence — both welcome and in harmony with our times — does not mitigate their differences in style, personal histories or in their political views about what it means to lead a country.
The Argentine president represents in body and soul the Peronist legacy of rising social mobility. The daughter of a bus driver and a housewife, public education allowed this football fan and political activist to forge a tremendous career in terms of political achievements and accumulation of wealth.
Bachelet is the daughter of an anthropologist and an army general of Franco-Chilean stock. Rousseff’s mother was Brazilian and her father Bulgarian, a lawyer and successful businessman typical of the upper-middle class.
The political commitments made by Rousseff and Bachelet took them to the peripheries of armed struggle, and while they did not wind up taking up arms against their countries’ dictatorial regimes, they were jailed, tortured and sent into exile. Bachelet’s father, head of the Chilean Air Force and utterly loyal to Chile’s ill-fated socialist President Salvador Allende, died in prison of a massive heart attack following another round of torture.
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Bachelet and Kirchner with a statue of Eva Peron in 2009 (Office of Argentine President)
Kirchner had fewer problems during Argentina’s military regime in 1976-82. She chose a spell of relative isolation in southern Argentina, where she was not persecuted. As she has said, in those days, every time she heard a siren she “hid under a bed.”
Public and private
While Rousseff and Bachelet came to office with some managerial experience, Kirchner’s parliamentary role was her key factor. Rousseff was energy and mines minister in the Río Grande Sul state and cabinet chief to her predecessor Lula da Silva. Bachelet was health, then defense minister under President Ricardo Lagos. She rejected the temptation of revenge after the end of the military regime in 1990 — honoring in an even more fitting manner the memory of the father who had died in a Pinochet regime prison.
Bachelet is soft-spoken and does not lose her temper, and she prefers persuasion to issuing orders. She ended her first presidency with an 84.1% approval rating.
Rousseff is more energetic and stricter with her political team than with society. She dismissed eight ministers who were merely suspected of corruption, and did not hesitate to publicly recognize the legitimacy of mass protests that recently shook Brazil. She listened to the people’s message. She did pretend to be distracted or display a personal and characteristic frivolity while part of her society — which must have voted for her — suffered and bled.
Bachelet was elected in 2006 and has returned, while Kirchner became president in 2007 and was reelected in 2011, the year Rousseff entered the Planalto Palace as president.
All three women face the enormous challenge of reducing their countries’ deep social inequalities and income disparities, but also of creating opportunities and some hope for the future.