It was in London that I had, for the first and only time in my life, the displeasure of seeing Evelyn Matthei, the right-wing candidate who aspires to become Chile’s new head of state and who will, according to all the polls, be resoundingly beaten by former President Michelle Bachelet on December 15.
My unintended encounter with Matthei happened on October 8, 1999, a few blocks from the Thames, in front of the magistrates’ court on Bow Street, where British judge Ronald Bartle was about to announce whether Gen. Augusto Pinochet, arrested a year before by Scotland Yard for crimes against humanity, could be extradited to Spain. As I happened to be in the English capital on my way to a literary festival with my wife, Angélica, I decided to check out the scene.
The noise that greeted me was deafening. Separated by a strong police contingent, two groups of Chileans were fiercely confronting each other: the largest, made up of Chilean exiles who had been tortured by Pinochet’s secret police and then expelled from the country, was outshouting a smaller faction flown in from Santiago to offer vociferous support to their imprisoned hero, the man who had misgoverned Chile for seventeen years.
Suddenly, from within the bowels of the Pinochetistas, a figure emerged, someone I had seen up till then only in photos and on television. It was Evelyn Matthei, a senator just off the plane from Chile, famous for her vulgarity and the invective she showered on her adversaries. But nothing had prepared me for the foul sewer of words gushing from her mouth, directed at the exiled Chileans demanding justice a few feet away from her.
The impropriety of her onslaught was made all the more shocking as it came from a woman in elegant attire, whose hands, raised like claws, had spent many hours taking piano lessons years ago in—what an irony—that very London she was now revisiting for a different purpose. Even more disquieting was that those receiving this obscene attack were listening to the exact abrasive words that had accompanied their torture in the basements of the dictatorship. This protector of Pinochet’s honor was unconsciously replicating past traumas, returning the victims to the moment of their most brutal humiliation.
Recalling today, fourteen years later, that infamy, I realize something that on that occasion neither I nor anyone else could have anticipated: Bachelet, now Matthei’s rival in the second round of the presidential elections, had heard a similar howl of filth from the men who threatened and beat her when she was arrested, along with her mother, Angela Jeria, in 1975.
Their fault? To be the family of Gen. Alberto Bachelet, who had accepted a ministerial post in the socialist and democratic government of Salvador Allende. When Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, General Bachelet, like so many other patriots, was detained and soon died in custody, paying with his life for his loyalty to the Constitution he had sworn to uphold—a life that ended with a heart attack as a direct result of the savage way he was tortured by his former military colleagues.
The symbolic electoral thrashing that Michelle Bachelet is about to inflict upon the woman who mistreated her companions of misfortune in London is, therefore, intimately gratifying. It is a victory that becomes even more significant once we bring into focus the personal history of the two contenders.