The Struggle for Chile’s Future

The Struggle for Chile’s Future

The presidential runoff between Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei presents an opportunity to overcome Pinochet's twisted legacy.


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.

They have known each other since they were children, playing together in Antofagasta, in the north of Chile, where their fathers were Air Force officers. Much has been written about the extraordinary circumstance that Fernando Matthei, Evelyn’s father, was the best friend of Alberto Bachelet. And that months after the 1973 coup, then-Colonel Matthei was named director of the Air Force War Academy, his office close to the rooms where his comrade in arms was being direly harmed—without Matthei lifting his voice even once to help his friend, or even visit him. Had he done so, he could not, of course, have become Pinochet’s health minister or, soon afterward, a member of the military junta for thirteen years.

Children should not be held responsible for the cowardice of their parents—or for their crimes. But it is worth noting that Ms. Matthei, while Pinochet’s thugs were interrogating and kicking the hell out of her childhood pal, was studying economics at the Catholic University of Chile, where reigned the “Chicago boys,” fanatic followers of Milton Friedman’s free-market theories. Their neoliberal policies and embrace of unbridled capitalism and repression of workers’ rights became the dominant ideology of the dictatorship, a series of pitiless measures that Evelyn Matthei, once democracy was restored in 1990, would continue defending as a legislator—policies she wishes to continue as president.

Alas for her, there is not even a spitting chance that she will win the runoff election. In the first round, Bachelet, among a field of nine candidates, most of them considerably to her left, garnered almost
47 percent of the vote, while Matthei registered a dismal 25 percent. This, a mere four years after her fellow conservative Sebastián Piñera became president with 52 percent of the vote.

It’s not easy to evaluate how much voters in the runoff will be influenced by the history that joins and divides the two candidates, given that during the campaign no allusions have been made, on their part, to past bonds. The discussion has centered, as it should, on who can best deal with Chile’s pressing problems, its glaring and shameful inequalities, its educational system tainted by an excess of greed, its current Constitution—
fraudulently approved by Pinochet in 1980—burdened with the remnants of authoritarianism and injustice.

And yet the whole country knows that this is not merely about the future. It is a stark chance to decide once and for all how to overcome the twisted legacy of the dictatorial past. Do Chileans wish to spend the next four years under the woman who flew to London to support the tyrant who persecuted and killed so many of his compatriots? Or would they rather be led by a woman who was herself a victim of that terror and managed to rise above the murder of her father and her own harrowing yesterdays of torments and tribulations to become a symbol of a different Chile, where nobody will ever be subjected to such sorrows?

Perhaps finally, on December 15, Chile will be able to dispel once and for all the insolent shadow that has been devouring us for more than forty years.

Peter Kornbluh wrote about Chile’s 9/11, when the military ousted Salvador Allende from the presidency in 1973.

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