Before sundown, the honking started.
First it was just a few cars with flags or people hanging out the window. A lone girl ran down an empty side street with a Bachelet flag held high over her head, so that it streamed out behind her.
Soon, the cars multiplied and condensed into a mass of traffic heading west toward the old center of town. Two children hung out the window of a car about to merge onto the main avenue of the Alameda, chanting: “Bach-e-let, Bach-e-let!”
It was election day in Santiago, Chile. This was a serious affair: Bars closed early the night before, most stores and businesses were closed and alcohol wasn’t sold all day.
By now most of the votes had been counted, and it was time for the party. Chile had just made history. This conservative Catholic country had done what democracies ranging from the United States to Sweden have so far failed to do. It had elected a woman president: Michelle Bachelet.
As the sky grew dark, the eight-lane Alameda–Santiago’s main artery–became a one-way street. On the westbound side, cars beeped and honked their way toward the victory party, flags flying. People stood in the backs of pickup trucks or sat on the tops of the moving cars, cheering. Pedestrians surged next to them and between them. The noise was deafening.
The eastbound lanes, the ones heading away from the party, were empty except for knots of people running toward the celebration.
A little boy rode high on a man’s shoulders, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Bachelet, 54 percent.” It was only a slight exaggeration: The count was showing the new president with a decisive 53.5 percent win.
Bachelet represents many things for Chileans. She represents a continuation of the status quo–one more win for the center-left Concertación coalition that has ruled since military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet left power in 1990.
Even more, she represents change. She is the country’s first female president, a 53-year-old single mother, in a country where divorce was legalized only last year, where abortion is forbidden, where tampons can be hard to come by and fewer than half the women work outside the home.
“It’s great that a woman is in the presidency,” said Karina Reyes Chacana, who was at the celebrations along the Alameda. Reyes is a 27-year-old social worker in the town of Illapel, north of Santiago. “Now we can integrate ourselves into a space that was historically masculine.”
Bachelet also represents an open wound that many Chileans avoid: the military coup that ousted former President Salvador Allende in 1973 and brought Pinochet to power. Her father, a Chilean military officer, died in a torture center during the coup, and Bachelet herself was held in prison and abused before going into exile. Her history links her inextricably to the Pinochet opposition, yet she has hesitated to make it an issue in her campaign.
Often, Chileans are quiet on the topic of the dictatorship that engulfed this orderly country–many want to forget; a significant minority still supports Pinochet. Others want to bring their former leaders to account; they are pushing for investigations and indictments but are frustrated by slow progress that has left the cases of torture and killings still open after a decade and a half of democracy.
“Their human rights policies are lukewarm,” said Paola Lazcano, 30, of the Concertación Party. “There are legal possibilities to be tougher in this area, but they always want to please everyone and they’re afraid. To stay in power, they negotiate on human rights.”
Lazcano, a Santiago teacher who skipped the Alameda celebration, said she fears Bachelet will not be any different. But, she said, better Bachelet than her conservative opponent. “I voted for her,” Lazcano said. “I don’t want to think about it anymore, but I voted for her.”
But for other Chileans, Bachelet represents a leader who can’t forget the past. “I trust her very much on human rights issues,” said Zita Cabello-Barrueto, a Chilean human rights activist who lives in the United States and whose brother was killed after the coup. “I don’t think she will try to put a blanket and say, ‘Let’s forget about it.’ ”
As the street celebrations died down slowly sometime before midnight, confetti littered the streets. A flag appeared for a moment in a streetlight as its carrier moved off into the night. It read, “El sueño existe. Allende vive.” “The dream exists. Allende lives.”