As Chilean socialist Michelle Bachelet takes office as president on March 11, she’ll be struggling to maintain a balance between change and continuity. In a country where the political and economic legacies of the Pinochet dictatorship still reverberate, and with continental politics shifting leftward, just how much she leans in one direction or another will be of considerable concern.

Bachelet, 54, won a runoff election on a platform emphasizing education, employment, equal opportunities, pension reform and creation of what she called a “broad social protection system.” But it is the persona and personal history of Chile’s first woman president that mark a radical departure from most of Chile’s political class. Bachelet, an agnostic and a single mother of three, doesn’t conform to the traditonal mold of this socially conservative country, although she in fact reflects Chile’s real society, where 30 percent of households are run by women and more than half of all children are born out of wedlock.

Bachelet’s twenty-member cabinet is half women, something she pledged during her campaign and that, she says, “reflects a new style of government that combines new faces with experience.” The prospects for profound social change and reform, however, require something more than symbolism. “Without a doubt, the gender issue is a historical change, but we still can’t say how much this will improve the situation of women,” says Ricardo Israel, director of the International Center for the Quality of Democracy. “Being a woman isn’t enough, just as it wasn’t enough for Bolivia’s Sánchez de Lozada to have an indigenous vice president or to have a worker in the Brazilian presidency.”

The obstacles to significant reform of Chilean society–still plagued with one of the most unequal economies in the hemisphere–remain formidable. Bachelet will lead the fourth consecutive administration of the center-left Concertación Democrática alliance, composed primarily of the Socialist and Christian Democratic parties. In power since the 1990 restoration of democracy, the Concertación government has been marked by what some critics call excessive caution. The Concertación has shifted ideologically to the center of the political spectrum, and its successive presidents have sought only minor reforms to the free-market economy imposed during the Pinochet dictatorship.

With skyrocketing copper prices now pumping tens of millions into the state treasury, expectations among average Chileans are high that Bachelet will plow this bonanza into major social spending programs. Bachelet has announced thirty-six measures for her first 100 days in areas including employment, education and health. In the past, Concertación administrations argued that reform plans were short-circuited by conservative domination of congress, but Bachelet will have no such excuse: In December her allied parties won majorities in both chambers for the first time.

It’s not at all clear, however, that Bachelet is willing to break with the neoliberal model her coalition has been managing since the end of the Pinochet regime. Like Salvador Allende, she is a socialist and a doctor, but the comparison stops there. “Latin America is now moving from one development strategy–the Washington Consensus–to a new model of development,” says economist Manuel Riesco of the Center of National Studies for Alternative Development. “We have to wait and see if Bachelet also takes steps in that direction, but at least the composition of her cabinet doesn’t indicate any changes in that regard. The cabinet seems to reflect continuity of the previous Concertación governments.” Indeed, an unexpectedly high number of new ministers (seven of twenty) come from the most conservative wing of her coalition. Economics minister Ingrid Antonijevic is a favorite of the ultraconservative associations of bankers and industrialists.

One of Bachelet’s immediate challenges is to reform the pension fund system, privatized by Pinochet in 1981. Among the system’s many faults is that while the companies that invest workers’ contributions in the stock market (and charge extraordinarily high commissions) are making record profits, about three-fourths of retirees now receive less than the minimum monthly pension of $140. Bachelet’s response: a plan to appoint a commission charged with drawing up a reform bill. “Pension reform will seek to improve the system, not replace it,” is how Bachelet’s official program puts it. Nor is the new government seeking any other major reworkings of neoliberal policies: no word about raising the meager 3 percent royalty paid by foreign mining companies that now control more than 60 percent of copper production, or eliminating legislation that guarantees the armed forces 10 percent of copper sales revenues for military purchases.

Having Bachelet, a former defense minister, as president is seen as an advantage by the Chilean brass, and her relationship with the military is very good, despite her family background. (Her father, an Air Force general considered a traitor by the Pinochet regime, died in custody, and Bachelet, then a medical student, was arrested along with her mother and tortured.)

Although certainly not part of what Washington considers the new “axis of evil” led by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, and falling short of the more social democratic presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Bachelet nevertheless has some ideological affinity with leaders in the region, which could offer a platform for dialogue and conflict resolution. In recent years Chile has had conflicts with Peru over maritime borders and weapons sales, with Bolivia over access to the Pacific Ocean and with Argentina for suspending its supply of natural gas to Chile. “Because of Bachelet’s understanding of military issues, and particularly geopolitics, she will have a richer view of our relations with neighboring countries,” says former diplomat José Rodríguez Elizondo. “During the Lagos administration, Chile gave priority to international economic relations and disregarded international politics as such. We were reaping success outside the region while cultivating problems with our neighbors.”

Vowing to give high priority to the region, Bachelet has said that the United States is a “strategic ally,” and that Mercosur, the regional economic organization of which Chile is an associate member, and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, of which Chile has been an enthusiastic supporter, aren’t incompatible. She’s pledged to seek “a basic FTAA” among Latin American nations while each one negotiates further advances, “according to each country’s reality, degree of development and diversity.”

Bachelet has said Chile will be a totally different country by the end of her four-year term. Indeed, she may prompt important changes in terms of empowering women, improving the lot of retirees and expanding preschool education. However, by tapping into state coffers only to fill in the social gaps where neoliberal policies have failed, without the structural reforms required to reverse inequality, her administration will probably be remembered more for continuity than for change.