Bachelet Marks One-Year Anniversary

Chilean President Michele Bachelet delivers a speech on March 11 during her government's first year commemoration at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile. (Photo: Marcelo Agost / AFP-Getty Images)

Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female president, marked the one-year anniversary of her government on March 11. A darling of the international press, Bachelet garnered unprecedented media interest abroad and presented a new vision of Chile to the world.

But her first 365 days were much more complex at home. The sometimes embattled leader endured grueling student protests, corruption scandals, the death of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and a hugely criticized public transit overhaul in Santiago.

While the frequent public opinion polls vacillated with every protest, scandal, or other public frustration, Bachelet did have her successes. South America's first female leader continued Chile's aggressive economic expansion and pursued new free-trade deals all over the world. But by merely being what she represents, the woman, doctor, and former political exile used more than dialogue to make Chile a more inclusive country.

Bachelet's Successes

Bachelet began her term by firmly placing human rights on Chile's national agenda. In October she visited the Villa Grimaldi Peace Park, a Pinochet-era torture center that was used to imprison, torture, or execute thousands of Gen. Pinochet's political opponents. Bachelet herself was held briefly in the complex with her mother in 1975 before being exiled to Germany, and her father — a supporter of overthrown President Salvador Allende — died in military police custody.

Bachelet's visit was hugely symbolic, and she became the first Chilean president to revisit a site of their former imprisonment. Many right-wing Chileans accused Bachelet of attempting to stir-up old divisions, but she defended her decision to remember Chile's divisive past.

"Those who say that the discussion of history will divide us or keep us from performing our current duties are wrong," Bachelet said. "The more we remember what happened, the better we can fight to ensure that it never happens again."

Bachelet was forced to deal with her country's still debated history again in December 2006 when Gen. Pinochet died following a heart attack. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans — both supporters and opponents of Pinochet — flooded into Santiago's streets, and what resulted can only be looked back on as a surreal carnival of the passionate and curious.

Bachelet ultimately decided not to honor Pinochet with a state funeral and did not attend the military funeral he received. Many criticized her for not taking a leading role in the aftermath of the general's death, but the violence that many expected to occur never developed and Santiago's business-minded calm was quickly restored.

The president continued her socially-minded activism on many fronts. Her government gave out over 150,000 scholarships to take Chile's university admittance exam, and a new National Scholarship System was created that will award 1,250 post-graduate scholarships a year and send half of the recipients abroad.

Chile's public AUGE healthcare system, which provides free coverage for certain conditions including HIV and some types of cancer, was expanded to cover 40 diseases in total. All Chileans over 60 years of age were also offered free health care, a benefit that will reach 135,000 people.

Bachelet's government introduced an expansive tobacco control law late last year that placed warnings on cigarette packages, limited tobacco advertising, and created smoke-free zones in shopping malls, restaurants, and public offices.

Chile's pension system was reformed, and the minimum benefits were increased by ten percent. Over 116,000 new jobs were created with financing support from Chile's government.

But Bachelet's socially-minded programs were matched with Chile's firm belief in neo-liberal economic principles. New free trade-deals were signed with Panama, China, and Colombia, and agreements with Australia and Japan are expected to be completed soon. Chile re-joined the Andean Community and maintained strong relations with the Mercosur trade bloc, in which it is an associate member. As the price for a pound of copper hovered around a high of three dollars, Chile's economic outlook had never looked better.

The Challenges

While Bachelet's government had its successes, it was also plagued with controversy, and the president was forced to clean up mistakes made by previous governments for which she took the blame.

Furious student strikes rocked Chile in May, and Bachelet replaced her education minister as a result. Her government is expected to keep a firm eye on the situation, as student-strike leaders meet next month to decide if they will continue with their demands for better school conditions and cheaper public transportation.

In September, the Chiledeportes sports funding scandal dominated Chile's press for months. Millions of dollars budgeted for sports programs all over the country were allegedly directed into the political campaigns of various officials, and although the corruption took place during the previous presidency of Ricardo Lagos, Bachelet suffered in the polls.

Bachelet endured heavy criticism for the Transantiago public transit overhaul in Santiago that replaced the city's vast network of independent buses with a government-controlled system in February. Santiago's subway was flooded and the new bus routes were inefficient. Many Santiago residents could not get to work, several buses were hijacked by angry riders, and Bachelet's government was once again widely criticized.

Although the Transantiago system was planned largely by Bachelet's predecessors, the embattled president once again pledged to fix the system and recently ordered her ministers to come up with a drastic solution.

The Year To Come

As Bachelet marked her one-year anniversary with modest celebrations throughout the country (government officials scaled back larger celebrations because of the Transantiago fallout), even her supporters acknowledge the tough year ahead.

While the president attempts to solve many pressing domestic concerns, she is also finding herself in the middle of an international war of ideology. Chile, unlike many of its neighbors, walks a tight rope between U.S.-backed capitalism and Venezuela-based socialism. As the country promotes its friendly version of socially-minded capitalism to the world, its president could not better represent the dynamic, divided, modern nation. What remains to be seen, however, is if Bachelet can muster the strength to attend to Chile's many domestic problems.

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