The Chilean Presidential Candidate Michelle Bachelet: consistent progressive and inclusive politics in Chile are not the exception, but the rule

The Chilean Presidential Candidate Michelle Bachelet: consistent progressive and inclusive politics in Chile are not the exception, but the rule

Last year we heard about the presidential candidacy of Michelle Bachelet in Chile. On January 15th, 2006, she became the first Chilean female president with a 53.49% of the votes.

Although this event was presented by the media across the world as a positive move, it is interesting to note that, even amongst the independent media, news have been expressed in such a way that cast doubts about the capacity of the Chilean society to be progressive and about the role that women have played in Chilean society and its history. They speak of a “conservative society” in which, the sudden candidacy of a women is the unexpected exception and not the result of a long process of social inclusion, participation and progressive policies.

To illustrate my concerns, I will refer to three statements repeatedly used when referring to Michelle Bachelet presidential win. ABC Radio National Breakfast introduced an interview with Roberto Espíndola announcing: “The favourite to win that race is socialist Michelle Bachelet. She is a 54-year-old, agnostic, divorced, single mother who has broken the mould of politics in Chile's deeply conservative Catholic society” . However, it would be fair to say that most of the articles written in the last few months have expressed similar notions. The first one of these preconceptions is that Chilean politics are male dominated, and my question is, compared to what? The US? Australia? Second is the notion that, the majority of the population identifying themselves as Catholics necessarily means it is a conservative society – is this so? Lastly, is the use of the term “Latin-America”.

In relation to Chile having “male-dominated politics”, even during the Pinochet dictatorship, women had important roles in politics, both in the dictatorship and in the opposition. Monica Madariaga was Pinochet’s Minister of Justice and Education. Gladys Marin was Secretary General of the communist party and a deputy leader for many years. She was an unrivalled politician, well respected by everyone, including right-wing politicians.

Declaring Chile “a male dominated country” may spring from the majority of the population being Catholic: is this enough to validate the preconception?

In Chile, as for many other countries in their diversity of religions, Catholicism is a cultural imprint, rather than a set pattern of behaviour. Chile is a secular country, where the separation between religion and state is actually practiced. The mention of “God” has no place in political discourses – serious ones - and there is no precedent of any former or actual religious leader taking on political roles, such as Governor General (The Right Reverend Dr Peter Hollingworth, Australia 2001-2003) - this situation would be unthinkable. In 1973, Salvador Allende Gossen, a doctor, an atheist, a profound democrat and a socialist, was elected for to become the Chilean president. Today’s Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, is also an atheist, socialist and a divorcee. In 1818, the first Chilean president Bernardo O’Higgins, was an atheist, born to a single mother.

So the candidacy of Michelle Bachelet, while a most welcome and progressive step for any nation, is the result of 200 years of consistent progressive policies. Since independence from Spain in 1810, this development was only interrupted by a dictatorship backed by right wing extremists supported by the US - a nation that persistently declares its own Christianity.

The church - any church – is essentially conservative. It is important in a progressive society that agreement reached by all, without church interference. In Chile, religious matrimonies have no legal weight – they constitute a ceremonial option, generally unassuming and diminishing in numbers. Women do not lose their identity after marrying: women maintain their name. And while divorce was only legally approved recently, there was a legal loop that made it annulment possible. Women have a very important role in society. Individual exceptions to this can be found everywhere, including in rich countries such as Australia and the UK. How many women candidates for Prime Minister have there been in Australia, or in the US? And how many socialist and atheists candidates? A look at today’s politics in Australia tell us that as other countries go steadily forward in their thinking, Australia and the US are sadly not; more regrettably, we don’t seem to realise, or even care.

After living in Australia for almost 20 years, I have some insight into the role of women in this society. In relation to “tradition” and prejudice there is no opportunity in high ranks politics for an atheist, a single mother or a socialist, whether male or female. And, in today’s current environment, I cannot envisage the possibility of progressive politics, let alone a woman, of any affiliation, ever to become a Prime Minister.

So, my question again, instead of presenting Chile as an exception to the rule, shouldn’t the soundness of that rule or prejudice be questioned? Instead of presenting Anglo-Saxon societies as the models against which other countries should be compared when measuring their progress, should we not look at how “male domination”, or “traditional values” are expressed in our own societies first? The reality is that we are not free of any of these. This only is expressed differently and in the case of women identity, loosing one’s surname is a severe violation - according to this Chilean.

It is too easy to continue to re-enforcing stereotypes, to give the readers what they expect to find when reading about a country in South America – in this case Chile. While this is not the general tone of most independent media, we have to be mindful as this trend does not assist in expanding our knowledge; on the contrary, it promotes complacency, and at its worst, ignorance, narrow-mindedness and arrogance.

In regards to the use of the term “Latin-America”, it goes without saying that America, the continent, is predominantly Spanish/Latin based language speaking. The United States of America, USA, acknowledges in its name the fact that their land belongs to a continent called America.

I am always startled at academics, writers and journalists, unquestionable acceptance of the tyranny of an imposed notion of Latin-America. I only know of one America, the continent. There is no need to call it Latin - as Latinity is the rule and not the exception in America. However, if we were to apply it, it should then include French Canada.

The adjective “Latin” is being used to describe some racial and cultural features, which besides being inaccurate, amount to a racist description. More appropriately, geographic descriptions are used when, for example, distinguishing between East and Western Europe.

If we accepted and made an exception in America - which would allow describing people by their perceived cultural or language background - it is then the exception and not the rule that would require an epithet. If this were the case, then it would logically follow to speak of America (as a term for most of the countries in the continent) and Anglo-America (to represent the exception and the minority).

Latin-America is described as such, by people who cannot understand or do not care to understand the diversity of the American continent, or by uninquisitive repetition. By utilising this amorphous term, the American people of those countries are excluded from their own distinct culture and pride. This is not only damaging for those American countries, it also promotes ignorance in the rest of the world.

These oversimplifications take away the distinct humanity of the people in these countries and diminish the chances of learning from one another. It makes it easier for the powerful rich nations to exploit, invade and impose their dominant culture. Why should we accept this?

America, from Mexico to Chile, has been submitted to similar patterns of colonialism. However, the responses have been as diverse as their different local cultures, industrial development, and geography could produce.

Common history has provided an instance in which citizens have chosen their identity as opposed to description imposed by foreign powers. These names represent the people, their culture and their choice – this should be respected. Regions should be acknowledged by their geographic proximity and not on the basis of the fallacy of a single homogeneous culture. Unity between nations should be a form of collaboration, not one that denies it from their diverse cultural wealth and identity.

Finally, I would like to suggest that more could be done while objectively informing and this is to challenge the frame of prejudice and subjectivity within which most political commentary is structured these days.

Beatriz C. Maturana


References:1 Espíndola, Roberto. “Michelle Bachelet: a break with Chile’s male-dominated politics”. Open Democracy, December 6 2005.

2 Interview with Robreto Espíndola, presented by Fran Kelly. “Chilean Election”. ABC Breakfast, Friday 13 January 2006. Internet available at: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/brkfast/stories/s1546793.htm

3 See also: “Presidency beckons for a victim of Pinochet torture”, The Age,
December 10 2005.

4 For more information about Gladys Marín see: Mullan, Michael. “Chilean communist leader unremitting in her fight against Pinochet”. The Guardian, March 9 2005

5 His time serving as the Governor General was filled with controversy, which included claims that “he'd failed to deal properly with serious complaints about paedophiles within the church “ (interview with Peter Thompson, ABC, Big Ideas, June 27 2004. Internet available at: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bigidea/stories/s1140407.htm

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