Michelle Bachelet first met Hillary Clinton at a photo opportunity, when the Chilean was on the cusp of becoming her country’s first female presidential candidate. The two women wound up talking for almost an hour, on women, politics and health policy.
“There was immediate chemistry,” recalls Heraldo Munoz, a former Chilean Ambassador to the United Nations who was there. “From that moment on, they developed a close friendship that grew out of similarities in background, commitment to gender equality and their capacity to reach out.”
Bachelet went on to win the 2006 presidential election and left office four years later with a 78 percent approval rating, as her country’s most popular politician. She then stepped into what might be the former pediatrician’s toughest challenge yet: making life better for half the world’s population on a very tight budget.
As the first head of the United Nation’s agency for women, created barely a year ago, Bachelet’s resourcefulness will be tested. She will need to tap all the contacts from her previous job to raise money and convert lofty goals, such as ending domestic and sexual violence against women, into reality.
“My experience and my story allows me to have meetings with the presidents,” Bachelet, 59, said in a Sept. 8 interview with Bloomberg News in New York. “This has opened a lot of doors that maybe would have been more difficult, because I have met some of them.”
‘Not Always Successful’
She acknowledges she isn’t always successful in convincing people to give her money or in persuading national leaders, of which only 20 in the world are women, to pass and implement legislation addressing gender inequality. Her official powers are limited to advocacy, with little in the way of enforcement.
Established with a proposed budget of $500 million for 2011, a year later Bachelet’s agency, a merger of four smaller less-visible groups, has only gotten about half of those funds as Bachelet spends half her time traveling the world to see donors and the other half visiting women on the ground in the developing world.
Bachelet has beaten adversity. As a 23-year-old medical student, she was detained and tortured by officers of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1975. The year before, Bachelet’s father, Air Force General Alberto Bachelet, died in jail of a heart attack after being tortured on suspicion he opposed the coup that toppled Socialist President Salvador Allende.
Sept. 11, 1973
To this day, like many Chileans, she recalls with visible emotion the date Sept. 11. It isn’t just the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. In Chile, it’s the day “her country lost its democracy” with the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power.
Munoz, author of “The Dictator’s Shadow: Life under Augusto Pinochet,” also reveals her tough side. The book describes how Bachelet used to see one of her torturers in the elevators of the building where she lived. One day she said to him: “I know who you are: I have not forgotten.” From then on, every time she saw him the man averted her gaze and looked down at her shoes.
Born into a military family, Bachelet completed her studies in East Germany after being exiled to Australia. An agnostic and divorced mother of three in a Catholic country, she defied social norms on her return to Chile and rise to power. Her first cabinet post was as health minister. She then became defense minister at a time her U.S. counterpart was Donald Rumsfeld.
Bachelet cites her parents as role models for gender equality from when she was young.
“My mother, an archaeologist, worked all her life,” Bachelet said. “Only when we were very little she stopped working to take care of us. I grew up in a family where women were active. They were strong. My father was a member of the air force but he understood the capacity of my mother.”
Still, Bachelet encountered double standards over the course of her career. Munoz recalls her saying once that if she cries, she would be seen as too weak, while if a man cries, he is in touch with his feelings. If she shows anger, she has lost her cool. An angry man is seen as exercising his authority, she said, according to Munoz.
Those life experiences helped mold what Bachelet lists as some of her priorities during her tenure at UN Women, such as having more female peacekeepers and ensuring mediators carve out better deals for women in post-conflict peace pacts.
Another Bachelet priority is to hold governments accountable. For example, while 117 governments have equal pay laws, in practice women are paid as much as 30 percent less than men. To strengthen her case, Bachelet produced in July a 165-page report packed with statistics to back her argument that empowering women makes economic sense.
“My approach is not only to be an advocate but it is bring a strong economic case because I believe from my personal experience that as a president you have make so many contrasting choices,” Bachelet said. “ So we need to demonstrate, and it’s terrible that we have to, that investing in women is not just the right thing to do but it’s the smart thing to do.”
At home, her enduring popularity has political observers betting on a second presidential bid after her four-year stint at the UN. In Chile, the president cannot serve consecutive terms.
Still Popular at Home
Bachelet is the most popular politician in Chile with a 79 percent general approval rating compared with President Sebastian Pinera’s 34 percent, Santiago-based research group National Center for Public Studies said in an Aug. 4 report. The June 24 to July 24 poll of 1,554 people has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
“Unfortunately for this administration and President Pinera, people compare the two governments, which strengthens Bachelet’s image,” Senator Ricardo Lagos Weber, son of former President Ricardo Lagos and spokesman for Bachelet’s government from March 2006 to December 2007, said in a Sept. 6 phone interview.
In Chile, Bachelet appointed more female cabinet members than her predecessors and increased the number of state-funded nurseries.
“Her personal story was much more accessible for Chileans,” Robert Funk, political science professor at the University of Chile, said in a Sept. 2 phone interview. “Her father was military. She was exiled. She was a single mother who had to raise kids on her own and work. She is not ostentatious in any way.”
In New York, she hasn’t lost that trait. While as former president she’s entitled to a police escort, she prefers to walk or, in a pinch, hail a cab.
Munoz describes going to a concert of Colombian pop star Shakira with Bachelet at Madison Square Garden. In line with others going in, people began to recognize her and asked her to have their picture taken with her.
“She did not once refuse and did it with a smile on her face,” he said. “I have seen others presidents or former presidents that shun that. She doesn’t.”