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Chile's Driving Force

Once imprisoned by Pinochet, the new Socialist president Michelle Bachelet wants to spread the wealth initiated by the dictator's wrenching economic policies

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The reasons for the agrarian boom are obvious to its beneficiaries, some of whom I meet at the Coronel rodeo. Pinochet's free-market regime offered farmers a crucial choice: fight a losing battle against cheaper grain imports from Argentina or develop products for export. A critical mass of farmers wisely—and ultimately successfully—chose the export route. "Pinochet saved us," says Marina Aravena, sitting in the rodeo stands next to her father, an elderly rancher and agribusiness owner. Bachelet's inauguration would take place during the rodeo weekend, but Aravena, like many of the 2,000 spectators, had no intention of watching the ceremony on television. "I'm not the least interested," she says.

At night, ranchers and spouses gather to celebrate the winning huasos—Chilean cowboys—inside the rodeo ground's makeshift banquet hall, a palm-thatched space with sawdust spread over the floor. Couples shuffle through the cueca, a popular dance that reminds me of a rooster trying to corner a hen. In a fast-changing, increasingly urbanized society, many Chileans seem eager to embrace huaso culture—with its emphasis on military bearing; mocking songs; and a hardy cuisine reliant on empanadas (meat-filled turnovers) and cazuela de carne (thick beef stew poured over rice).

The distinctive huaso culture grew out of geographical constraints. Because the country is so narrow—never wider than 120 miles from the Andes in the east to the Pacific in the west—ranches were always much smaller than in nearby Argentina, with its vast plains. Grazing lands in Chile weren't fenced off, so herds from neighboring ranches mingled and were separated only after they had fattened enough for slaughter. The most efficient way to cull animals was to lead them singly into corrals, each enclosure belonging to a different rancher. Therefore, a premium was placed on treating livestock gently; no one wanted to risk injuring a neighbor's cattle.

Tonight, at the long, wooden bar, boisterous huasos are sampling local cabernets and merlots. An argument ensues about a proposal to allow women to compete in future rodeos. "Anything can happen," says Rafael Bustillos, a 42-year-old huaso, with a shrug. "None of us could have imagined a woman president."

Bachelet would no doubt agree. "A few years ago, frankly, this would have been unthinkable," she told the Argentine congress on her first visit abroad, just ten days after assuming office. Discriminatory attitudes toward women, which had hardened during Pinochet's military dictatorship, lingered well after the restoration of democracy. (Divorce wasn't legalized until 2004; Chile was the last country in the Americas to do so.) Yet Bachelet is a single parent of three children.

She grew up the daughter of a career air force officer, moving around Chile as her father was posted from one base to another. In 1972, with the nation in economic chaos and nearing civil strife, President Allende appointed General Bachelet to enforce price controls on food products and ensure their distribution to poorer Chileans. "It would cost him his life," his daughter would recall in Michelle, a biography by Elizabeth Subercaseaux and Maly Sierra, recently published in Chile. General Bachelet's zeal for the task got him labeled an Allende sympathizer; he was arrested hours after the Pinochet-led coup that began on September 11, 1973, with the bombing of La Moneda. Michelle Bachelet watched the attack from the roof of her university and saw the presidential palace in flames. Six months later, her father died in prison, officially from a heart attack.

After her own brief imprisonment (no official charges were filed against her), Michelle Bachelet was deported to Australia, in 1975, but after a few months there she moved to East Berlin, where she enrolled in medical school. She married another Chilean exile, Jorge Dávalos, an architect who is the father of her two older children, Sebastián and Francisca. Bachelet speaks about her personal life with an openness unusual, especially among public figures, in this conservative Catholic country. She wed in a civil ceremony in East Germany, she told her biographers, only after she became pregnant. She separated from her husband, she added, because "the constant arguments and fights were not the sort of life I wanted for myself or my children." Returning to Chile four years later, in 1979, she earned degrees in surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chile's School of Medicine. At a Santiago hospital, she met a fellow doctor who, like Bachelet, was attending AIDS patients. The couple separated within months of the birth of their daughter, Sofia.

Following years of working as a doctor and administrator at public health agencies, Bachelet was named Minister of Health in 2000 by President Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist for whom she had campaigned. As a member of his cabinet, Bachelet quickly delivered on her public promise to end long waiting lines at government clinics. With her popularity soaring, Lagos tapped her in 2002 to be his Minister of Defense, the first woman to occupy that post and a controversial appointment, considering her father's fate. "I'm not an angel," she told the New York Times that year. "I haven't forgotten. It left pain. But I have tried to channel that pain into a constructive realm. I insist on the idea that what we lived through here in Chile was so painful, so terrible, that I wouldn't wish for anyone to live through our situation again." By most accounts, the daughter proved popular among army officers for working hard to dissolve lingering distrust between the armed forces and center-left politicians. In 2003, on her watch, army commander in chief Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre publicly vowed that the military would "never again" carry out a coup or interfere in politics.

Bachelet won the presidency in a runoff on January 15, 2006, with 53.5 percent of the vote against conservative Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman. She named women to half of 20 posts in her cabinet, including Karen Poniachik, 40, as minister of mining and energy. "When I visit my supermarket, women clerks and customers—even some who admit not having voted for Bachelet—tell me how good they feel about seeing women at the top levels of government," says Poniachik, a former journalist. But many others, particularly in the business world, where a bias against women is widespread, sound uneasy.

Mine owners, in particular, have distrusted Socialists since the Allende years. Calling copper "the wages of Chile," Allende nationalized the biggest mines, which happened to be owned by U.S. companies. That action provoked the ire of Washington, and soon the Central Intelligence Agency was abetting plotters against Allende. The Marxist president had failed to gain the support of most copper miners, who considered themselves the country's blue-collar elite. Angered by hyperinflation that undercut their paychecks, many joined general strikes—in part financed by the CIA—that weakened Allende and set the stage for his overthrow. Under Pinochet, most state mines were sold back to private investors, both foreign and Chilean. Low taxes and minimal interference let mine owners raise technology levels, improve labor conditions and vastly increase production. And the center-left civilian governments that followed Pinochet have pursued the same policies. Several South American countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, are increasing state control of natural resources. "But in Chile, it's not even an issue," says Poniachik. "Everybody thinks private investment has been positive in all aspects of mining."

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