She is a divorcee, a single mother and an agnostic in a strongly Catholic country. Yet Michelle Bachelet has reached the highest political office in Chile. That is a reflection on her skill in transforming her personal status into a plus, and an indication of the profound changes taking place in Chileansociety.
Born in Santiago in 1951, much of her childhood was spent moving around the country to follow the career of her father Alberto, an air force pilot of French origin. In 1970, she began studying medicine and joined the Young Socialists. It was the beginning of a turbulent political career.
Tragedy engulfed the Bachelet family after General Augusto Pinochet overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973. Alberto, an Allende loyalist, was tortured to death. While continuing her studies, Michelle secretly helped relatives of those persecuted by the dicatorship. As a result, she and her mother were arrested.
“I never saw her cry after her father died,” Michelle’s mother recalled. “She has enormous self-control. I think she inherited a lot from my husband – charisma, kindness, intelligence, and the ability to organise and lead people.”
Forced into exile after their liberation, the Bachelets lived in Australia and in East Germany. Michelle continued her education and got married, and campaigned for human rights. She returned to Chile in 1979 but could not get a job because of her politics.
Her return from the wilderness began in 1990 when democracy was restored in Chile. The breakthrough came ten years later when she was appointed health minister and then defence minister in 2002. She became the first woman to hold the job in South America, and a symbol of national reconciliation between the army and the rest of society.
Above all it is Michelle Bachelet’s evident ability to connect with people that has driven her career forward – and a sense that her difficult past has given her determination and warmth, not bitterness.