President of Chile
Born Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, September 29, 1951, in Santiago, Chile; daughter of Alberto Bachelet Martínez (an Air Force general) and Ángela Jeria Gómez (an archeologist); married Jorge Dávalos (an architect), 1977 (separated, c. 1986); children: Sebastian, Francisca (with Dávalos), Sofia (with a physician). Education: Studied medicine at the University of Chile, 1970–c. 1973, and after 1979, earning medical degree with a specialty in pediatrics, 1982; studied medicine at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, and German language at Leipzig University, both late 1970s; studied military strategy at Chile's National Security Academy and Military War College, after 1996; completed Continental Defense Course, Inter-American Defense College, 1997; graduated from the War Academy of the Chilean Army.
Addresses: Office—c/o Embassy of Chile, 1732 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036.
Worked as a pediatrician at Swedish-run clinic for children of political prisoners until 1990; Chilean Ministry of Health, advisor after 1994; became senior advisor with the Chilean Ministry of Defense, 1998; appointed Minister of Health by President Ricardo Lagos, 2000, and served two years before Lagos made her Minister of Defense, 2002; elected president of Chile, 2006.
Voters in Chile elected Michelle Bachelet to become the country's next president on January 15, 2006, making this former pediatrician and longtime Socialist the first woman to lead the nation as well as the first of her gender ever elected to head a major South American nation. Her background and family life resonated with many Chileans, for as a young woman Bachelet was jailed and tortured by the military junta responsible for thousands of similar human-rights violations during its 17-year period. "Chileans grasp that she's a symbol of the ways their country has gotten better in the three decades," wrote John Powers in Vogue, "since their military attacked … the presidential palace and sent young Michelle Bachelet to prison."
Bachelet's surname reveals her French ancestry; her father's great-grandfather was a wine expert who emigrated to Chile in 1860 to work for a vineyard. She was born in Chile's capital, Santiago, in 1951, but moved frequently as a child because of her father's job. Alberto Bachelet Martínez was a general in the Chilean Air Force, and the family even lived in Bethesda, Maryland, in the early 1960s, when he was assigned to the Chilean Embassy in Washington, D.C. It was an impressionable age for Bachelet, and she was fascinated by the civil rights movement and the burgeoning counterculture. In her late teens, she and her cousin formed a folk singing duo that performed regularly.
Both Bachelet's father and her Greek-Spanish-heritage mother, Ángela Jeria Gómez, were supporters of Salvador Allende, a legendary figure in contemporary Chilean history. Allende is considered the first Socialist candidate ever chosen to lead a country in a democratic election. But Allende's opponents were strong, with some later revealed to have been backed by funds provided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. On a deadly day in September of 1973, Chilean Air Force pilots bombed the presidential palace, La Moneda, in a military coup. Allende reportedly died by his own hand rather than surrender the official building in exchange for safe passage into exile.
Bachelet was in medical school at the time, and her affluent, well-connected world collapsed virtually overnight. Her father, who had been Allende's choice to head a food-rationing program, was arrested, tortured, and died in police custody in March of 1974. Though her family had been wealthy, "bank accounts were blocked and they didn't let us take out money," Bachelet told New York Times journalist Larry Rohter. "When I walked down the street, people who had been very close to us crossed to the other side so as not to have to see us." Even she and her mother were held for a month in 1975 at Villa Grimaldi, an infamous prison for political detainees used by the military dictatorship. Bachelet was blindfolded and tied to a chair for long periods, and told her that mother would be executed. Fortunately, an old family friend was able to secure their release, and they fled to Australia—where Bachelet's brother was living—and then to East Germany, a Socialist country at the time that offered them asylum.
Bachelet and her mother lived in the Potsdam area of Berlin, and she worked as a hospital orderly and continued her medical-school studies at Humboldt University once she became passably fluent in German. She married a fellow Chilean exile, Jorge Dávalos, and had a son in 1978. All of the family returned to Chile in 1979, where Bachelet resumed her medical studies at the University of Chile. She graduated near the top of her class in 1982, but was unable to find a job because of her family's political legacy. Instead she worked at a clinic funded by Swedish foreign aid funds that aided those shut out of the official health-care system because of their political allegiances. Bachelet had a daughter, Francisca, in 1984, but she and Dávalos separated a few years later. They were unable to divorce, because Chile's conservative family law statutes prohibited divorce at the time, but Bachelet had a second daughter, Sofia, in the early 1990s with a fellow physician.
The military junta that had toppled Allende remained in power until 1990, and Chile's political mood brightened considerably after that. Bachelet became increasingly active in Socialist Party politics once the organization attained legal status again, and was able to find a position with the Ministry of Health. She also found herself drawn more into military-themed topics, and began taking courses at the prestigious National Security Academy and Military War College. From there, she went on to the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C., and graduated in 1997 from its Continental Defense Course. Back in Chile, she was hired by the Ministry of Defense as a senior advisor. "Most of people with my background feel a profound rejection towards anything that has to do with the military," she told Rohter in the New York Times, about her career switch, "but I felt like I was recovering part of my being."
Bachelet quickly emerged as a rising star in her party and popular cabinet member when President Ricardo Lagos named her his health minister in 2000, and then defense minister two years later. She became the first woman ever to hold such a cabinet post in Latin America, and failed to fulfill the predictions of her detractors, who feared she would use the power that came with the job to extract retribution on those who had targeted her family so many years before. When Lagos' term neared its end, she announced her candidacy for the presidency on the Socialist ticket, and ran against her three male opponents with campaign promises for an ambitious social-aid package to help Chile's poorest.
In the balloting on December 11, 2005, none of the four presidential candidates won a clear majority, and the names of Bachelet and her nearest vote-getter, Sebastián Piñera of the center-right National Renewal Party, appeared on a run-off ballot held on January 15, 2006. She beat him with 53.49 percent of the vote to become the first woman ever elected to lead a major South American nation. In her victory speech that night, she told her cheering supporters, according to Powers in Vogue, that "because I was a victim of hate, I've dedicated my life to turning hate into understanding, tolerance, and—why not say it?—love."
Newsweek International, December 26, 2005, p. 66.
New York Times, January 4, 2003; January 16, 2006.
Times (London, England), January 12, 2006, p. 4.
Vogue, May 2006, p. 268.