Chile rival candidates, once children split by coup

AFP, SANTIAGO

Sat, Nov 16, 2013 - Page 7

They were daughters of generals, riding bikes together as children until Chile’s coup upended their lives and country. Decades later, Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei are rival presidential candidates.

Their families were neighbors at the Cerro Moreno air base decades ago and it was here that the two, aged just six and four, would sometimes play together.

Their fathers, both generals, were close and shared a love for the same music and books.

Yet everything changed on Sept. 11, 1973, when a coup overthrew Chilean socialist president Salvador Allende and brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.

Bachelet’s father Alberto, loyal to Allende, was arrested that same day and eventually tortured to death.

Fernando Matthei, meanwhile, sided with Pinochet and, in a bitter twist of fate, became the head of the military academy where his friend was held.

Now, years later, Bachelet, a socialist, faces off tomorrow against her one-time playmate and the only right-wing candidate for the top post following a series of withdrawals.

The election encompasses “extraordinarily dramatic and incredible elements, from a common childhood in the 1950s to candidacies for the presidency from opposing camps,” journalist Rocio Montes told reporters.

“Someone said one of the great mysteries of Chilean politics is whether this is accidental or a product of history,” added Montes, co-author of book titled Hijas de General (Spanish for “Generals’ Daughters”).

While they were not great friends or in the same class due to their age difference, growing up on a military base instilled in both of them a sense of order, duty and a love of learning.

Bachelet, who is now 62 and is strongly favored to win the election, was deeply influenced by her father’s death in March 1974 of a heart attack following months of abuse.

Detained and tortured herself, Bachelet developed a political drive that propelled her to become the first woman president of the South American country between 2006 and 2010 after years in exile.

A doctor by training, Bachelet has also served as the executive director of UN Women, a UN body focused on promoting gender equality.

Her 60-year-old competitor Matthei was in London at the time of the Pinochet coup, since that was where her father was posted.

Following piano studies, she turned her focus to economics once back home. During the final years of the Pinochet dictatorship, which left at least 3,200 dead, she was active in one of the parties that backed the regime.

In 1993, she failed in a bid for the presidency, finding herself ensnared in a wiretapping scandal alongside current Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, which temporarily stalled both of their political careers.

Matthei went on to become a member of parliament and then a senator. In 2011, Pinera named her labor minister.

During the campaign, the two candidates stayed away from their common and painful past — and Bachelet seems to have little taste for revenge.

Her family, like the country’s legal authorities, feels that Fernando Matthei was not directly responsible for what happened to those imprisoned at the military academy where Alberto Bachelet died.

His widow and Bachelet’s mother, Angela Jeria, has even publicly defended him.

“She defends him because she is convinced that he is not responsible for the death of her husband,” said Nancy Castillo, co-author of Hijas de General.