And yet, despite her suffering at the hands of the Pinochet regime, Bachelet's political signature has been reconciliation rather than revenge. As minister of defense, she was credited with brokering a peace between Chilean civil society and the armed forces after a decade of controversial investigations into human rights violations under the dictatorship.
Both her political pedigree and her personal warmth and accessibility played well in an election where gender issues were never far from the surface. In the first round of voting on December 15 election, she garnered 45.96% of the vote, compared with the 25.41%, for conservative millionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera Echeñique, whom she defeated 53.49% to 46.50% in the January 15 runoff.
Bachelet inherits the reins of power on March 11 from fellow Socialist Party leader Ricardo Lagos, hailed as one of Chile's most successful presidents ever, who leaves office with approval ratings above 70%. So while she'll initiate a sea-change within Chile's traditionally macho corridors of powershe has already hinted that women will fill half of the posts in her cabinetshe'll be concerned about preserving the continuity of the country's impressive economic performance. Chile's economy grew 6.3% in 2005, and this year the growth forecast is between 5.25 and 6.25%, fueled mostly by record prices for the country's largest export, copper. Inflation, public debt and unemployment are low, and foreign trade continues to grow, boosted by free-trade agreements with the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the European Union, South Korea and others; new trade pacts are being negotiated with China and India. Infrastructure has been significantly upgraded, crime is down and college enrollment and home ownership are up.
But many Chileans have seen little benefit from the booming economy. Some 10% of Chileans earn up to 60% of the national income, and that dramatic inequality of income has been cited as a key obstacle to Chile's long-term economic development. Bachelet campaigned on promises of pension reform, income growth, environmentally aware expansion of energy resources, and improved relations with neighboring nations.
Although her election is further evidence of a continent-wide shift to the left and away from U.S. economic and political influence, her coalition has remained close to Washington during its three terms in power. Chile's center-left governments have concluded trade agreements with Washington and cooperated on a number of regional initiatives, and they have eschewed the sort of anti-American grandstanding of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales. At the same time, Chile has spoken out against the Iraq war, and last spring President Lagos quietly warned U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her South America visit to ratchet down her own anti-Chavez rhetoricall of which makes many Latin American diplomats hopeful that Bachelet will play an even more active mediator role between the Bush and Chavez camps. "We have a good relationship with the United States," says Bachelet advisor and trade negotiator Ricardo Lagos Weber, son of the outgoing president. "We will continue to strengthen our cooperation, granted that we preserve our national interests.
"Michelle Bachelet studied in the U.S.," Lagos told TIME. "She realizes the importance of the U.S.-Chile relations."