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Why the U.S. Needn't Fear Chile's New Socialist Leader

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ROBERTO CANDIA / AP

President Michelle Bachelet and her daughters celebrate after winning the election on Sunday

"Who would have thought, my friends, who would have thought 20, 10 or even five years ago that Chile would elect a woman as president?" Michelle Bachelet told thousands of cheering supporters who turned out Sunday night to cheer her election victory. Nor was it just any woman who had shaken conventional wisdom in one of the continent's most socially conservative Roman Catholic countries, which only recently legalized divorce: Bachelet is a 54-year-old physician, an agnostic, a socialist and a single mother of three. Her candidacy also offered the electorate an opportunity to reckon with the trauma of the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990. The president-elect's father had been an Air Force general who died in the hands of Pinochet's security forces, while Bachelet herself and her mother had also been held in torture centers before being exiled.

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 Sebastißn Pi˝era Eche˝ique, 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 power—she has already hinted that women will fill half of the posts in her cabinet—she'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 Chßvez 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 rhetoric—all 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."