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Chile's First Woman President Gains Popularity as Her Term Ends

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See original NY Times article here.

SANTIAGO, Chile — At first, breaking the gender barrier in South America did not go smoothly for Michelle Bachelet.

Ms. Bachelet leaving the inauguration of a park last month in Santiago. As she ends her term, she is one of Chile's most popular leaders.

In 2006, she had just captured the world’s attention, becoming the first woman to be elected president of this deeply conservative country. And she had done it alone, without the famous husbands that had propelled other female presidents in Latin America.

But one month after taking office, Ms. Bachelet faced huge student demonstrations across the country. Her support fell further when a new public transportation system turned chaotic, leading critics to lampoon her with an image of her riding atop a city bus toward the edge of a cliff.

“There was the distinct impression that she was not in control,” said Marta Lagos, director of Market Opinion Research International, a polling company in Chile.

But with only five months until she leaves office, Ms. Bachelet is increasingly likely to be remembered as one of her country’s most popular leaders. Polls this month show her public approval to be above 70 percent, and in recent weeks she has recorded the highest levels since Chile went from dictatorship to democracy in 1990.

Analysts and pollsters attribute her stunning turnaround to her handling of the economy during the global financial crisis and to her decision to save billions of dollars in revenues from copper sales during the last commodity boom. That aggressive saving gave the country money to spend on pension reform and Ms. Bachelet’s ambitious program of social protections for women and children, despite the financial crisis.

Ms. Bachelet is among a handful of Latin American leaders, including President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, whose handling of the crisis has strengthened their popularity. Both Brazil and Chile are now emerging from recession, with Chile’s government saying the economy will grow by 5 percent next year.

Ms. Bachelet, a professed agnostic and single mother of three in a country that legalized divorce only five years ago, shattered the mold of traditional Chilean politicians in this Roman Catholic stronghold. At the start, she said, the political establishment tried to portray her as weak and disrespectful of the office of the president.

“It was an important challenge in the first few years,” Ms. Bachelet, 58, said in a recent interview, noting the way other powerful women had urged her to toughen up and “scream and insult” to be respected. “I took a gamble,” she added, “to exercise leadership without losing my feminine nature.”

Now, with Chile’s presidential election less than two months away and term limits preventing her from running again, rival candidates are scrambling to be photographed next to her, including some who initially criticized her for not spending the copper windfall during the boom.

As she took power, Ms. Bachelet introduced a cabinet of 20 ministers: 10 men and 10 women, a gender parity no previous Chilean president had tried.

But her administration quickly stumbled in April 2006, when more than 100,000 high school students demonstrated for improvements in public education. Her popularity falling, she replaced three ministers in July.

The following February, the introduction of the Transantiago public transportation system, designed by the administration of her predecessor, President Ricardo Lagos, turned into a major embarrassment when it proved confusing and could not satisfy demand.

She replaced five more ministers in March 2007, three of them women succeeded by men. By September, the outcry over Transantiago had pushed her approval rating down to 35 percent.

“I have said it was a mistake,” Ms. Bachelet said. “It was a good idea, but it created problems for the day-to-day life of the people, and that was not acceptable.” She said she did what was necessary to try to alleviate the problems.

Ms. Bachelet had faced worse before. Her father, an air force general, was tortured for months under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and died in prison. Military officials also detained and tortured Ms. Bachelet and her mother before they were allowed to go into exile in Australia. Ms. Bachelet returned in 1979.

After democracy was restored, she worked for the National AIDS Commission. In 2000, President Lagos named her health minister, and she drew controversy for allowing the free distribution of the morning-after pill for victims of sexual abuse. Later, she was appointed defense minister, the first woman in a Latin American country to hold such a post.

But the economic front is where she turned around her presidency.

Ms. Bachelet resisted the cries of politicians to use revenues from copper sales to try to close Chile’s inequality gap, one of the world’s worst. Instead, during her first three years in office, her government set aside $35 billion in revenue from the boom. When the global financial crisis hit, the value of Chile’s exports sank by more than 30 percent. But by then Chile had nearly $20 billion invested in overseas sovereign wealth funds alone.

“We have the distinction of perhaps having the only sovereign funds that made money during the crisis,” said Andrés Velasco, Chile’s finance minister.

Last year, after carrying high public debt for more than two decades, Chile became a net creditor for the first time in its history, Mr. Velasco said.

With billions of dollars saved, Ms. Bachelet’s government legalized alimony payments to divorced women and tripled the number of free early child care centers for low-income families. It added a minimum pension guarantee for the very poor and for low-income homemakers. The government is on pace to complete its goal of creating 3,500 child care centers, said María Estela Ortiz, executive vice president of Chile’s National Board of Day Care Centers.

Ms. Bachelet, a pediatrician, said, “I believe that if you want to fight inequality you have to do it starting at infancy.”

Opposition politicians who once criticized her social-protection efforts as a retreat to an era of big government are now saying they will try to expand her programs to the middle class.

Her unorthodox style has left a mark on the country’s political culture, analysts said. During her state of the nation address in May, she joked about losing a shoe while kicking a soccer ball at a stadium inauguration, saying investment in four new stadiums would include money for “the flying shoe.” In the recent interview, she joked that her gender parity plan for the cabinet was intended to ensure that everyone had a dance partner.

That personal air has also inspired criticism, for example, when she was photographed taking an early-morning ocean swim in Brazil last year during a conference of regional leaders, or received popular artists like Bono and Shakira.

“She did things that were not presidential in the eyes of the Chilean establishment,” said Ms. Lagos, the pollster. “It is very difficult to go back. She lowered the presidency closer to the people.”

Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.

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Corine Milano's picture

Great item, Maria! Thanks for

Great item, Maria! Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I've put it on our news feed on the WP homepage!

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