For Chile’s Bachelet, decision to call on army was weighty

Given the family history of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, it is with some irony that she has been forced in the final days of her government to call on the army to rescue her earthquake-ravaged nation.

As a young woman, Bachelet was jailed and tortured by the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Her father, an air force general who opposed the 1973 military coup, died in jail.

But now, faced with large-scale looting and food shortages, Bachelet, who heads the fourth consecutive center-left government since Pinochet’s 1990 ouster, has sent in the troops.

And so far, the move has been met with wide public approval -- testament to the depth of the emergency, the high level of popular support for Bachelet, and a modern military.

It is not a decision she made lightly; she arrived at it only after intense debate within the government, say experts and people who know her.

“She has the credibility and the political capital to take a step like this,” said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. State Department official in charge of Latin America.

Given her history, Bachelet, a Socialist, will be trusted by many Chileans to act to preserve law and order without allowing human rights to be violated, DeShazo added.

If anything, Bachelet, 58, has been criticized in some quarters for not sending in the army more quickly after the magnitude 8.8 quake struck early Saturday, with some Chileans questioning whether her leftist politics slowed her hand. President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who takes office March 11, subtly took a stab at Bachelet saying, after she announced the army deployment Sunday, that he was glad she had finally taken his suggestion.

Chile remains a fundamentally conservative country, socially, politically and economically. Preserving order is of primordial importance to large segments of society, and some Chileans are willing to risk a return to authoritarianism amid the threat of a much-feared “social explosion.”

Long before her election four years ago, Bachelet worked to build a good relationship with Chile’s democracy-era military. Under the presidency of mentor Ricardo Lagos, she served as defense minister, the first woman to hold that post in South America. Her work in cultivating mutual trust was instrumental in her victory in the 2006 election.

Bachelet’s father, Alberto, was sympathetic to the democratically elected, leftist government of Salvador Allende. When Allende was overthrown by Pinochet, Bachelet’s father was imprisoned and tortured. He died of a heart attack while in custody in 1974.

The next year, Bachelet and her mother were also imprisoned and tortured. They were allowed to go into exile, eventually settling in East Germany. Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979, finishing her medical studies and practicing as a pediatrician.

Before the quake, Bachelet was enjoying approval ratings around an extraordinary 80%, in large part because she is credited with shielding Chile from the global economic crisis of the last couple of years.

The Chilean Constitution barred her from seeking a consecutive term, and, unlike many of her counterparts in Latin America, she was bowing out gracefully, even when Pinera, a right-wing billionaire from the opposition, defeated her party in elections in January.

Speaking Tuesday, Bachelet reiterated the need for the military, saying that nearly 14,000 troops had been dispatched to restore order but also to assist in distribution of aid.

“Help will arrive,” she said. “You can always feel that things could have been done better, but the truth is it will always be insufficient.”