SANTIAGO, Chile — One was the daughter of an Air Force official who helped lead the military junta that seized power in Chile 40 years ago today. The other’s father was tortured to death by that regime.
On Nov. 17, Evelyn Matthei and Michelle Bachelet will face off along with seven other candidates in a presidential election that personifies how Chilean politics remains marked by the convulsions of the 1970s and ’80s. One side of the political divide still defines itself by its opposition to a dictatorship that ended 23 years ago, while the other struggles to erase its involvement with a regime that killed 3,000 people.
“The dictatorship is still a factor in Chilean society, the wounds haven’t healed,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile in Santiago. “Some people think they never will until the death of all those involved and even their children.”
At stake in the election is stewardship of an economy that has achieved economic growth averaging 5.2 percent over the past 30 years and given the country an income per capita of $19,475, the highest in South America. Chile has the slowest inflation among major economies in the region and the cheapest five-year credit-default swaps, which are contracts protecting holders of the nation’s debt against non-payment.
The most recent poll on the race, taken July 13 to August 18 by Santiago-based polling company CEP, showed Bachelet leading the field with 44 percent support. Matthei was second with 12 percent in the poll, which surveyed 1,471 people and had a margin of error of three percentage points.
Marco Enriquez-Ominami of the Progressive Party, Marcel Claude of the Humanist Party and independents Franco Parisi and Tomas Jocelyn-Holt all garnered support of 4 percent or less.
Bachelet, seeking to regain the presidency she held from 2006 to 2010 as the candidate of the opposition Socialists, is campaigning on improving public services through higher taxes.
Matthei, the standard-bearer of the ruling coalition, is running on the government’s stewardship of the economy and vowing to accelerate growth by keeping taxes low.
“Economic growth will be of primary importance,” her campaign manager Felipe Morande said Aug. 21. “We want to set the foundation to increase potential growth.”
During Matthei’s tenure as labor minister under current President Sebastian Pinera from January 2011 to this July, the unemployment rate fell to 5.7 percent from 7.3 percent as the economy added more than 300,000 jobs.
GDP has expanded an average 5.5 percent during Pinera’s time in office compared with 3.3 percent for Bachelet’s term, which included the global economic downturn that pushed Chile into recession in 2009.
Even as the two candidates spar over the country’s future direction, it is their personal and family stories that has captured many peoples’ attention.
“The truth is that beyond those good friendships, our lives have been very different,” Bachelet told reporters on Aug. 7, referring to Matthei’s family. “You know the story of my father. He didn’t support the military coup, he was detained, tortured and killed in prison.”
Bachelet’s father, Alberto, and Matthei’s, Fernando, were friends and colleagues in the Air Force in the 1960s. The friendship failed to survive the 1973 coup that overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende, which Bachelet’s family opposed and Matthei’s supported.
The year after the coup, Fernando Matthei became director of the Air Force’s War Academy. It was there where Alberto Bachelet was repeatedly interrogated about his loyalty to the junta by jailers who hooded and threatened to shoot him, according to court documents signed last year by the judge in a trial charging two officials in his death.
On March 12, 1974, Bachelet died of a heart attack after being tortured, according to a report released in June 2012 by Chile’s Legal Medical Service.
Fernando Matthei, 88, has denied any involvement in the death, and the magistrate in charge of investigating murders at the military academy refused to charge him in July.
“My father couldn’t have done more for General Bachelet,” Matthei said Aug. 11.
Bachelet said she respected the judge’s decision.
Fernando Matthei became a member of the ruling junta in 1976. His daughter studied economics at the Catholic University in Santiago.
After her father died, Bachelet said she was detained and tortured by the junta’s secret police before fleeing the country for East Germany, where she began her medical studies.
In 1979, the same year that Evelyn Matthei obtained her economics degree, Bachelet returned to Chile and resumed her studies as a doctor. A self-declared agnostic and divorced mother of three in a country where the majority of people are Catholic, Bachelet defied social norms with her rise to power following the end of the dictatorship.
She became the second democratically elected female president in South America, after Guyana’s Janet Jagan, with her election in 2006. Bachelet left office four years later with a 78 percent approval rating, according to CEP. Pinera currently has a 31 percent approval rating, according to the July 13 to August 18 CEP poll.
Constitutionally prohibited from running for a second consecutive term, Bachelet moved to New York in 2010 to run UN Women, a gender-equality agency created at the United Nations that same year.
She returned to Santiago in 2013 to begin a presidential campaign, calling for free education for all Chileans following two years of student protests for cheaper schooling. Her government would boost corporate taxes to 25 percent from 20 percent to finance the initiative, a measure Matthei’s allies say will scare off investors.
Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said on June 21 that the proposal was already damping investments. Higher taxes would slow economic growth, crimping tax revenue at the same time Bachelet would raise spending, he said.
Three months after Bachelet left office, Moody’s Investors Service gave Chile the only double-A credit rating in Latin America, citing “years of solid macroeconomic policies.”
Chile’s dollar-denominated bonds returned 32 percent from March 2006 to March 2010 when Bachelet governed. That’s four times the 7.9 percent return of the bonds under the current Pinera administration, and more than the 27 percent gain on similar Latin American bonds during her tenure, according to Bank of America Corp.
Matthei vows her government would add 600,000 jobs to a labor force that currently totals 8.2 million by boosting economic growth through lower taxes than her competitor.
The choice of Matthei as its candidate has made it harder for the ruling coalition to distance itself from the past, said Patricio Navia, a political science professor at New York University.
“There is an important sector of the right wing that doesn’t seem to understand that in order to win elections, there has to be a distance with the authoritarian legacy,” Navia said.
Pinera won the 2009 election in part because he could disassociate himself from the military regime, Navia said. Pinera voted against the dictatorship in the 1988 plebiscite that brought Pinochet’s reign to an end.
By contrast, Fernando Matthei campaigned in favor of maintaining the dictatorship in 1988, appearing on broadcasts urging Chileans to vote for Pinochet.
“The past mustn’t kidnap the future,” Pinera told reporters last week. “The hatreds of our grandfathers can’t poison the lives of our grandchildren.”
With assistance from Sebastian Boyd and Eduardo Thomson in Santiago.
© 2013, Bloomberg News