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First Female President Takes Office in Chile
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First Female President Takes Office in Chile

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First Female President Takes Office in Chile

First Female President Takes Office in Chile
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Chile's first female president, Michelle Bachelet, takes office on Saturday. Bachelet is a socialist pediatrician who was a political prisoner during the right-wing government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is attending the inauguration.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, with Renee Montagne.

Chile inaugurates its first female president tomorrow. The story of that president, Michelle Bachelet, says a lot about the recent history of South America. She is a 54-year-old pediatrician. She was tortured and sent into exile under former president Augusto Pinochet. And for many, her election represents a chance for a country to reconcile with its past.

From Santiago, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY reporting:

Michelle Bachelet's story has captivated her country and beyond. She survived the death of her father, a general killed when Pinochet, aided by the U.S., overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. Bachelet and her mother were later detained. Exile followed, to Australia, then East Germany, where she worked to rebuild Chile's Socialist Party.

This week, Bachelet reaped the rewards of her political activism at her alma mater, the University of Chile.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: The school's most famous daughter asked her audience, Who would have imagined six years ago a woman would take the reigns of power? Not me, she answered, to the delight of the crowd. Bachelet then joked about the strength of women in Chilean society generally.

President MICHELLE BACHELET (Chile): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: When I call different women and men to ask them to be part of this government, she said, many of the men replied, I have to talk it over with my wife. So these are clearly new times, she told her appreciative female audience.

(Soundbite of applause)

MCCARTHY: Bachelet has two children from her first husband, a third from a man she is no longer with. Like many single mothers, she takes her youngest to school each day, despite the demands of her posts in the center-left coalition, including that of defense minister. Sociologist and researcher Teresa Valdes says Bachelet fascinated women by overseeing Chile's male bastion army.

Ms. TERESA VALDES (Sociologist and Researcher): The idea of the military obeying a woman, the idea of the power relationship, and so it is possible that a woman has the authority, so the men have to obey her.

MCCARTHY: In fact, much has changed in Chile. Divorce is no longer illegal. Many women have children out of wedlock, and domestic abuse is now a crime. Life long friend Maria Estella-Ortiz says Bachelet's spontaneous style taps into this changing dynamic in a way that makes many feel included.

Ms. MARIA ESTELLA-ORTIZ (Friend): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: What the majority of people hope to have, more than even higher salaries, she says, is the feeling they are part of this project. What most people ask for, she says, is to feel included, not excluded.

International Women's Day this week took on special significance in Chile. 27-year old Natalia Araida(ph) marched under a banner of Young People for Bachelet.

Ms. NATALIA ARIADA (Marcher): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: Bachelet represents the things that we women wanted and needed, more equality, more personal growth, and solidarity between us and those around us, she says. Bachelet's center-left coalition has deepened the country's Democratic institutions and strengthened the economy.

Luis Felipe Garcia, who marched with Chile's Humanist Party, says there will be a new face and a new gender, but says the ruling coalition Bachelet will lead has historically put economic growth above social concerns.

Mr. LUIS FELIPE GARDCIA (Humanist Party): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: This model, he says, favors the development of the economy and not the development of people.

Whatever disputes may arise, analysts say Bachelet is the expression of reconciliation in Chile. Her former jailer, ex-President Augusto Pinochet, sits under house arrest, charged with human rights abuse and tax evasion, as she prepares to take office.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.

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