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2006-01-17

Fmr. Political Prisoner and Torture Survivor Michelle Bachelet Elected as Chile’s First Female President

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In Chile, former political prisoner Michelle Bachelet has become the country first-ever female president. Running on the Socialist ticket, Bachelet beat her billionaire rival in Sunday’s election. Bachelet is the daughter of an air force general who was tortured and died in prison after Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973. She too was imprisoned by Pinochet’s regime before fleeing into exile. We speak with Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, Chilean torture survivor Emilio Banda as well as Joyce Horman, the widow of a U.S. journalist who was killed by Pinochet forces. [includes rush transcript]

In Chile, Socialist presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet was elected to be the country’s first female leader in a runoff election Sunday. Bachelet won 53 percent of the vote beating out opposition candidate, billionaire Sebastian Pinera. She spoke to supporters in Santiago on Sunday after the election results were announced.

  • Michelle Bachelet:
    "My government will be a government of unity. I will be the President for all Chileans."

Bachelet is a 54 year-old medical doctor who was imprisoned and tortured under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Her father was an air force general who was arrested and tortured for opposing the 1973 US-backed coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. Her father died of a heart attack in prison. A medical student at the time, Bachelet was also arrested, along with her mother. They were blindfolded, beaten and denied food for five days while their cellmates were raped. They were later forced into five years in exile, first in Australia, then communist East Germany.

Current President Ricardo Lagos, who was constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, made her his health minister six years ago, then in 2002 named her defense minister. She will be the fourth consecutive president from the center-left coalition known as the Concertacion that has run Chile since 1990.

An agnostic single mother of three, she was not an obvious choice for leadership in Chile, a socially conservative Roman Catholic country.

Bachelet told a news conference on Monday that she would strive to root out Chile’s embedded social divide and pledged to name a cabinet with an equal number of men and women. On foreign affairs, she said she would try to improve relations with neighboring countries and said she supported the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

In her victory speech Sunday, she promised tolerance saying "Because I was the victim of hatred, I have dedicated my life to reverse that hatred and turn it into understanding, tolerance and — why not say it — into love."

  • Ariel Dorfman, Chilean-American professor of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of numerous books, including "Other Septembers, Many Americas" and "Exorcising Terror, The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet." He was on the staff of Chilean President Salvador Allende on the day of the 1973 coup.
  • Emilio Banda, a former student union leader from Chile. In 1986, he was arrested by Pinochet forces and imprisoned for six months where he was tortured. He left Chile in 1993.
  • Joyce Horman, her late husband, Charles Horman, was a US journalist in Chile during the 1973 coup. He was detained in Santiago days after Pinochet came to power. His body was found later, buried in a cement wall. He was 31 years-old. For years, Joyce Horman fought to uncover the full story of her husband’s death. She sued Gen. Pinochet and other Chilean officials. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was listed as a witness. Her story was the subject of the 1982 Academy-Award winning movie "Missing." In 1999, she obtained classified State Department documents that proved US officials played a role in her husband’s death.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Chile, Socialist presidential candidate, Michelle Bachelet, was elected to be the country’s first female leader in a runoff election Sunday. She won 53 percent of the vote, beating out opposition candidate, billionaire Sebastian Pinera. She spoke to supporters in Santiago on Sunday after the election results were announced.

MICHELLE BACHELET: My government will be a government of unity. I will be the President of all Chileans.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Bachelet is a 54-year-old doctor who was imprisoned and tortured under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Her father was an air force general who was arrested and tortured for opposing the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende. Her father died of a heart attack in prison. A medical student at the time, Bachelet was also arrested, along with her mother. They were blind-folded, beaten, denied food for five days, while their cell mates were raped. They were later forced into five years in exile, first in Australia, then into East Germany.

Current President Ricardo Lagos, who was constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, made her his health minister six years ago, then in 2002 named her defense minister. She will be the fourth consecutive president from the center-left coalition known as the Concertacion, that has run Chile since 1990.

An agnostic single mother of three, she was not an obvious choice for leadership in Chile, a socially conservative Roman Catholic country.

Bachelet told a news conference Monday she will strive to root out Chile’s embedded social divide and pledged to name a cabinet with an equal number of men and women. On foreign affairs, she says she will try to improve relations with neighboring countries and says she will support the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

In her victory speech Sunday, she promised tolerance, saying, quote, "Because I was the victim of hatred, I’ve dedicated my life to reverse that hatred and turn it into understanding, tolerance and — why not say it — into love."

We spoke with Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean-American professor of literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University, just before the program. He is the author of numerous books, including Other Septembers, Many Americas and Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet. He was on the staff of Chilean President Salvador Allende on the day of the 1973 coup. Dorfman gave us his initial reaction to the election.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Chile has had many victories for democracy in the last 16, 17, 18 years, and we managed to get rid of Pinochet and elect three democratic presidents. This is the fourth one.

When I heard that Michelle Bachelet was the new president of Chile, I felt somehow the same enthusiasm, the same thrill that I felt when we defeated Pinochet in the plebiscite and the sort of hopes that opened up, the expectation that opened up when we elected the first democratic president, Patricio Aylwin, in 1990. So it’s been an extraordinary experience.

It’s not only that she is the first woman president of Chile and the first woman who was not, you know, getting into power because she was married to somebody, but on her own merit, but because I think she really embodies a whole new tendency not only in Chile, but in all of Latin America, which is one for more solidarity, great responsibility, of course, fiscal responsibility at the same time. But the context, international context in which she is becoming president and the fact that she has all these factors that should be against her, you know, that she has divorced twice — or not divorced, she’s separated twice, has got three children that she brought up by herself. She is a pediatrician. You know, once again we have a doctor who is in charge of Chile’s destiny, as in the case of Salvador Allende, and again, you have somebody who has worked among the poor, who has seen what they can do, what their needs are, and who, in some sense, changes the whole cultural aspect. And these cultural aspects are very, very important.

I don’t think, you know, that she’s going to be a rabid left winger or that she’s going to suggest that Chile is on the road to socialism, as it was many, many years ago with Salvador Allende. But I think that it signals a really bellwether change in Chile and in the rest of Latin America. It’s part of a whole tendency towards a continent that wants to take its destiny in its own hands. And I’m just thrilled for this.

I’m not a very close friend of hers, though I know her quite well. I’m a good friend of her mother’s. But she’s a decent, hardworking, very charismatic, very down to earth person. If you had to ask me one question about what she is, she is down to earth. She is part of the earth, in that sense, you know, and Chile continues to startle us and give us new things. Every six or seven years we do something which seems very surprising to the world. And I’m very glad that we’re still able to surprise, because that’s part of the great astonishment of, I would say of, the way in which people move forward and try to take over their own fate.

AMY GOODMAN: Ariel Dorfman, Chilean-American writer, speaking from Duke University where he teaches. He was an adviser to Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, who died in the palace in Santiago on September 11, 1973, when the Pinochet forces rose to power. This is Democracy Now!

We’re joined in our Firehouse studio by two guests. Emilio Banda is a former student union leader from Chile. In 1986, he was arrested by Pinochet forces and imprisoned for six months, where he was tortured. He left Chile in 1993. We’re also joined by Joyce Horman. Her late son, Charles Horman, was — her late husband was a U.S. journalist in Chile during the 1973 coup. He was detained in Santiago days after Pinochet came to power, and his body was found later, buried in a cement wall. He was 31 years old. For years, Joyce Horman has fought to uncover the full story of her husband’s death. She sued General Pinochet and other Chilean officials. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was listed as a witness. Her story was the subject of the Academy Award-winning movie, Missing by Costa-Gavras. In 1999, she obtained classified State Department documents that proved U.S. officials played a role in her husband’s death. We will begin with Emilio Banda; your response to the election of Michelle Bachelet?

EMILIO BANDA: Well, we are happy, you know, celebrating. It’s an historical situation in Chile. We believe many thing will continue, like President Lagos regime or period, and we know that many thing, especially the reconciliation process and, you know, some human right cases will be definitely, you know, get at the final, and we will enjoy that, you know, renaissance of justice and Michelle’s role in the government.

AMY GOODMAN: You were arrested in 1986?

EMILIO BANDA: Myself, as many other union student leader, because the university or college students were really involved in the democratization of the university itself and in the recuperation of the democracy for our country. Actually, the student — the union leader of Chile in 1986, 1987, most of all of them were put in jail for six months, four months, or some of them for larger periods. And I was one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long were you held?

EMILIO BANDA: I was like six months, but the process in the military tribunals, because the military take the student to the court, keep me, you know, in process for years and years. In 1996, I was stopped in the airport trying to leave Chile, because I still having this process from 1986, you know, ten year after they put me in jail, because I didn’t finish that process.

AMY GOODMAN: You were tortured in prison?

EMILIO BANDA: Not in prison, actually, because the prison was the place where everybody get to rest a little bit after the torture. They took you before the guards of the prison system, take you on to prison, and they torture after you get detained or in the car or in a secret place.

AMY GOODMAN: But you chose not to leave Chile after you were released.

EMILIO BANDA: Right. Actually, it was a compromise of everybody in 1986, because we thought that will be the year of ending of Pinochet. You have to remember Pinochet suffered an attempt of murder in 1987, and since 1985 the people of Chile was absolutely tired of him and using every single way to get rid of him. And the students at that time were really well organized, mobilizing people to the street, you know, going to take in the campus like a base and don’t leave the campus for days, and trying to get a national, you know, strike, fighting the dictatorship. And after we took the campus for like six or seven days, I remember, in May 1986, and every single leader of the union was in prison, and I was in the clandestine, and some people from the Asamblea of la Civilidad, you know, the civil organization that direct the fight against Pinochet, today the Concertacion, asked me to go and present myself on the tribunal. I present myself on the tribunal, and they say we have nothing against you, and then the military take me in the door of the tribunal.

AMY GOODMAN: Emilio Banda, we have to break. When we come back, we will also speak with Joyce Horman about the election of Michelle Bachelet, the first woman president of Chile, also a torture survivor.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Bachelet is the new president of Chile. Our guest Emilio Banda, student union leader in Chile, 1986, arrested by the Pinochet forces, imprisoned for six months. Also, Joyce Horman, her husband Charles Horman was a U.S. journalist in Chile, also died right at that time of the Pinochet forces, his body later found buried in a cement wall. And for years, Joyce Horman pursued what happened to her husband, sued General Pinochet, as well as other Chilean officials, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Your thoughts today on the victory of Bachelet?

JOYCE HORMAN: Well, of course, we were all watching very closely on Sunday. And I have to say, it felt so good to have Michelle Bachelet elected. It felt almost as good as hearing that Pinochet had been arrested in London in 1998. It was really an extraordinary release of so much good work, you know. She is such an emblem really of resilience and of taking action, where — when you’ve suffered that kind of loss that she and her family have suffered. It isn’t the first thing that you think about. The pain is the first thing you think about. But the fact that so many people in Chile have been so resilient and to this terrible regime that was Pinochet and to the torture and the terror that existed because of his regime. This resilience is really represented by President Bachelet, and I believe that it’s an extraordinary threshold not only in Chile, but in the world, that such resilience has been elected to the presidency. It’s wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: Your lawsuit focused on the connection between the U.S. and its support of the Pinochet forces that were responsible for the torture of the now president of Chile, Bachelet, as well as the death of your husband. Where does that lawsuit stand now?

JOYCE HORMAN: You know, at first we had a suit in the United States, and it was a civil suit against Kissinger and other members of the U.S. State Department for information regarding my husband’s death. And a lot of the documents were classified. They were redacted. We didn’t find out very much information after several years of discovery. When Pinochet was returned to Chile and his immunity, senatorial immunity, was taken away, we filed a suit, along with many other Chileans and many other victims of Pinochet’s regime, against Pinochet and members of his staff and so forth. This one is a criminal case, and it’s against him for the death of my husband, the wrongful death of my husband. It is still in court in Chile, as are many other suits regarding the demise of so many people. Hopefully this will be progressing over the next few years, especially with President Bachelet.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Emilio Banda, your feelings about the President of Chile being a torture survivor like yourself?

EMILIO BANDA: Well, that means things are, you know, getting right in my country. Actually, her experience is pretty — it’s great to see and hear a person who really takes the leadership of being a political prisoner herself and suffering the exile, coming back and take the leadership. She was defense minister first.

AMY GOODMAN: Under Lagos.

EMILIO BANDA: Under Lagos, and her dialogue with the army in Chile was the first thing that put an accent on her charisma, actually, because the military traditional, you know, that machismo probably of the Chilean society expresses strongly in the military, and putting a woman to talk to them and to, you know, put things clear on the table about human rights and that kind of stuff definitely makes her a different person —

AMY GOODMAN: And she was the first woman defense minister, as well.

EMILIO BANDA: Absolutely. Yeah, great.

AMY GOODMAN: Daughter of her father, of course, who was a Chilean general who supported Salvador Allende.

EMILIO BANDA: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Emilio Banda, for joining us, arrested in Chile in 1986, a union leader, stayed there after. And Joyce Horman, the widow of Charles Horman, who was killed when Pinochet rose to power, as we speak on this day after it was announced that Michelle Bachelet had won the Chilean election for president, the first woman elected president of Chile.

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