minister of defense, and healing

The world is fortunate there are models other than our own.

SANTIAGO, Chile — It is a measure of how much this country has changed that Michelle Bachelet today works from an office that once belonged to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the dictator whose forces tortured her father to death nearly 30 years ago.

When she was appointed Chile's minister of defense a year ago this week, much was made of the fact that she was the first woman to hold that portfolio in Latin America. As if that were not novelty enough, she is also a Socialist, a physician and the daughter of Alberto Bachelet Martínez, an air force general who died in prison after he was arrested and convicted of treason by his own colleagues.

It's an amazing story, perhaps especially for an American reader, since our own government facilitated the establishment of the Pinochet regime [to use a euphemism].
Not long after her father died, Dr. Bachelet and her mother, Ángela Jeria, were themselves jailed for several months and held in separate cells at two detention centers notorious for torture, Villa Grimaldi and Cuatro Álamos. Dr. Bachelet was beaten and blindfolded, though "there was nothing with electricity," she says, as if to minimize the severity of the experience.

"I'm not an angel," she said. "I haven't forgotten. It left pain. But I have tried to channel the pain into a constructive realm. I insist on the idea that what happened here in Chile was so painful, so terrible, that I wouldn't wish for anyone to live through our situation again."

She became a well-known pediatrician and public health specialist in the eighties, and today many Chileans wonder how that earlier career can be reconciled with her position today.
"I studied medicine because I wanted to serve and help others," she said, and in her mind, national defense and security are no different. "I am convinced that the duty of defense is to maintain peace and avoid war," she said.

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Published on January 4, 2003 12:57 PM.

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