The Air Force Generals’ Daughters

Michelle Bachelet, left and Evelyn Matthei are the candidates in this year's presidential election in Chile

Michelle Bachelet, left and Evelyn Matthei are the candidates in this year’s presidential election in Chile

Michelle Bachelet, whose presidency ended in 2010, left office with an extraordinary approval rating of 84 percent, and although Chile’s constitution prohibits a consecutive second term, former presidents are allowed to run again for later terms in office. Last month her center-left political coalition held a primary to pick its candidate, and she won 73 percent of the vote. No surprise there.

Chile’s rightwing coaltion, the Alianza por el Cambio, also held a primary, won by Pablo Longueira. Then, bizarrely, he withdrew from the campaign on health grounds. A spokesman said he was suffering from clinical depression. Longueira is an ultra-conservative leader of the Union Democratica Independiente (UDI) who in his younger days helped organize rock-throwing demonstrations against Senator Edward Kennedy during his visit to Santiago in 1986. CNN-Chile has this report on the incident: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUkfsbPavMY

After some frantic conferring, the Alianza is now backing another UDI politician, former labor minister Evelyn Matthei. The Buenos Aires Herald has this good column on Chile’s political right by Patricio Navia: http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/136716/crisis-mode-in-the-chilean-right-wing

Matthei, an economist, is the daughter of a former air force commander and junta member under the Pinochet regime, and the relationship with Bachelet’s family is a fascinating story in itself. General Fernando Matthei and General Alberto Bachelet were air force officers with a friendship that went back decades. At the time of the 1973 military coup Matthei was air force attaché at the Chilean Embassy in London, while Bachelet had been appointed by President Salvador Allende, a socialist, to direct a food distribution program. Bachelet refused to go along with the coup, was arrested, tortured and died in prison in March 1974 (see earlier post https://notesontheamericas.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/justice-for-an-air-force-general-2/). Michelle Bachelet and her mother were later arrested and taken to the regime’s infamous Villa Grimaldi detention center, then released after a few harrowing weeks and went into exile in East Germany.

Matthei returned to Chile a few months after the coup and in 1978  joined the junta as air force commander when his predecessor was forced out of office after repeatedly clashing with Pinochet over economic policy and a timetable for a return to elected civilian government. Bachelet’s mother contacted this old family friend to inquire whether they could safely return to Chile, and they arrived back in early 1979.

During his years as a junta member Matthei discretely removed Chilean air force personnel from the regime’s murderous security forces, and according to the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation Report on abuses during this period, no air force officials were involved in human rights violations while he was air force commander: http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/resources/collections/truth_commissions/Chile90-Report/Chile90-Report.pdf

General Matthei’s most notable action came during the 1988 plebiscite, in which voters were asked to cast yes or no ballots to extend Pinochet’s presidency for another eight years. The regime delayed releasing the vote count, announcing partial results suggesting Pinochet was ahead. When Matthei and other military commanders were called to a meeting at the presidential palace that night, he approached a group of journalists to say the “no” vote had won, earning him the gratitude of Chile’s democrats and the eternal opprobrium of Pinochet and his supporters. When Michelle Bachelet became president in 2006, he told reporters of his friendship with her father and remembered her as a “little girl, playing in the sand.” She has been heard to address him as “Uncle Fernando.”

So what is Evelyn Matthei like?  In the early 90s she won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, becoming the first legislator in Chilean history to have a baby while in office. She later became a senator, then labor minister under President Sebastián Piñera, and aggressively pursued Chilean employers who exploited undocumented migrant workers from other countries.  When a group of Paraguayan laborers were discovered working in slave-like conditions on an agricultural estate in southern Chile, she brought charges against the landowner and met with the Paraguayan ambassador to apologize for the way citizens of his country had been treated. Her manner is sometimes blunt, and a diplomat in Santiago described Matthei to me as “a tough one.” Despite Bachelet’s huge lead in the polls, Matthei has said the election is winnable, and the two air force generals’ daughters should have an interesting debate indeed.

Over on Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, a great piece by the Caracas Chronicles’ Juan Nagel on how both Piñera and Bachelet snubbed Venezuelan opposition leader Hernan Capriles during his recent visit to Santiago:

http://transitions.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/07/24/chile_throws_venezuelas_capriles_under_the_bus

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