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:

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:

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 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:

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:

A Cuba news roundup

The Miami Herald reports that the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base is being used as a training ground for a possible humanitarian-relief crisis “inspired by the tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans who overwhelmed this base in the 1990s:

The Huffington Post has a piece by dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez on her country’s famous cigars, now out of reach for most Cubans:

The Global Post has a report by Reuters on Cuban plans to expand its largest oil refinery against a background of uncertainty over joint Cuba-Venezuela projects:

The Toronto Star on Canadians abandoned by Cuban spouses soon after their sponsored arrival in Canada:

Berkeleyside, a news site covering Berkeley, California, reports on a sister city program with a town in eastern Cuba and a clean water project:

Some readings on inequality and social unrest

Patricio Navia is a Chilean political scientist at New York University and a prolific columnist and author.   He has a piece on the openDemocracy web site analyzing the background on the student protests and recent general strike in Chile, which he says is far from being a South American version of the Arab spring:

“The student movement is less about opposition to the market-friendly economic model than about inclusion within it, and expanding the range and structure of opportunities it affords. The protesters seek to improve the model with a host of measures: more protection for consumers, more rights for citizens and a more level playing-field so that the middle class can realistically aspire to upward social mobility.”

On the issue of consumer protection in Chile, read the interview with the director of Chile’s National Consumer Service, Juan Antonio Peribonio, in the most recent issue of Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce Magazine. According to Peribonio, Chile stands out in Latin American for its defense of consumers, but his agency is underfunded and hopes that a bill before congress will provide the tools needed to oversee the country’s financial sector:

And for a look at inequitable hiring practices in the Chilean job market, the Santiago Times has an excellent article on the ways potential employers grill job applicants on their families, religious observances and political views.  Although the country’s labor law prohibits such discriminatory practices, they appear to be widespread.  The article quotes one job seeker, a woman with a degree in business engineering who recently interviewed at several major Chilean companies:

“In Chile it is common to avoid hiring women with children,” she said. “In all the interviews I’ve gone to, I’ve been asked if I want more children, if my son goes to kindergarten and if he gets sick easily. I was also told I was not suitable for a position that required occasional travel because it was ‘not compatible with my role as a mother.’”


Human cargo

Peruvian migrants in Santiago

The Centro de Investigacion Periodistica (CIPER) has published a report based on Wikileaks documents on human trafficking to and from Chile The site has links to the U.S. Embassy cables, which state that “Chile is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and labor trafficking” and that while the government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for eliminating this activity, “it is making significant efforts to do so.”  These “significant efforts” include increased training for law enforcement and judicial officials and the fact that Chile hosted an Iberian-American summit on the issue in 2009.  Chile holds the rank of a Tier 2 country, with Tier 1 being those countries in full compliance.  Then there is Tier 2 Watch List of countries trying to combat human trafficking but faced with increasing numbers of victims.  Tier 3 refers to countries which fail to make any real effort at improvement.

Much of the same material can be found in the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons report, which states that “Women and girls from Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay and other Latin American countries, in addition to China, are lured to Chile with fraudulent job offers and subsequently coerced into prostitution or involuntary domestic servitude. Foreign victims of labor trafficking, primarily from Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and China, have been identified in Chile’s mining and agricultural sectors. There are also reports that children are recruited against their will as drug mules along the borders with Bolivia and Peru. Some Chinese nationals are consensually smuggled through Chilean routes to Latin American countries and the United States some fall victim to human trafficking.”