Thursday, October 29, 2009

After the Caudillo

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile danced in front of the presidential palace in Santiago last month as part of independence anniversary celebrations.

After the Caudillo (November 18, 2007)

At first, breaking the gender barrier in South America did not go smoothly for Michelle Bachelet.

In 2006, she had just captured the world’s attention, becoming the first woman to be elected president of this deeply conservative country. And she had done it alone, without the famous husbands that had propelled other female presidents in Latin America.

But one month after taking office, Ms. Bachelet faced huge student demonstrations across the country. Her support fell further when a new public transportation system turned chaotic, leading critics to lampoon her with an image of her riding atop a city bus toward the edge of a cliff.

But with only five months until she leaves office, Ms. Bachelet is increasingly likely to be remembered as one of her country’s most popular leaders. Polls this month show her public approval to be above 70 percent, and in recent weeks she has recorded the highest levels since Chile went from dictatorship to democracy in 1990.

Analysts and pollsters attribute her stunning turnaround to her handling of the economy during the global financial crisis and to her decision to save billions of dollars in revenues from copper sales during the last commodity boom. That aggressive saving gave the country money to spend on pension reform and Ms. Bachelet’s ambitious program of social protections for women and children, despite the financial crisis.

Ms. Bachelet resisted the cries of politicians to use revenues from copper sales to try to close Chile’s inequality gap, one of the world’s worst. Instead, during her first three years in office, her government set aside $35 billion in revenue from the boom. When the global financial crisis hit, the value of Chile’s exports sank by more than 30 percent. But by then Chile had nearly $20 billion invested in overseas sovereign wealth funds alone.

Ms. Bachelet, a pediatrician, said, “I believe that if you want to fight inequality you have to do it starting at infancy.”

Opposition politicians who once criticized her social-protection efforts as a retreat to an era of big government are now saying they will try to expand her programs to the middle class.

If it works, it becomes popular. In the US it has happened with Social Security and Medicare.

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