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The Last Chilean Myth

From the May, 2007 issue: Far from a friend to the United States, Michelle Bachelet is the latest in a long line of far left leaders in the tradition of Castro and Chavez. Read up on the Chilean president our president celebrated at his press conference yesterday.

By 6.24.09

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Editor's Note: In yesterday's press briefing, President Obama said of Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, "I'm very much looked forward to seeing President Bachelet. I think she's one of the finest leaders in Latin America, very capable person.... And I will be looking at President Bachelet giving us further advice, in terms of how we can take the kind of relationship we have with Chile and expand that to our relationships throughout Latin America."

In the May, 2007 issue of The American Spectator, James R. Whelan reported on the real Bachelet, explaining that -- contrary to what the President would have you now believe -- she is neither a fine leader nor an ally of the United States. That article is reproduced here.

THERE IS AN OLD ADAGE IN STATECRAFT which instructs that the height of stupidity is the inability to distinguish between friend and foe. What, then, are we to think of the White House of George W. Bush and the State Department of Condoleezza Rice, as they and their minions fawn and fuss over the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, as though she were some sort of Tony Blair in drag? They even managed to hornswoggle into their minuet old Daddy Warbucks himself, Donald Rumsfeld, a few weeks before he was sent packing.

But then the White House itself came out of the closet and, in a mind-boggling statement, proclaimed its fealty to Chile’s Socialist government on the occasion of the death of former President Augusto Pinochet.

Let’s lay it on the line: Michelle Bachelet is not a friend of the United States. True, she is not a declared enemy of the United States. But friend? There is not a scrap of evidence to support such tomfoolery. Yet, no one—in the U.S. government, in the media, in other governments, in public affairs in general—ever speaks ill of Michelle Bachelet, as though to do so would be like spitting on the sidewalk or blowing smoke in someone’s face—simply not done, old top. In part this may be because there is so little there, there—there is much more form than substance about Michelle Bachelet, much more appearance than reality. Increasingly, questions are being raised about her ability to govern, her competence.

She came to the presidency with strong public support. By early March, support for her had fallen from 65.3 percent to 47.5 percent. Fully half those surveyed (50.8 percent) said her government was less than what they had expected. On a scale of one to seven, her government got a poor 3.9 rating.

No wonder. She was abroad much of the time last year when Chile suffered the worst outbreak of public disturbances in three decades—a strike of 600,000 high school students, aided and abetted by former terrorists and Communists. More recently, the government implanted a new public transportation system—a total and unmitigated disaster.

Sebastian Piñera, leader of the opposition, called Bachelet’s first year “a comedy of errors, omissions and improvisations.” The problem, he said, is that Bachelet came to the presidency “without clear ideas, or well-defined programs, nor qualified people.” Indeed, Bachelet insisted on a cabinet evenly divided between men and women—whatever their qualifications. She was forced recently to jettison that idea in re-shaping her cabinet to meet the transit crisis.

Briefly, who is this person we are talking about? Michelle Bachelet is, since March 11, 2006, the first woman president of Chile: In a recent Barometer of Governability in Latin America, Spain, and Portugal, Bachelet topped the list of 15 presidents, polling an 87 percent approval rating of her performance. Not surprisingly, Bachelet has wowed the Beautiful People. On her first visit to Washington last year, Hillary Clinton gave a party in her honor, with a host of glitterati in attendance (including the actress who plays the U.S. president in the now-discontinued TV series, Commander in Chief. Bachelet later let on that she liked the actress—but not the program). Bill Clinton, glad-handing around Santiago a year ago, described Bachelet as a “particularly well-qualified candidate, because of her experience.”

One wonders what experience Clinton had in mind. Until President Ricardo Lagos plucked her from virtual anonymity in 2000, naming her his minister of health, she had never held a significant job. Later, in 2002, he named her his defense minister—first woman in Chile or Latin America ever to hold that job. Although in neither post did she distinguish herself, in the second in particular she did attract media attention, including a famous photo where she posed aboard a half-track. (She had prepped for that job: She graduated at the top of her class in 1996 from Chile’s National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies. That entitled her to a one-year scholarship at the U.S.- run Inter-American Defense College at Ft. McNair in Washington, D.C., along with 46 civilian and military officers from around the Americas.)

VERÓNICA MICHELLE BACHELET made her debut in this world on September 29, 1951, after only seven months in her mother Angela’s womb. She weighed but 3.9 pounds, but then she was lucky: Her mother had lost four babies before giving birth to Michelle (though she had managed to bring into the world a son, Alberto—Beto). Although baptized in a Catholic church (at the insistence of a staunchly Catholic paternal grandmother), Michelle—like her parents— has been a lifelong agnostic.

Her father was an air force general, and in 1962- 1963, he was assigned to Washington. There, at a Prince George’s grammar school, she mastered English. Her father, long left-leaning, strongly backed the Marxist- Leninist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973), and was up to his epaulets in subversive scheming. When Allende was ousted in the 1973 coup, General Bachelet was one of two air force generals (along with a passel of lower officers and enlisted men) arrested and tried for treason. He died in prison before coming to trial.

Though he had suffered a massive heart attack in 1968 that very nearly killed him—after playing basketball— he insisted on doing the same thing while in prison, despite medical advice to the contrary. That second massive attack did kill him. (His only son, Alberto, died of a heart attack in the U.S. in 2001, at age 54.) There are four or five keys to understanding Michelle Bachelet:

• She is a hardcore, lifelong socialist, but a brand of socialism which, during the years in which she was growing up in the party, had nothing in common with the parliamentary socialists of Europe and far more in common with the murderous Maoists of China. The party no longer either preaches or practices violence, but Michelle Bachelet continues to identify strongly with those for whom revolutionary violence was a way of life.

• Superficial: From the time in 1970 when she joined the Young Socialists, Michelle was a “gopher,” delivering messages, writing manifestoes, running errands, even at one point, serving as “bag-man”: delivering money from the Socialist high command to the very embattled terrorists of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR). That would lead to her arrest. She was held for two weeks, later insinuating that she was tortured. Her mother, arrested with her, was held a month, and later said she was not tortured, but submitted to a brutalizing “softening-up” procedure. After their release Michelle decided to leave the country, traveling with her mother to Australia, where Beto awaited them.

After only a few months there, at the behest of a boyfriend, Michelle traveled to East Germany, joined by her mother shortly afterwards. She continued in that “gopher” role during the four years she spent in East Germany, the nerve center of rebellion for Chile’s far-left parties. There, she was again deeply involved in the party’s conspiratorial, underground activities. Indeed, in 1977, she traveled—obviously on party business— to Vietnam, a fact she let drop during her official visit to Hanoi for the Asian-Pacific Cooperation conference in November 2006.

She continued as an underground operative when she returned to Chile in 1979, moving in for a time with a high official of the Communist-sponsored, Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR) terrorist organization. She herself was heavily involved with the radical wing of her party—a wing so radical, to quote two puff piece biographers, “it had no real problem with the policies of the armed wing of the Communist Party.” Until 1995, when she was elected a member of the party’s Central Committee, at no time was she ever given an executive post of any kind (in other words, taken seriously). While in the outskirts of Berlin, she likes to say that she resumed the medical studies interrupted by the 1973 revolution in Chile, but in point of fact, what she did was start (but not finish) a German language course that was a prerequisite to medical school. (She frequently fudges in the stories she tells.) She also married a would-be revolutionary like herself, and gave birth to the first of her three children. (The other two would be born out of wedlock in Chile, one of them fathered by a right-wing doctor.)

• She undoubtedly is smart—she graduated (in 1983) from Chile’s leading medical school, later specializing in pediatrics and public health medicine. But she is neither brilliant nor a strong leader. Nor a commanding presence: How could she be when she measures a mere 5 feet 2 inches—and is decidedly pudgy (indeed, a former finance minister raised her dander when he referred to her as “my fatso”). There is some real question as to how much of a leader, period, she is. As indicated, the party waited 25 years before naming her to a leadership role. In her only other try for public office before winning election as president last year, she ran for the city council of a suburban community in 1995 and won all of 2.35 percent of the vote.

• Her closest friends and advisers all come out of the hard left of Chilean politics. So, too, do her predilections: She recently sent shock-waves through the economy when she wondered aloud whether maybe the time had not come to “humanize” the market economy model that has made this country the envy of all of Latin America—indeed, of much of the world. (“Humanize,” in socialist parlance, means enlarge the role of the state, and shrink that of the private sector.)

AS IT IS, THE CHILEAN ECONOMY SLID in 2006, its growth rate falling from 5.7 percent in 2005 to 4 percent. That, despite sky-high prices for Chile’s principal export product, copper. In surveys of business leaders, confidence in her declined for four straight months, reaching a record low midway through her first year. She has a first-class economic team, and mainly defers to them, but in general has a reputation for leaning far more on her palace inner sanctum, a group that features two hard-core women Communists, bypassing her cabinet.

So it is, too, with her international outlook. Ever since girlhood, she has been an admirer of Fidel Castro, the longest-serving dictator in the history of the hemisphere (and the only totalitarian dictator). Inasmuch as she also claims to be a champion of human rights, her support for the hemisphere’s worst abuser of human rights requires fancy footwork. But, then, she chose to live in East Germany—the ugliest of the Soviet satellite states—and has never been heard to utter a single criticism of that ghastly regime—nor, for that matter, of the savage North Vietnamese regime. By contrast, though she never met the longtime dictator of East Germany— Erich Honecker, who lived in Chile the last two years (1992-1994) of his ghoulish life—she did meet his widow.

“I thanked her,” Bachelet said, “because while I was in East Germany, I had the chance to work in a hospital and study and form a family. They gave us much material support. For those of us who left Chile during difficult times, there we were welcomed and supported.” Bachelet did not mention that at that same time, life for East Germans was very hard—for those who escaped prison or death. Indeed, her very leftist mother, Angela, in another interview, was candid enough to observe that the Chilean revolutionaries in general fared better there than ordinary Germans. Angela toughed it out in Germany for only two years, before leaping at an opportunity in Washington. (Many, many other “Red” refugees—discovering the harsh reality of Communism—bailed out from the Iron Curtain countries. Michelle evidently had no such qualms.)

It needs be remembered—although she waffles on this, as she does on so many other subjects—that Michelle did not have to live there. She had already settled in Australia, and Belgium had also offered her a visa. There is, in fact, no doubt that many other countries would have welcomed her—Canada, Sweden, Spain, France—as they did thousands of other Chilean revolutionaries.

Until her Christian Democrat partners gave her a tough ultimatum, she leaned toward throwing Chile’s support behind Hugo Chavez in the Venezuelan’s high-powered campaign last fall for the Latin American seat on the UN Security Council. Chavez has, of course, made U.S.-bashing the centerpiece of his oil-funded international style. Though forced to back off, Bachelet continues to make plain her affection for Chavez. Gravitating to the Soviet orbit was, in fact, doing what came naturally for a woman who, from her earliest days, was immersed in propaganda portraying the U.S. as evil and predatory, and who spent years in terrorist organizations dedicated to hating the U.S. and all it stood for. Some of that venom was bound to stick.

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About the Author

James R. Whelan's books include Out of the Ashes: Life, Death and Transfiguration of Democracy in Chile, 1833-1988. He has reported on the country since 1958, and served 1992-1995 as visiting professor at the University of Chile. He presently lives in Santiago.