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Chile's election: A tale of two daughters


Chille women
Chile holds a presidential election on Sunday and both frontrunners are women - the socialist Michelle Bachelet and her right-wing rival Evelyn Matthei.
 
In a region where politics is still very much a man's game, that, in itself, is remarkable enough, but when one considers the relationship between the two women, it becomes more extraordinary still.  Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei went to the same primary school and played together as kids.  Their fathers were close friendsserved together in the Chilean air force until the military coup of 1973 tore them apart, with tragic consequences.
 
At times, the history of the two women and their fathers is like something out of a Latin American soap opera or a magical realist novel.  The region's great writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, say, or Isabel Allende, would struggle to invent such a plot.
 
Early ties
'Chile is not yet fully reconciled with its past, and that's reflected in the lives of these two women”  ays Rocio Montes Co-author of Daughters of Generals.
Says Rocio Montes Co-author of Daughters of Generals.
 
The story of Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei starts in 1958 on a military base in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Their fathers, both air force officers, were posted there with their young families.   They lived on the same street - one at number 4 and the other across the road at number 13. Michelle Bachelet was seven years old and Evelyn Matthei five.
 
"To this day, Ms Bachelet's mother remembers how the two girls would play in the streets and go out on their bikes," says Rocio Montes, co-author of Daughters of Generals, a recently published book about the two women.
 
"They were living in a kind of ghetto. It was very remote. The air force families had their own food store, their own cinema, their own school. It was a very close community."
 
The girls' fathers, Alberto Bachelet and Fernando Matthei, became good friends. 
They shared a love of literature and music, and despite their political differences -
they respected each other's views.  When the two families moved to the capital, Santiago, in the 1960s, they stayed in touch.
But on 11 September 1973, everything changed. The armed forces staged a violent coup, toppling the socialist government. The air force bombed the presidential palace.  Mr Bachelet worked for the government at the time as was immediately arrested.

"I was detained in solitary confinement for 26 days," he later wrote to his son. "I was subjected to torture for 30 hours. They broke me inside.
"I've never known how to hate anyone. I've always thought that a human being is the most marvellous thing on earth, and should be respected as such. But I came across colleagues from the armed forces who I'd known for 20 years - students of mine - who treated me like a criminal or a dog."
Meanwhile, Mr Matthei was in London, working as a military attache.   He supported the coup and shortly afterwards was recalled to Chile to take up a job as director of the Academy of Aerial Warfare in Santiago.
 
In December 1973, Mr Bachelet was arrested for a second time and taken to the academy. He was charged with treason and imprisoned in the basement, where he was tortured.  On 12 March, 1974 fter a night of relentless interrogation, he died of a heart attack.
 
Moral issue
Just how much Mr Matthei knew of his friend's plight is unclear.   Although he was appointed as head of the academy in late 1973, he did not visit it until February 1974, and then only briefly.  He spent most of his time working elsewhere and was not in Chile on the day his friend died.
 
"He was nominally in charge of the academy but he didn't have authority over all of it," Ms Montes says. "He says he only once went to the basement."
 
"For Fernando Matthei, the death of Alberto Bachelet is a moral problem. He probably couldn't have done anything but, even so, he still has to live with the fact that he didn't try harder to save his friend, who was being tortured just a few metres below his office."
 
"It's a moral issue that pursues him to this day."
 
Some people in Chile say it is a criminal issue too, and have tried, without success, to bring Mr Matthei to trial for Mr Bachelet's death.  But even Ms Bachelet and her mother have said they do not regard Mr Matthei as guilty.
 
Contrasting fortunes
In the years after the coup, the two families suffered contrasting fortunes.  In 1975 Michelle Bachelet and her mother were detained in Villa Grimaldi, one of themilitary regime's most notorious torture centres, and then fled into exile in Australia and East Germany.
 
 
 
 

By Gideon Long, 21/11/2013

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