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Chile’s Bachelet Bows Out

March 11, 2010

Adoring supporters bid the popular president farewell

Following an inauguration ceremony Thursday that was marked by a quick and almost theatrical succession of powerful aftershocks – the largest measuring 7.2 on the Richter – new Chilean President Sebastian Piñera jumped immediately into action.

Within an hour of his swearing in, the conservative leader declared martial law in Chile’s O’Higgins Region, the epicenter of the latest round of quakes, and headed south to visit areas affected not only by today’s tremblers, but by the monster 8.8-magnitude catastrophe that socked the country Feb. 27.

Lost in the shuffle was the quiet departure of Michelle Bachelet, the popular Socialist Party (PS) leader who made history four years ago by becoming Chile’s first female head of state. After relinquishing the red, white and blue presidential sash, Bachelet stood with her successor through the national anthem. Then, without a word to the public, she exited stage left.

For her many supporters, Bachelet – a 58-year-old pediatrician, divorcee and self-proclaimed agnostic – built a legacy that goes well beyond her impressive initial accomplishment: winning the presidency in a conservative, male-dominated, Catholic country that didn’t even legalize divorce until 2004.

Early in her presidency Bachelet faced widespread student protests and later took tremendous flack for a badly implemented and wildly unpopular overhaul of Santiago’s public transportation system. Her quiet, low-profile approach contrasted sharply with that of her predecessor, Ricardo Lagos, prompting widespread criticism that she simply lacked the right “leadership” skills.

Applauded for her handling of last year’s financial crisis and viewed by many as a legitimate champion of the poor, however, Bachelet left office Thursday with a record approval rating of 84 percent – despite the fact her coalition, the center-left Concertacionm, lost the recent election.

“It’s a strange thing,” said Carolina Apablaza, an analyst with Libertad y Desarrollo, a conservative think tank that provided many of Piñera’s new ministers. “President Bachelet led a very good government. Her policies, especially in the area of social protection, were very important for Chileans.”

“The economic crisis gave her a second opportunity,” she added. “Under the administration of (Finance Minister) Andres Velasco, she made decisions that turned out to be right.”

On Thursday morning, hundreds of supporters gathered early in front of Santiago’s La Moneda presidential palace to bid Bachelet farewell. Many, though not all, were women who said they were personally inspired by the outgoing president.

“She stuck her neck out for all the women of our country,” said Magaly Sansano, a retiree. “She did an excellent job. A woman who overcame her past, her sadness. She was tortured along with her mother. Emotionally, she flipped a switch in our country. She was a very intelligent woman, classy, caring. I’m so thankful to her. I hope she comes back in four years.”

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