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Bachelet era begins with change

Chile's first female president named a cabinet of 10 men and 10 women Monday.

By Jen RossCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2006


Michelle Bachelet made history Jan. 15 by becoming Chile's first female president.

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Monday, she chalked up yet another precedent: naming a cabinet of 10 female and 10 male ministers. It's the first of its kind in the entire western hemisphere - and one of few examples in the world.

"This Cabinet reflects the new style of government I've proposed," Ms. Bachelet said, as she announced her choices. They included women in the key portfolios of economy and mining, as well as in her own two former ministries: health and defense.

It's a significant change to the political status quo, and expected to be the first of many. But in a country known as the most socially conservative in the region, not everyone is celebrating her announcement. In fact, some experts question whether she'll sacrifice competence for image.

"I think it's a grave error," says Ignacio Illanes, an analyst with the right-wing thinktank Liberty and Development (Libertad y Desarrollo). He puts it bluntly: "There's only one way to have a 50-50 cabinet and that is by lowering the quality of the cabinet."

Many of Bachelet's choices are political newcomers. But Illanes says, with a shorter presidential term recently reduced from six to four years, it's more important than ever to have an experienced ministerial team that doesn't need training.

At the same time, the relative lack of public uproar over Bachelet's cabinet - and her very election - seems to reflect a profound socio-cultural change.

On election night, hundreds of thousands of Chileans packed the streets of Santiago to celebrate her historic presidential victory.

Grandmothers could be seen throwing confetti from their balconies. Housewives with their entire families in tow could be heard screaming "we're going to clean up house."

The massive outpouring of emotion was a rare cacophony of female voices in a country where they have long been muted (if only in public) and where being 'feminist' holds very little cachet.

Bachelet becomes Latin America's fifth-ever female president, and the only one currently in office - although in neighboring Peru, female candidate Lourdes Flores is leading the polls ahead of April's presidential elections. After Bachelet's victory, Flores declared: "I'm happy that women are advancing. ... But we'll advance more, once [the region has] two presidents."

Bachelet's victory is certainly symbolic, but many are asking just how it will be different. In almost every interview she has given since being elected, Bachelet has stressed how her style will differ from her popular predecessor, President Ricardo Lagos.

"My style will be much more participatory, seeking to coordinate, articulate, and excite people around the tasks ahead," Bachelet says. "It's a style that could be characterized as more feminine, but which in reality, I think is more modern."

But some experts wonder whether she'll be able to move beyond style, into substance.

Specific promises on women's issues

Beyond gender parity in the cabinet, Bachelet made several promises to women during her campaign, including free preschool care for working moms in the poorest 40 percent of the population, and a Non-Discrimination and Good Labor Practices Code for the public sector, with voluntary adoption for the private sector.