The Tab meets the UN Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President

Michelle Bachelet was the first female President of Chile


On Monday morning, I got to talk to Michelle Bachelet, twice President of Chile and currently the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, who would be speaking at the Cambridge Union at around midday. Despite moving in the highest circles, her manner is warm and sincere.

On Friday 15th November, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera agreed to hold a referendum on replacing the current Chilean constitution, originally implemented by Pinochet in 1980. Since October 6th, demonstrators in Chile have been protesting against inequality that is the worst in Latin America. Despite the fact that the number of people living in poverty has been steadily decreasing, whilst real wages are rising, Chile's income gap is 65% wider than the OECD average. The combined wealth of the country’s billionaires is estimated as equal to 25% of its GDP. Even in the case that a referendum on the constitution goes ahead, and changes are implemented, it’s an extreme situation to reverse. It is difficult to imagine that the inequalities with which the country is plagued will dissolve in the near future.

At present, despite the government concession over a referendum on the constitution, violent clashes between protestors and the Chilean police continue. Thus, I want to know how Michelle Bachelet has responded personally to news that Sebastian Pinera’s government had agreed to implement a referendum on whether the Pinochet-era constitution should be replaced, having only seen minor amendments thus far.

I ask her whether she sees this progression as decisive. She responds that during her second term as President, she ‘did make a process of discussions of the constitution and I did set a bill for a new constitution, discussing debates at local levels. But then a new government came, and the discussion did not continue.’ Recently, she says, ‘people started again a battle scream for a new constitution’, although ‘some people are afraid that because there is not a constitutional assembly and there is a lot of distrust of political parties, that [the] agreement might not respect sufficiently people’s participation’.

Bachelet does not seem completely convinced by Pinera’s proposal, because his suggested referendum does not yet consider how it will include ‘people’s participation, women’s participation, indigenous participation’. She notes also that ‘another thing that was not included is how they will use the work already done by 200 people [in Bachelet’s previous project planning a new version of the constitution], you cannot just throw that to the garbage’.

But why have the current protests arisen with such ferocity? For Bachelet, ‘how these protests started is that they have in the neighbourhoods councils where they have been discussing and proposing ideas’. The roles of the state and the market, and ‘how [to] build a common house where everyone feels their interests are represented’ are being hotly contested. Over the most recent years, protests in Chile have been 'triggered by the increases in prices for transportation’. Issues such as the pension scheme, she notes, are ‘still not how people want them to be’.

During her time in government, besides sending a bill for a new constitution with social participation, Bachelet introduced numerous social and environmental reforms. She outlines for me how 'when we arrived [in government], we had 5% of the [marine area] under protection, and by the end we had 53%'. Her government also saw the creation of a Ministry for Women and Equality.

I want to know whether, seeing the conflict in Chile unfold, Bachelet would consider returning to Chilean politics. Without a pause for breath, she answers, ‘No,' adding ‘I am always engaged in material in my country and I will return to live in my country, but I will not run for President’. She chuckles, ‘Twice is enough.’

Header image is the author's own.