Chile divided by a coup

Two childhood friends, with wildly different histories, are now front-runners for the presidency

Felipe Trueba / Efe / Zumapress / Keystone; Cindy Ord / Getty Images

In Chile, Sept. 11, 1973, is remembered as the day when friends turned into enemies and children became suspicious of their parents. That was the day that Gen. Augusto Pinochet led the military to oust Chile’s president, the socialist Salvador Allende.

The personal stories of the two women contesting Chile’s upcoming presidential election illuminate the complexities of those dark years. Michelle Bachelet, the former president and now leader of the centre-left New Majority coalition, and Evelyn Matthei, leader of the conservative Alliance, are both daughters of former generals—two friends—whose lives took radically different paths after the coup 40 years ago. Their candidacy is reopening old wounds for the nation. Alberto Bachelet was charismatic and worked in the financial department of the air force. Fernando Matthei was a pilot, known for being quiet and bookish. When both were stationed at a military base in northern Chile, their friendship flourished, despite their differences. Those differences extended to politics, which wasn’t a problem until the turmoil that followed the coup.

In the 1970 presidential election, Bachelet voted for the socialist Allende and Matthei for the conservative Jorge Alessandri. Afterwards, Bachelet accepted a position in Allende’s government; for this, he paid dearly. Arrested just days after the military coup, he was interrogated and tortured. It broke him “morally and physically,” he wrote in a letter to his son. It was all too much. Bachelet, still a prisoner, died of a heart attack in March 1974. By that time, Matthei was a rising star in the air force. He was working under the Pinochet regime as director of the Air War Academy and would go on to become health minister. He had known that his friend Alberto was detained. “I confess that I never went to visit him . . . for which I am ashamed. Maybe at that time prudence triumphed over courage,” Matthei wrote in a book in 2003.

Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei were neighbours during childhood, their houses facing each other. They ran around the base and rode their bicycles together. The girls called each other’s father, “tío,” Spanish for uncle. The death of Alberto Bachelet was a shock for Evelyn Matthei, then 20, and brought her “deep sorrow,” she said in a later interview. While Chile’s brutal repression was in full swing, Evelyn enjoyed the privileged life of a well-connected military family. When Michelle and her mother were detained and interrogated about their socialist ties in January 1975, Evelyn was returning from taking piano lessons in London.

Yet, there is a bond between the two families that endures. Bachelet says she still can’t help but call Matthei’s father “Uncle Fernando.”

With their presidential aspirations, the media has unearthed every detail of their shared past. Both candidates have abstained from talking about each other so far. As the November election draws near, however, Chileans will surely learn more about their tragic, complicated bond.

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