The Corner

Two Childhood Friends Meet As Opponents for President

It’s doubtful there has ever been such an unusual face-off between two candidates for the presidency of any country. 

Chileans go to the polls today to choose between left-wing former president Michelle Bachelet and conservative candidate Evelyn Matthei. If Bachelet wins, as all the polls indicate, some of the free-market reforms that have turned Chile into the biggest economic success story in South America may be in jeopardy. 

But the policy implications of the race have often taken a back seat to the incredible human drama surrounding the two women, both in their early 60s. Both women grew up as childhood friends and lived across the road from each other on the grounds of the same remote air-force base where their fathers were officers. The Bachelet and Matthei families were closely linked and developed an enduring friendship that lasted for 15 years.

Later, the two families moved back to the capital of Santiago but kept in close contact. Alberto Bachelet became a man of the Left and a supporter of leftist president Salvador Allende, while Fernando Matthei rejected communism and supported the 1973 coup that overthrew Allende. “We had a very different political outlook,” Matthei has said. “[Alberto] liked the style of Cuba. I couldn’t agree with that – those Castros, sitting there for 60 years, running the country like their own private kingdom? Telling me I couldn’t buy this book, or speak to that person? It was a totally unacceptable concept to me.”

The two men’s paths tragically diverged after the coup. Alberto Bachelet died six months after the disruption, his heart weakened by the frequent detentions and abuse he was subjected to by his fellow military officers. Fernando Matthei helped run the military academy in whose basement Alberto was tortured, although there is no evidence he was involved in it. Later, Matthei joined the four-member junta that controlled Chile under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet until it was disbanded in 1988 with the restoration of Chilean democracy.

Since then, the daughters of the two men have kept in sporadic contact.

Michelle Bachelet became a pediatrician and was elected president in 2006 (stepping down becuse of a one-term limit), while Evelyn Matthei became a banker and served as labor minister in the current conservative government of Sebastián Piñera. Matthei didn’t plan on running against her old childhood friend; she was thrust forward as the conservative candidate after the original nominee withdrew because of health reasons in July. They have been friendly in the two debates they’ve held, referring to each other by first name and the informal Spanish form of “you.”

But their policy differences are clear. Bachelet wants to raise business taxes, make university education free, and legalize abortion. Matthei says higher taxes will curb economic growth, says the taxes of lower-income people should not subsidize the “children of the rich” going to university, and opposes abortion.

It appears Bachelet will regain the presidency with a mandate to tilt left. She claims her victory will show “it’s time for a new social and political cycle that is built collectively,” but many business analysts say she will be circumscribed by the need to retain the huge foreign investment that has made the country prosperous.

“Any leader of Chile will recognize that the only way to get the revenue to pay for social programs is to maintain most of the policies that lead to economic growth,” says economist Daniel Gressel. “The betting is that Bachelet will be more pragmatic than her rhetoric, just as she was during her first time in office.”