Bachelet: “I did what I had to do, as a mother and as a president”

Chilean leader speaks to EL PAÍS about corruption inquiry into her son and daughter-in-law

Carlos E. Cué
President Michelle Bachelet during her interview.
President Michelle Bachelet during her interview.Sebastián Utreras

Every day, a new public scandal seems to erupt in Chile. The controversies are taking their toll on President Michelle Bachelet, who entered her second term in office in December. She was re-elected in October after serving between 2006 and 2010, and headed UN Women before making her comeback.

But the Socialist leader’s approval ratings have dropped since February, when an influence-peddling investigation into her son Sebastián Dávalos and daughter-in-law Natalia Compagnon concerning a multi-million property sale broke.

Bachelet, a physician by trade, was on vacation with her family in southern Chile when the scandal – known as the Caval case – came to light, and later said that she didn’t return immediately to Santiago because she was not given enough information about the magnitude of the crisis by her now-former Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo, who was once considered her right-hand man.

Peñailillo was ousted earlier this month in a Cabinet shake-up, and her son resigned his position as Bachelet's presidential social secretary. Bachelet has also been linked to an illegal campaign contributions scandal that is under investigation.

In an EL PAÍS interview that was scheduled for some time ago but delayed by an overhaul of her Cabinet, Bachelet – the daughter of an army general who died in prison during the Augusto Pinochet government – detailed her plans to recover her popularity among Chileans, who are witnessing the worst political crisis since democracy was restored in 1990.

As a physician, I would say we have had a chronic disease that has been kept under control”

Question. Madam President, what is happening today in Chile?

Answer. Chile has been going through some exceptional circumstances. Our administration has had to deal with many natural disasters we have never had before. In the past 14 months, we have had an earthquake, big fires, heavy rains and two volcanic eruptions. And many questions concerning government institutions go way back. As a physician, I would say we have had a flare-up of a chronic disease. Chile’s young generation doesn’t feel represented – the same as is occurring in Spain. In this context, there are incidents that have eroded the public’s confidence in government.

Q. Truthfully, did you ever think about resigning after the Caval case broke? This is a case that involves your son and daughter-in-law.

A. Never – not because of this case nor any other case, because when a person is elected here, it is because he or she must deal with the situations at hand.

Q. Do you regret how this situation was handled? In other words, you remained on vacation when the scandal broke.

A. I didn’t realize how big this was, at that moment, because I didn’t have enough information. If I had had the information, I would have immediately returned to Santiago. But unfortunately, the information that was provided at that time was bad – very lacking.

Q. You say that you never did any favors for that company. If it hadn’t been for your son and daughter-in-law, would that firm have received a multi-million dollar loan?

I will always be a mother but I am also a president in my second term”

A. Banks aren’t welfare charities. That bank did all the background checks that were needed and granted the loan based on the information it had. It was the bank loan committee’s decision, but all that is now under judicial investigation.

Q. Your approval ratings have dropped. Do you think Chileans believe you acted more like a mother than a president?

A. One thing has nothing to do with the other. I will always be a mother but I am also a president in my second term in office. As a mother, I did what I had to do and, as a president, I accepted my son’s resignation and I have also taken measures. Last year, we also took measures that never existed before to stop speculation on property values. Let the prosecutors decide, but as president, I took the measures that were necessary.

More information
Chile’s Bachelet battered by son’s questionable real estate dealings
Prosecutor wants two powerful Chilean businessmen held in custody
Chile’s President Bachelet embroiled in campaign finance scandal

Q. Why do you think that people don’t believe that you didn’t have anything to do with that firm?

A. Because I wasn’t aware of the scale of the controversy and because all the information surrounding the case didn’t get to me in time. The news analysts were writing things that were not true. This was shocking for people because it involved my family. I can understand that, but I want to make it clear that I took measures as any president should. We are working to recover the people’s trust in our government, and I am using everything I have available to win back that confidence. I am here because the people voted for me – I had a lovely job at the United Nations. And I am going to back all the promises I made.

Q. Do you regret leaving your post at the United Nations now that this scandal has broken?

A. No I don’t, but it has been more complicated than I expected. But difficulties will not weaken my convictions.

Q. You have made some radical changes to your government. Is this because you want to gain the center-right’s support?

This was hard on the people because it involved my family”

A. I don’t want my changes to be interpreted in a partisan way. We are fully aware that dialogue is necessary. But, for example, there is no leeway in the issue of keeping education in private hands. There are things I can change and other things that are essential.

Q. Was it difficult for you to fire Peñailillo, your apparent political heir?

A. Every time I make a change in my Cabinet it is difficult for me. They are all loyal men and women who have given their best. These are difficult decisions that one has to make. This was another example of how I acted as president.

Q. Do you know who donated to your campaign?

A. I have no idea, and this was why the law was changed in 2003 – so there wouldn’t be any conflicts of interest. No presidential candidate knows who donates to their campaign. But this isn’t enough for us; we want to prohibit political contributions from private companies.

Q. Will there be a constitutional assembly in Chile?

A new Constitution won’t solve all the corruption problems ”

A. We are going to start this process in September. A new Constitution won’t solve all the corruption problems but we want to start somewhere. I want to avoid having eight constitution experts meeting and deciding this; I want the people to be involved with their own experts and lobbyists.

Q. Besides you, the two most powerful women on this continent – Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, who will step down this year – have major problems because of corruption. Do you see any similarities?

A. I don’t like comparing Chile with other countries – it is just not fair. I trust President Rousseff, she is a great woman and a great president. I don’t have any doubts that she will emerge from these controversies. The main point is to deal directly with these problems. I don’t know if there has been corruption in Chile – let the prosecutors tell us that. But the most important thing is that we have never tried to hide it. Yes, people are mad and there is displeasure, but we are working to keep this from happening again. There may be people who are corrupt or there may be corruption, but this is an honest country – not a nation of corrupt people.

Q. Do you think your proposed abortion law will pass?

I want people to remember me for my battles for the people’s welfare”

A. We hope so because we want women to decide in some cases whether they want to continue with their pregnancies. If there is a mental or health problem, a democratic society should give women that chance to decide.

Q. How would you like to be remembered?

A. As president, I want people to remember me for my battles for their welfare and to expand their rights. And that is all I am working for. I am here because I am a person who loves her people, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.

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