SANTIAGO – They were daughters of generals, riding bikes together as children until Chile’s coup upended their lives and country. Decades later, Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei are rival presidential candidates.
Their families were neighbors at the Cerro Moreno air base decades ago and it was there that the two, aged just 6 and 4, would sometimes play together. Their fathers were close and shared a love for the same music and books.
But everything changed on Sept. 11, 1973, when a coup overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende and brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.
Bachelet’s father, Alberto, who was loyal to Allende, was arrested that same day and eventually tortured to death. Fernando Matthei, meanwhile, sided with Pinochet and, in a bitter twist of fate, became the head of the military academy where his friend was held.
Now, years later, Bachelet, a socialist, will face off Sunday against her one-time playmate and the only right-wing candidate for the top post, following a series of withdrawals.
The election encompasses “extraordinarily dramatic and incredible elements, from a common childhood in the ’50s to candidacies for the presidency from opposing camps,” said journalist Rocio Montes, co-author of a book titled “Hijas de General” (“Generals’ Daughters”).
“Someone said one of the great mysteries of Chilean politics is whether this is accidental or a product of history,” he added.
While they weren’t great friends or in the same class due to their age difference, growing up on a military base instilled in both of them a sense of order, duty and a love of learning.
Bachelet, who is now 62 and is strongly favored to win the election, was deeply influenced by her father’s death in March 1974 of a heart attack after months of abuse. Detained and tortured herself, Bachelet developed a political drive that propelled her to become Chile’s first female president from 2006 to 2010, after years in exile.
A doctor by training, Bachelet has also served as the executive director of U.N. Women, a global entity focused on promoting gender equality.
Her 60-year-old archrival, Matthei, was in London at the time of the Pinochet coup, since her father was posted there at that time. Following piano studies, she turned her focus to economics once back home. During the final years of the Pinochet dictatorship, which is estimated to have killed at least 3,200 people, Matthei was active in one the parties that backed the regime.
In 1993, she failed in a bid for the presidency, finding herself ensnared in a wiretapping scandal alongside current President Sebastian Pinera that temporarily stalled both of their political careers. Matthei went on to become a member of parliament and then a senator. In 2011, Pinera named her labor minister.
During the presidential campaign, the two candidates stayed away from their common and painful past — and Bachelet seems to have little taste for revenge. Her family, like the country’s legal authorities, feels that Fernando Matthei was not directly responsible for what happened to those imprisoned at the military academy where Alberto Bachelet died.
Bachelet’s mother and his widow, Angela Jeria, has even publicly defended him. “She defends him because she is convinced that he is not responsible for the death of her husband,” said Nancy Castillo, co-author of “Hijas de General.”
In 1979, Matthei reached out to the widow and daughter of his former military comrade, vouching for their return to Chile after five years in exile. Today, he is openly sorry about not having helped his friend evade his dire fate.
“Caution took precedence over courage,” he said, according to Montes and Castillo.