As of next month, Chile will once again call Michelle Bachelet, leader of the popular Socialist Party, its president.
Although she left office with an 84 percent approval rate, Chilean law prohibits presidents from serving consecutive terms. However, in the four years since Bachelet left office, millions of citizens have openly protested for the return of many of her reforms — specifically demanded, are her reforms concerning education, environmental protection and income inequality.
Students are especially excited for Bachelet’s return. Her plan is to raise corporate taxes to 25 percent and use the money to fund the overhaul of secondary and higher education. This is the first step of what Bachelet hopes is a gradual move towards free public universities.
The influence of former president Augusto Pinochet, which ended central control and funding of public schools, left the education system in Chile diminished in quality skewed for the benefit of the elite. The majority of universities there today are private and expensive; and the country has not seen a new public university built in over 20 years.
Bachelet became the first female president of Chile in 2006; she served the traditional four-year term until 2010. She is often considered one of the most admired presidents in modern Chilean history, especially since the end of Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship in 1990.
Many of the problems facing the Latin American country today are blamed on Pinochet’s abuse of power. Amongst other things, he is most criticized for ending land reform by selling off the nation’s water. This created a small pocket of economic elite and sparked the growing wealth distribution gap, which Bachelet has dedicated her career to fighting.
Education reform was central to the success of Bachelet’s last presidential term, and throughout her campaign she has vowed to continue it. Early in her first term, in April 2006, demonstrations of high school students broke out across the country, voicing frustrations with the quality and price of their education.
It became known as the “Penguin Revolution,” named for the black-and-white uniforms common among Chilean students.
Bachelet addressed this by immediately setting up an educational advisory committee. The committee, comprised of 81 advisory members from an array of political affiliations and socioeconomic backgrounds, functioned as a forum for the proposal of education bills.
Many of them were effective by August 2009 under the signing of the Education Reform Bill, which decentralized the system and created new regulatory government agencies.
When Bachelet’s term ended in 2010, students once again found themselves frustrated by their lack of representation within the education system and began protesting against current president Sebastián Piñera. Throughout 2011 and 2012, the streets of Santiago were filled nearly every Thursday with students demanding the reinstating of certain funding and other reforms for higher education.
She recently ran for office a second time, succeeding long-time political rival Evelyn Matthei. Now Bachelet and her education and economic reforms will return to office in March. Her popularity was proven on December 15, 2013 with reports of applause and tears accompanying her acceptance speech in Santiago.
Although the anticipation is high, there are also concerns regarding Chile’s immediate economic future and skepticism surrounding how Bachelet will handle it.
Chile’s economy has been growing rapidly in recent years, increasing by 5.6 percent last year.
However, there are fears that it will soon begin to slow, since much of its gross domestic product is tied to its primary export copper, which is at risk of declining prices in the global market. Many speculate that copper wealth will be Bachelet’s weapon for the underfunded public schools system, but if the copper market suffers, so will education.
Regardless, Bachelet is still followed by a reputation for charisma, intelligence and understanding of the common citizen. Her constituents widely agree that her future term as the president of Chile will be productive and positive.
As Paolo Bustamente, who admits to voting for Bachelet, said: “Abroad you often hear that this country has been growing and progressing more than others in Latin America, but it can’t just be a matter of growth. We need urgent educational reform, improvements to health and I feel Bachelet can fulfill promises of deep changes this time around.”
– Stefanie Doucette