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Women with bitter past run for Chile's presidency

Saturday - 7/27/2013, 4:59pm  ET

This combination of two 2013 photos shows Chilean presidential candidates Evelyn Matthei, left, and former President Michelle Bachelet. Their history is the history of Chile. Childhood friends whose fathers became top generals, they were thrust onto opposite sides of the country's deep political divide. Bachelet's father loyally served socialist President Salvador Allende before and after the 1973 coup ended one of Latin America's oldest democracies. Matthei's father ran the military school where Gen. Alberto Bachelet was tortured to death for refusing to line up behind the dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. They have remained cordial ever since, through long political careers on the left and the right. But their good graces will be tested like never before now that they're facing off in the Nov. 17 general election, the first presidential race between two women in Chile's history. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo, File)

Associated Press

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) -- Their history is the history of Chile. Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei were childhood friends whose fathers became top generals on opposite sides of the country's deep political divide.

Bachelet's father supported socialist President Salvador Allende until the 1973 coup ended one of Latin America's oldest democracies. Matthei's father ran the military school where Gen. Alberto Bachelet was tortured to death for refusing to line up behind dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Their daughters somehow remained cordial over the years as they rose through the ranks of their political parties on the left and the right. But now they're campaigning against each other face to face for the Nov. 17 presidential election.

"There's an inevitable return to the past," said Esteban Valenzuela, a political analyst at Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago. "It's an historic dispute between the daughters of a victim of the dictatorship and an active member of the military junta."

Only months ago, neither seemed to want this.

Bachelet, who served as Chile's first female president from 2006 to 2010, was happily running the U.N.'s agency for women in New York until she finally resigned in March, when it had become obvious that the center-left coalition couldn't settle on anyone else popular enough to win back the presidency.

Matthei was running President Sebastian Pinera's labor and social security ministry and, at 59, had her sights on retirement. That changed earlier this month, when the center-right alliance threatened to unravel after its presidential candidate shocked the country by quitting, citing depression, only weeks after winning the primary. Pinera backed Matthei as the right's best remaining hope for stopping Bachelet's return.

Polls have suggested that Bachelet, a 61-year-old former pediatrician and socialist with a maternal touch, is unstoppable. Support for Matthei has yet to be measured.

An economist, Matthei is proud of having taken tough stands as she rose through the Independent Democratic Union, the hard-right party that sustained Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship and sought to protect his legacy for years thereafter. She describes herself as "chucara," Chilean slang for a horse that can't be tamed.

"I'm not the daughter of a military man, I'm Evelyn Matthei," she declared as she launched her campaign. "No one sees me as the daughter of the retired general Fernando Matthei. I've never been treated or behaved like 'the daughter of.'"

Both women inherited their fathers' sense of duty and commitment, ignoring gender barriers as they rose through Chile's male-dominated politics. The election is Chile's first presidential race featuring women representing the major coalitions.

"I've always said that if women can give birth they can tolerate anything. So we're going to be governing with strength," Bachelet said during her first year as president.

Matthei, for her part, said being female should help her election campaign. "I don't think men really realize how they discriminate against women in their daily lives," she told CNN Chile recently. "These are ingrained cultural issues, backward-looking and not often spoken."

Bachelet and Matthei were close in the 1960s: Their fathers, both fighter pilots, were attached to the same military base and the girls were playmates at the same elementary school.

By 1972, as other high-ranking military officers were conspiring to end his socialist presidency, Allende put Gen. Bachelet in charge of overseeing food sales nationwide. Many products were in short supply as Allende's right-wing opponents, financed by the Nixon administration, held back goods and instigated strikes to create a sense of chaos.

Then came Sept. 11, 1973. Bachelet, a medical student, climbed to the roof of her university to watch fighter jets bomb the presidential palace. Her father was soon arrested. He had remained loyal to Allende, even after the democratically elected president committed suicide rather than surrender.

Gen. Matthei, stationed in Britain, returned home shortly after the coup, becoming Pinochet's health minister and then a member of the junta.

Gen. Bachelet died in prison in 1974 after being tortured by officers at the military school run by Matthei.

Pinochet's takeover forced every Chilean to take sides, and the generals' daughters were no exception, devoting their lives to public service from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

At first, Matthei remained in London and helped the military government's embassy with translations while studying to become a concert pianist. Bachelet joined the resistance, and helped hide dissidents until she too was arrested, in 1975.

Bachelet was interrogated, tortured, jailed and then exiled -- an ordeal she prefers not to discuss. The former president's autobiography says she suffered "physical hardships" before using political connections to reach Australia and East Germany.

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