The people of Chile are on the cusp of electing, for the first time in their history, a woman to the presidency. Except for women whose prominence was due to them being wives of famed male politicians, the election of socialist Michelle Bachelet will also mark a first for women for all of Latin America.
Bachelet, who won 46 percent of the vote in the first round of the country's presidential election and is expected to emerge victorious from the runoff on Jan. 15, symbolizes both the extent of the country's transformation after more than 15 years of civilian government and the limits to that change.
Bachelet's candidacy reflects the changes in gender norms taking place -- though slowly and fitfully -- in Chile and in other Latin American countries today.
Divorce became legal in Chile only last year, against the strident opposition of the Catholic Church, which counts nearly 90 percent of the country's citizens as congregants. A victory for Bachelet, who is divorced, will be a first in this respect, as well.
What's more, if Bachelet does win the runoff, Chile will get not only its first woman president, but also, she has pledged to appoint a cabinet made up of at least half of whose ministers will be women.
But Bachelet's victory would not necessarily signal major changes to come on human-rights issues or economic inequality, the two most searing legacies of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s.
A leader of the Socialist Party, and minister of health and minister of defense in the current Socialist-led government, Bachelet has described her party as "the house of justice the house of President (Salvador) Allende," the democratically elected president overthrown by the U.S.-supported military coup in 1973.
The party, however, is a far cry from what it was 35 years ago, when Allende's Popular Unity government took office promising a peaceful social revolution he called the "Chilean road to socialism."
The leadership of the Socialist Party has long since made peace with the neoliberal economic policies imposed by the military dictatorship. In power, it has pursued poverty-alleviating programs while leaving intact an economic model based on low-wage, resource-extracting, export-oriented industries.
While the official poverty rate has declined dramatically since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, from nearly 40 percent to just more than 20 percent, Chile's distribution of income remains among the most unequal in the world (twelfth from the bottom among 177 countries listed in the 2005 U.N. Human Development Report).
During her campaign, Bachelet has called for expanded social spending on education, a reformed pension system, increased unemployment benefits and, more vaguely, more and better jobs. She has made it clear, however, that her administration will not break with the established "path of economic development" and has pledged herself to respect the fiscal orthodoxy of balanced budgets.
Nor can we expect a major change in government policy on human rights. Bachelet has not made the human-rights violations under the dictatorship a major campaign issue, in keeping with the Socialist-led government's willingness to distance itself from legal attempts to prosecute former officials of the dictatorship, including Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The government even opposed the arrest of the former dictator in the United Kingdom in 1998 on human rights charges.
The ruling coalition has over the past 15 years avoided a clear reckoning on the evil legacies of the Pinochet dictatorship: the culture of fear engendered by disappearances, torture and repression over the long period of military rule, and the wrenching inequality sown by the dictatorship's free-market economic model.
As historic as it may be, a Bachelet presidency does not offer much promise of a dramatic reckoning on these issues. If dramatic changes are to come about anytime soon, they will have to come from below, not from above.
Alejandro Reuss is a doctoral candidate in economics at UMass-Amherst and an associate of Dollars & Sense magazine. He was born in Santiago, Chile, and has a graduate degree in Latin American History from Tufts University. He can be reached at email@example.com.