Chile's new President Michelle Bachelet waves from a balcony at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Bachelet, who led Chile from 2006-2010, was sworn-in as president on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Victor Ruiz Caballero)
VALPARAISO, Chile — Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile’s presidency today after a four-year break, facing an economic slowdown and student-led protests that have paralyzed the country in recent years and now will likely challenge her promises of profound social changes.
Amid thunderous applause and cheers, Sen. Isabel Allende, daughter of former President Salvador Allende, placed the red, white and blue presidential sash on Bachelet’s shoulder during a ceremony at Chile’s congress in the port city of Valparaiso.
“It’s time to take this road that we committed to through our government program; it’s time to kick start these dreams toward a nation that is more just, developed, modern, tolerant and inclusive,” Bachelet later told a cheering crowd of more than 5,000 people outside the presidential palace in Santiago.
“Chile has only one great adversary: inequality. And only together we’ll be able to defeat it.”
The election victory of Bachelet, a moderate socialist, followed a campaign of promises to finance education reform with higher corporate taxes, improve health care, change the dictatorship-era constitution to make Congress more representative and reduce the vast gap between the rich and poor.
But some think Bachelet has raised expectations too far.
“She promised a lot of things, a lot of reforms, so people expect many things to happen,” said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University.
“But the economic conditions have changed,” he added. “The economy is not growing quite as fast and Bachelet is not going to have the leverage to introduce all the reforms.”
During her first presidency in 2006-10, Bachelet won praise for shepherding Chile through the global economic crisis. Although growth stumbled and unemployment rose, she used government reserves to help the poorest Chileans, and she enjoyed 84 percent approval when she left office.
The student protests that bedeviled outgoing President Sebastian Pinera began under Bachelet. She named a commission and shuffled her Cabinet, which seemed enough when the student groups were still strongly influenced by the ruling center-left coalition.
Those bonds broke under Pinera, when Communist Party members such as Camila Vallejo led the students. Vallejo is now a member of Congress and a Bachelet ally, but the key university student unions are led by anarchists who vow to make life impossible for Bachelet if she doesn’t follow through.
“The urgency of the educational crisis that we’re living doesn’t allow us to give her a honeymoon,” said Naschla Aburman, president of the Catholic University student federation.
Chile is the world’s top copper exporter, and its fast-growing economy, low unemployment and inflation have been the envy of Latin America. But many Chileans say more of its wealth should be used to help reduce income inequality and make quality education accessible to everyone.
Many blame the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Allende, for concentrating wealth and power. Pinochet privatized water resources and ended agrarian reforms. He also eliminated central control and funding of public schools.
Bachelet, the daughter of a general who died of torture after challenging Pinochet, became Chile’s first female defense minister and president, then the first leader of the U.N. women’s agency.
Her “New Majority” coalition welcomed Communists, street activists and former student leaders, and won in December by the widest margin in eight decades of presidential elections.
Chile’s economy thrived under Pinera, but metals prices have dropped and growth has slowed just as Bachelet hopes to take in about $8.2 billion in taxes from businesses to fund her education reform.
The inauguration was attended by most presidents from Latin America as well as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. But the unrest in Venezuela cast a shadow across the day.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro canceled plans to be at the swearing-in after Biden called the street protests in Venezuela “alarming” and said democratically elected leaders who rule as authoritarians damage their people and countries. Maduro sent his foreign minister, Elias Jaua, in his stead.
Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said today that fellow ministers from the UNASUR group of South American nations will meet Wednesday in Santiago to hear what Jaua has to say about the Venezuelan government’s claim that weeks of street protests have been fomented by “coup plotters.”
Bachelet has tried to straddle the divide.
“We are always going to try to find ways of assuring that human rights are truly guaranteed,” she told local TV on Friday. “Neither does it seem proper to take violent actions seeking to destabilize a democratically elected government.”