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Conservative Chile swears in first female president

Associated Press
Published March 11, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile - Seasoned Chilean politician Victor Barrueto knows who will be in charge when Michelle Bachelet takes over as the nation's first female president Saturday.

"I have a lady boss now," said Barrueto, the next governor of Chile's largest province.

Bachelet's inauguration marks a deep cultural change in this male-dominated, conservative society, where divorce was legalized less than two years ago, abortion remains illegal, and women often earn up to 40 percent less than men doing the same work.

Already, she's challenging the traditional power structure. She appointed what she calls a "parity government" - with equal numbers of men and women at more than 250 key jobs. She made the appointments without the traditional, lengthy negotiations with the political parties.

In addition, Bachelet has also vowed to promote legislation that would force political parties to include a certain percentage of female candidates.

Public reaction to Bachelet and her gender-parity appointments has been positive, but "when one listens to more private conversations, one hears a lot of fear, many doubts," said Teresa Valdes, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Science.

"Gender inequities, discrimination and exclusion of women have historically been very deep in Chile," Valdes said. "Some people will point at any problem as being the result of women being in charge."

Bachelet was elected to a four-year term in a Jan. 15 runoff vote to replace fellow Socialist Ricardo Lagos, who leaves office with more than 70 percent approval among Chileans. Lagos says he has no doubts about Bachelet, his former defense and health minister.

At an International Women's Day celebration, Lagos called Bachelet's election "proof that we have expanded the limits of what is possible in Chile nowadays."

Bachelet, a separated mother of three, is the first elected Latin American leader who didn't rise to power with the help of a powerful husband. The 54-year-old former pediatrician says her victory reflects profound changes in Chilean society.

"Back in 1952 when Chile's president for the first time offered a woman a Cabinet post, she said she had to consult with her husband before accepting," Bachelet said. "When I called several men to offer them Cabinet posts, they told me they would check with their wives first."

[Last modified March 11, 2006, 01:44:48]

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