Lunch With Michelle Bachelet

The first female president of Chile shuns wine.

Michelle Bachelet

The first thing I notice about Michelle Bachelet as she enters the Manhattan restaurant Cibo is that she is wearing a shocking pink jacket. It is not a particularly elegant garment: The fabric looks cheap and the cut unfashionable—at least by New York’s strict sartorial standards. But the jaunty shade suits her, lighting up the Italian restaurant. It also seems rather appropriate for her job.

Until last autumn, Bachelet, 59, was best known as the first female president of Chile. It was just the latest twist in an extraordinary life: A leftwing activist in her youth, Bachelet came from a family that was tortured under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s; she went into exile and studied medicine, eventually returning to Chile and entering national politics, where she held ministerial posts before being elected as president in March 2006 and serving a four-year term in power.

Last autumn, six months after stepping down as president, she was appointed undersecretary-general of United Nations Women, a high-profile U.N. attempt to put “pink” issues firmly on the global policymaking map.

As she sits down, I ask how she has settled in at the U.N. Uneasily, I confess that I feel torn between idealism and cynicism about her new mandate: Part of me loves the fact that the U.N. is finally doing something to coordinate female causes, particularly in poor, war-torn parts of the world; but my experience of the U.N. in the past, as a reporter and an anthropologist, leaves me skeptical about the bureaucracy and ineffective rhetoric that often plague the organization.

Bachelet listens, and gives a calm, sunny smile. Her demeanor provides no clues to her extraordinary life; her clothes are neat, albeit a little frumpy, her hair soberly cut; her face sports a smudge of purple eye-shadow, but is gently wrinkled. It is a face notable mainly for its normality: In New York, powerful women over the age of 50 often use surgery to make the years disappear; in Latin America, female politicians have tended to be doubly glamorous—courtesy of discreet “treatments.”

“I would not have taken this job if I did not think I could do something,” she says, explaining that the aim of her new post is to coordinate disparate initiatives that exist across U.N. bodies. This, she hopes, will galvanize governments to improve the position of women, not just where they are victims (say, in war), but also in a broader sense. “I want to build for U.N. Women a strong case for why women’s issues matter, why improving women’s lives is a good investment. …” She pauses; her English is fairly fluent, but the grammar is charmingly idiosyncratic and she often searches for words.

But, I ask, doesn’t the bureaucracy at the U.N. make her want to scream? A few days before our lunch, I had met Bachelet for the first time, when I chaired a U.N. event on the plight of impoverished widows across the world. Two details stuck out: the arrival of the first lady of Gabon, who was overseeing the event, wearing an extraordinarily glamorous (and apparently expensive) outfit; then the impact of Bachelet (looking a bit scruffy), who quietly and tactfully intervened in the program to make it less dull, without offending the Gabon hosts. It underlined the kind of diplomatic challenges she will face at the U.N.

She laughs. “There are some formalities that any institution has, and that you respect. But I try to do it a little bit more interactive and dynamic … if things can be rational and explained in a good way, things can change. You need to have a strong case. That’s what I want to build for U.N. Women; a strong case [for change in the position of women].”

The waiter appears. The restaurant is charming, but basic, with dog-eared menus. Bachelet says she selected it for convenience and I observe that it is also cheap. “Well, I haven’t noticed that,” she admits, surprised. “But it’s OK. It’s a normal restaurant, it’s nice, the food is good.” After some debate, I order a chopped rocket salad and soft-shelled crab; Bachelet chooses two appetizers: another chopped rocket salad, and steamed mussels. She shuns wine, without a thought.

“Are you on a health kick?” I ask. New York women who want to stay rake-thin usually only order two appetizers. Bachelet sports a middle-aged spread; indeed, elements of the Chilean media nicknamed her “fatty” when she was president. “No. I should and I try, but …” She says she has no idea how New York women stay so slim: “They drink! I have seen it myself! For me, I wake up very early, but I don’t work out because I’m preparing documents and things like that. Any meeting … I go walking, but it doesn’t help much.”

Her casual approach to ordering, like her indifference to the inexpensive restaurant, is another sign of Bachelet’s apparent lack of interest in the trivial and material. Given the challenges she has faced in her life, this is perhaps unsurprising.

She was born in 1951, into a middle-class family in Santiago, the youngest of two siblings (her elder brother is no longer alive). Her father was a high-ranking army officer; her mother an archaeologist. “I have a mother who always told me since I was a child [that] marriage is not the goal of a woman … that you can do much more than that,” she recalls. “Even my father, well he was in the military … [but] he was very progressive too.”

Her early family years seem idyllic, albeit shaped by an overwhelming sense of military discipline and duty; at school, she dreamed of becoming a scientist and “helping to improve the world.” But then she decided to study medicine. “It was a very—I would say—comfortable family. … I felt love from my parents and I think that helped me even though I was shy.”

But in 1973, this world fell apart when the Pinochet regime seized power in a coup. Her father resisted, and was seized and then tortured so brutally that he died. Then the regime threw Bachelet and her mother into prison for months.

“You were also tortured?” I ask, carefully; it is not really intended as a question.

She pauses. She has never discussed this period of her life in public in detail. “There’s a lot of people who had a worse time than mine,” she replies, and firmly moves the conversation to the next stage of her life: After prison, she and her mother then moved to Australia, before settling in East Germany, a place sympathetic to her left-wing views. There she became a doctor, married a fellow Chilean left-wing activist, continued to support the anti-Pinochet cause, and started having children.

The waiter interrupts with our food: two rocket salads, neatly arranged into a pyramid, which are tasty, but unremarkable. She starts to eat, in an absent-minded way, and continues with her tale.

In 1979, she returned to Chile, hoping to promote democracy. She qualified as a surgeon—but when she applied for jobs in public health, she was turned down because of her left-wing views. So she joined a non-governmental group instead and, eventually, when the political climate changed in the early 1980s, she finally entered the public health service, taking charge of a program on HIV/AIDS and epidemiology in Santiago. She performed well and, in 1996, was chosen by the central committee of the Socialist Party to run for the city council. In 2000 she was named minister of health. Then, in 2002, she became defense minister.

It was a remarkable appointment. Never before had a woman been defense minister in Latin America—yet here was a self-declared agnostic operating in a Catholic region; moreover, after her return to Chile she divorced her husband, becoming a single mother. There was also the emotional legacy of her family’s persecution under Pinochet. She insists, however, that it was precisely because of her past that she felt so keen to do this job. “I’ve always thought that one of the problems of our coup d’état … was that there was no political dialogue or understanding between the politicians and military,” she says. “I lived in military units [as a child]. I was—as they say—part of the military family. So, I thought, I could understand the language, to build a bridge.”

When she was president, did she try to find out exactly who had tortured her family? To seek revenge? “No,” she says, surprised. “There was a time in my life when there was so much anger and rage but … it’s sort of a process. It’s not that I said, ‘OK,’ but … ” English words fail her. “I really wanted a country where people could live understanding their diversity and not thinking the person in front of them is an enemy but someone who can be different.”

She pauses, then recounts a story about going into a Santiago hardware store where she ran into a former friend of her father’s who had initiated some of her family’s torment. As she tells her tale, her voice is devoid of any self-pity or bitterness; she likes to live, she says, by looking forward—not obsessively watching the past. She does not want to be a victim.

Our plates are cleared, quietly, and I ask about the period between 2006 and 2010, when she served as president. Opinions on her track record are mixed: Some left-wing politicians blame her for the fact that under her leadership the Social Democrats lost power for the first time for many years. Others argue that she provided steady, effective leadership at a time of global economic turmoil, and note that opinion polls show that she is still the region’s most popular politician.

Bachelet herself seems ambivalent about this time. “To be a president can be very lonely because, even though you have a lot of advisers, at the end it’s you that has to make the decision,” she notes. But she says she is proud that she was able to promote “social protection” for the poorest parts of society. She is also pleased that she promoted the cause of women—as one newspaper noted, after her tenure young Chilean girls started saying that they wanted to be president when they grew up, rather than to be nurses. What she disliked was that this also turned her into a quasi-celebrity in Chile. “Yesterday somebody was asking me what do you miss about Chile [while living in New York]. I said, ‘I miss my family, but I also like to be Miss Nobody here—to have some privacy.’ ”

Her candidacy for the U.N. job was not without controversy. Some members wanted an African candidate and others disliked how Bachelet approaches “women’s issues.” Notably, she has always stressed that feminism should not be just about trying to protect women—but also to “empower” them, in a positive sense. Just as in her own life, she does not like focusing on victimhood alone. “Empowering means putting more women in decision-making positions … governmental, parliamentarian,” she says. But she was eventually appointed, and moved to New York.

Does she like the city? I ask, as the waiter appears with our main courses; she expresses surprise at the scale of her large, steaming bowl of mussels; I have a slightly overcooked plate of soft-shell crab. What does she do with her spare time?

“Hobbies? I don’t know. I am always working, reading, traveling, preparing for meetings. I would like to, how do you say it … ?” She mumbles a Spanish phrase that I translate as “savor.”

“Yes! To savor New York. To walk. To see friends, museums, theater. I would like to see my grandchildren.” Her two daughters are still at college in Latin America; her eldest son works in Chile and has two children, whom she misses.

“Oh, and I like to dance, dance!” she suddenly adds.

“Dance?” I ask, surprised.

“I’m not a tango dancer. That’s very professional. But I love merengue, salsa. … ” She becomes animated and explains that just before she left Santiago, “my friends organized me sort of a farewell party and birthday party. So I danced!”

I ask if there is anything else she does in New York. “I have to do the normal things—clean the house, the laundry. I do it on the weekends.”

“Don’t you have a cleaner?” I ask, genuinely startled. She shakes her head, firmly. “I am not glamour and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s due to the education I received at home but also because of the coup d’état. When you lose friends, lose loved ones, you really ask yourself what is really important in life and you realize the finitude of the human being. That makes you more humble, more realistic but also ambitious—not in the sense of trying to touch the ceiling, not in the sense of power—in trying to make a difference for others.” With a rueful smile, she says that her daughters (to whom she is very close) have teased her for being “addicted” to public service, be that running a country, creating a charitable foundation, or trying to help women.

The main course is cleared away. She orders a green tea, and I choose espresso. After the bill arrives, she quietly gathers up her bag and heads to a dingy side door around the back of the restaurant. “It’s a short cut I know, back to the U.N., faster,” she says, as her pink jacket disappears—presumably into another round of meetings. Such powers of navigation will come in handy at the U.N., I muse, hoping she finds a way to overcome obstacles there as effectively as she has throughout her life.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.