SANTIAGO, Chile—On Tuesday, Michelle Bachelet will become president of Chile for the second time. Imprisoned as a young woman with her mother during the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Bachelet was later forced into exile before returning to Chile and working as a pediatrician and human rights activist. She eventually served as the country’s president from 2006 to 2010. An enormously popular politician, Bachelet nonetheless faces daunting challenges, including a student movement demanding free education for all and a slowing economy. Just days ahead of her inauguration, Bachelet, 62, sat down with Lally Weymouth to discuss inequality, education, and Chile’s relationship with Washington. Excerpts:
What are your priorities for your second term as president?
Chile has been able to consolidate democracy. But we have a challenge we haven’t been able to solve yet, and that is to tackle inequality. We have been able to reduce poverty, to increase social mobility, and to improve living conditions. But inequality is still there as a challenge. We need to ensure that everyone has the same rights and opportunities. We need to ensure not only access [to education], but we need to ensure quality education.
What does that mean?
It means that from nursery school to university, people will have access—if they have the merit and capacity—to receive a quality education. Lack of money shouldn’t be an obstacle for people who want to be a professional or a technician. I don’t think that capacities and talents are distributed by social patterns. You have intelligent, bright people everywhere. We are losing many students with potential because people who live in a rural village do not have easy access to a good education, and when they try to go to a university, it is more difficult for them.
So you’re not saying that everyone will have access to a university education? You’re saying anyone who is smart and ambitious will have access, regardless of his or her background?
We believe that we have to ensure and enable everyone who has the capacity and talent to receive the education [he or she deserves]. There are some people who might not have all the capacities. … But everybody who has the will and capacity should have the possibility.
When you are talking about education, do you mean universities or kindergarten through 12th grade?
We are going to reform the whole system. In my former government, we opened 3,500 free nurseries for children from the ages of zero to 2 [to help] mothers who need to work. But that is not enough. For this term, I want to open an additional 4,500 public nurseries. I want more women in the labor force, and I need to enable them to do that. Then we have normal school—as you say, K through 12. In Chile, we have three kinds of schools: the public schools; the privately owned schools, which are subsidized by the state; and the third is the completely private schools, which don’t receive a penny from the state. We need to ensure there is no segregation in all schools that receive money from the state. We need good, quality education; it is a matter of social justice, and it is also an important economic factor of competitiveness. Finally, at the university—it is [a matter of] quality, but it also [should be] free of charge.
That’s really hard, isn’t it?
It is. How will we pay for this? Through the tax reform. We have three big reforms: education reform, tax reform, and our third reform will be a new constitution. Pinochet made a constitution that left a lot of gridlock so as not to change anything. In order to reform education, you have to have a very high majority that is impossible in this system.
But you have the majority.
Yes, I have a simple majority. For the educational reform, the majority of the changes we will be able to reach by a basic majority. On other [aspects], we need more. There are some people in parliament who are not part of my coalition, but I think they share my view of these priorities. We will work with them so that if they agree, we can get this four-sevenths vote required for a new constitution.
You want to change the electoral system?
There is no other place in the world where a system like this exists that does not represent truly what the majority of the people want. We need to go to a different kind of electoral system. Also, we need to ensure that women and men have the same salary.
You need that in the constitution?
We need to ensure that the constitution is written so that there is no possibility to discriminate against women.
When you were young, you were arrested with your mother and put into a detention center.
It was a place that nobody knew about at the time. It was not a camp—it was a place where people would disappear. It was sort of a prison. It was called Villa Grimaldi. Many people who went there were never seen again. It was a beautiful villa that they used for torturing people.
How long were you there?
Not too long, fortunately. Twenty-eight days later, I went to another place that was also a secret prison.
With your mother?
Yes, but we were separated.
How old were you?
I was 21. What happened was, the minute the secret service guys came to my home, the telephone rang, and it was my boyfriend. We had a special code to say danger, and so I told him. People who were leaving the country immediately started campaigning for us, and that is why I didn’t disappear. Then we were expelled from the country. We went to Australia. My brother lived there. But I really needed to be part of the fight for democracy.
So you moved to East Germany?
I moved to Germany because my political party was there, the Socialist Party. I lived in Potsdam; I had a good experience.
How long did you live there?
Three years. I studied German. And I worked in a hospital, because I was a medical student when I left Chile.
When did you come back here?
I came back in the beginning of 1979. I left Chile in 1975. I got married in Germany, so I came back with my mom, my son, and my husband. I had to study medicine all over again. But I am resilient, and when I finished medical school, I decided to be a pediatrician.
And all this time were you involved in politics?
I was involved in political activities but not so high-profile because I had little children. My political activity was related to human rights. I tried to work in the public health system, but when the military regime was here, they said they would never hire me. So I started working at an NGO that worked to support the children of political prisoners, missing people, executed people—the victims of human rights.
You once said, “I was a victim of hatred, and I have dedicated my life to reversing that hatred.” Is that what you feel?
Yes, it’s true.
You were able to look ahead in a positive way, even though you had been exiled and tortured?
We are never going to agree on what happened in the past. But we can try to build a big agreement on what we want for the future. We want a country where we can live in peace, developed but with more justice, more inclusion, and more solidarity, where everyone has opportunities and rights. That doesn’t mean equality in terms of [outcome]. But to give everyone the chance and opportunities.
What is your plan for tax reform? Is that how you are going to raise the money to pay for free education for all?
There will be a tax burden for the wealthiest part of the population and for businesses. When you want to do things in your country that will mean permanent expenses and costs, you have to do it with permanent incomes. You cannot depend on the economy—if it is up or down—to ensure something.
Are you talking about corporate tax going from 20 percent to 25 percent?
Yes, the corporate tax. And we are also going to fight strongly against tax evasion [and] loopholes. We are going to do a lot of things in terms of improving the capacity to collect taxes. And we are going to have green taxes—whoever contaminates more has to pay more.
People talk about a “right” to free education.
In Chile, they feel there is the right to free education and free health care. And it is not left or right. People who define themselves as moderates and centrists feel that the right of education and health is something that should be the basis of this society.
How do you see the situation in Venezuela? Do you think President Nicolás Maduro should go?
Chile has recognized President Maduro as a democratically elected president. I will work with President Maduro, as with other presidents, with a lot of respect.
So you aren’t worried about the violence and the protesters in Venezuela?
I think that once in office, there will be a chance to talk about all of these issues.
Will the U.S.-Chilean relationship remain strong?
Chilean foreign policy has a clear framework over the next four years, and that is to re-establish our presence in the region and to bolster integration and regional unity. We have maintained with the United States an important relationship for many years. During my last government, we established a new phase of cooperation between Chile and California. We will continue to uphold cooperation in the areas of science, technology, research, innovation, and energy.
Aren’t you discussing buying liquefied natural gas from the United States?
I know there have been some discussions in terms of energy. We will look at new ways of ensuring energy for our country.
Do you support the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
The role of the Chilean government is to safeguard the country’s interests. We don’t have much information on the process regarding the scope and limitations of the TPP. We already have a [free-trade agreement] with the U.S. We will protect all the agreements we already have established with the U.S.
Do you worry about your economy’s dependence on China? Copper is your lead export, and the majority of it goes to China. The slowdown in China will affect you.
Yes, but we are not dependent on one country because we have many FTAs. A small country like Chile cannot depend on the internal market. We have to continue our external trade. Also we need to diversify the economy with a modern industrial policy. We do depend mainly on copper. We need also to increase productivity, and productivity depends on human capital—on training and on energy.
Chile has to import most of its energy.
Yes. But we started in my first government to stimulate the development of new energy, more renewables. We need to continue that. People don’t want a thermoelectric facility near their home. People were starting to protest. I think that the best possible way to do it is to have people sit together and say: “We need energy, and we need an environment that is sustainable. What are the areas we going to intervene in? Which are the ones we are going to protect?” Try to come to an agreement. Otherwise, everything will be stopped by protests. The street can’t make all decisions.