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South American women leap into office; exiles build a better Manitoba

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My mother has often said that it was the empanada that brought down the dictator of Chile.

Millions of empanadas were made by hands that carefully prepared the meat, turned and kneaded the fine balance of water and flour into the perfect dough. They were sold by members of Chilean exile communities all over the globe to raise money to fund the resistance. It was an appetizing way to create awareness about what was going on in a small, skinny nation on the Pacific coast of South America.

Having grown up in Winnipeg's community of Chilean exiles, I witnessed the creation of the empanada thousands of times, watched as the hands of my mother and other Chilean women kneaded, flattened, folded and pinched the dough. It was -- and still is -- a magical process to me.


My father was in the Chilean Air Force. At the age of 23, he refused to participate in the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. His decision meant months of detention and torture, sparked constant threats to his person, threats to his fellow airmen, threats to his mother and five sisters.

The women of Chile also stood up. In the face of the most brutal repression, my mother, aunts and scores of other women organized and went to the detention centres demanding to know if their husbands, fathers, brothers and boyfriends were being held there. Humiliated by police officers, who groped them under the pretence of searching for weapons, they were told their loved ones were traitors who deserved to die and that "good women" wouldn't be out in the streets.

And yet the women returned every day in search of shreds of information.

This turned into political action: marches that brought out the police water cannon; visits to the Vicariate of Solidarity, created by diverse churches to help the victims of the Pinochet regime; and, pleas to embassies for safe passage out of the country. Their efforts were not in vain.

What began as street activism took root in a political awakening, the effects of which can be seen today. And this did not just happen in Chile.

Coups are scars on the Latin American continent and out of these wounds, women have found the strength and the will to reach the highest echelons of power.

One of the women my mother crossed paths with in the months following the coup would become the most popular president of modern-day Chile, Michelle Bachelet. Her father, Brig.-Gen. Alberto Bachelet, is one of the most prominent of the constitutional soldiers, the title given to those in Chile's armed forces who refused to participate in the coup -- men such as my father. Gen. Bachelet died while imprisoned in 1974.

Bachelet, elected to a four-year term in 2006, broke the mould in Chile, being a divorced, single mother and an agnostic in a traditionally conservative country. Before becoming president, Bachelet was the first female minister of defence in South America.

In the years since, the continent has seen the presidencies of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, elected in 2007 in Argentina (recently re-elected), and Dilma Rousseff, elected in Brazil in 2010. All three women felt the oppressive hands of military dictatorships. Bachelet and Rousseff had been detained and reportedly tortured for their political action.

Many have questioned why in North America we have yet to see an elected female prime minister in Canada or a female president in the United States. The comparisons are interesting.

I believe the women's movement in North America is bottom-up, while South America's still is largely top-down -- the female presidents lead centre-left coalitions that have long given women senior roles. Indeed, men played pivotal roles in the successful political campaigns of these three women: Bachelet's predecessor, Ricardo Lagos, appointed her minister of health and defence; popular Brazilian President Lula da Silva promoted Rousseff; and Fernandez's husband Nestor Kirchner was Argentina's president from 2003-07. However, these women brought plenty of experience and knowledge to the table. The rise to power, for them, was a natural evolution of a political reality in their countries.

In contrast, in Canada, this type of centre-left coalition has not come to power federally. But North American women have made great strides in almost every area of society and there is a sense that an elected female PM or president is only a matter of time -- there are female provincial premiers and Hillary Clinton came close to standing for president.

South America still has some ways to go. Despite the evident successes, women have not yet broken the societal chains that keep them attached to the traditional roles in the home. In essence, South American women look to their female presidents to spark many of the institutional changes Canadian and American women have already achieved.

The benefits of this social activism have spread. Many women who were forced to leave their homelands are putting their political-action skills to good use. In Winnipeg, you can see these women working in government, universities, our public health-care system and environmental, student and labour organizations, enriching the fabric of their adopted community.

And their hands are still in the mix. Empanadas were made by the thousands all over the world this month, in celebration of Chilean Independence Day on Sept. 18. As these women's hands continue to knead, their voices continue to be made heard.


Winnipeg journalist Bernice Pontanilla interviewed President Michelle Bachelet in 2003 for a television documentary for her master's degree in journalism. at Carleton University.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J11

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