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Michelle Bachelet, Human Rights, and Venezuela

Twice president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet finds herself in a human rights quagmire of considerable proportions as a result of unenviable aspects of her past, her high profile present, and one of the worst cases of Latin American government gone bad, Venezuela.

After the death in prison of her father, an air force officer who had stayed loyal to deposed president Salvador Allende before, during and after the coup in 1973, Bachelet was also imprisoned and suffered abuse at the hands of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. At the age of 22 she was forced into exile along with her mother and many of her colleagues, family, and friends. She lived first in Australia, then East Germany, but returned to Chile in 1979 where she earned a medical doctor degree and worked in a clinic that reportedly treated torture victims of the dictatorship. A decade later Chile returned to democratic rule.

Bachelet, an active member of the Socialist party, served as Minister of Health and then Defense Minister in the elected government of  Ricardo Lagos, the first Socialist president of Chile since the deposed Salvador Allende.

Bachelet was elected to two four-year terms as president of Chile (2006-10 and 2014-18), characterized by her persistent commitment to building a more secure social safety net for Chile’s poor, and greater recognition of women’s rights and those of the LGBTQ community. Throughout, she firmly supported pursuit of truth and justice regarding violations of human rights during the dictatorship. Her first term was relatively successful, although not popular enough to ensure that her successor would be from her center-left coalition. Additionally, as her term ended a most destructive earthquake and tsunami struck Chile; her government’s response was unfortunately lacking, leaving her legacy diminished.

However, after the four year interim center-right presidency of Sebastian Piñera, Bachelet’s popularity had re-surged such that she was again chosen to govern her country for four years. This second term was less successful than the first, her popularity waned, and she again turned over the presidency to Piñera. Throughout her two presidencies, though, Michelle Bachelet’s trademark personal trait was sincere empathy for the everyday struggles of the citizens of Chile, especially the poor, women, and children.

Between her two terms as president, Bachelet lived in New York as the appointed head of the United Nations Women’s Organization, an honor in itself for her and her country, and an opportunity to deepen her experience in international affairs and the global struggle for the rights and opportunities of minorities, women and girls.

The blatant violations of a broad range of human rights in Chile in the period of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) left open wounds on Chilean society, the scars of which persist to this day almost a half century after the military coup and three decades of democratically elected governments. As a national political leader, Michelle Bachelet faced the negative and hateful forces within her society that wish to ignore or excuse the violations of the past and, on the other hand, those that are driven by the unceasing urge for vengeance, to keep punishing past violations; these conflicting forces continue to divide Chilean society, and Michelle Bachelet constantly seems to be caught in the middle.

During her first term as president, Bachelet presided over the opening of the Museo del Recuerdo y Derechos Humanos, a museum in Santiago dedicated to commemorate the victims of human rights violations during the Pinochet dictatorship. The museum is a hauntingly explicit presentation of the places, methods, and individuals involved in the worst human rights violations of the dictatorship. It is impossible to visit the museum, hear the recorded voices of the victims and see the excruciating looks of terror and pain on their faces, so individually presented, without sharing a feeling of guilt for such crimes against humanity.

Throughout her entire life Bachelet has lived in the midst of the struggle for freedom from the scourges of poverty and pervasive violation of human rights in Chile and globally. Coming from a small country like Chile, she tends to be committed to the pursuit of justice and human development by close association with multilateral agreements and institutions, where the banding together of countries is thought to be the best way to accomplish shared goals.

Given her personal experience as a political prisoner, exiled and denied her basic human rights alongside hundreds of her fellow Chilean friends and colleagues, it follows that Bachelet developed a strong commitment to the international human rights agreements that in one way or another serve as guides to measure and judge freedom and justice in the world. These agreements flow from The universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); in 1993 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was created.  The High Commissioner coordinates human rights activities throughout the UN system and acts as the secretariat of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

It was not a complete surprise that when Michelle Bachelet left her second term in the Chilean presidency in 2018, she was endorsed by the General Assembly of the UN and appointed by the UN Secretary General to the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nor was it a surprise that Bachelet did not receive support for this position from the United States.  The reason for opposition from the Trump administration reportedly was that given her past actions and statements, she would be soft on Latin American dictators, not helpful on Israeli issues, and a leading voice in support of abortion rights.

Parallel to Bachelet’s growing involvement in international fora on human rights, the Trump administration was waging its attack on international organisations broadly. The US had opposed the creation of this UN human rights body in the first place, but President Obama had the US join eventually, only to have Trump pull the US back out just a couple of years later in June 2018. 

When Bachelet’s appointment as High Commissioner was announced in the UN General Assembly in August of 2018, The US representative attempted to explain that the earlier Trump-ordered US exit from the Human Rights Council was not an indication of withdrawal from a concern for human rights, but rather an objection to the way the Council is configured. She suggested that Bachelet, if she is to be successful in her new position, will have to address openly the extreme human rights abuses in Venezuela and Cuba, as well as crises in Iran, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries with extreme human rights problems, and to not obsess over Israel.  The implication was that only if those actions happened would the US withdrawal from the Council be reconsidered.

Of course the criticisms of Bachelet from the Trump administration sang in harmony with the criticisms of her from some of her fellow Chileans, especially those on the right who had just recently placed the more conservative Sebastian Piñera in the Chilean presidency. Her greatest weakness as president, particularly in the second term, probably was to de-emphasize policies in support of economic growth, without which it was to become increasingly difficult to support expensive social programs she tried to install,  such as free university education, universal day care, and expanded health care.

However, the Trump criticism of Bachelet opportunistically focused on her political comportment as a Chilean Socialist and President, especially her friendly and personal  closeness to her contemporary cohort of leftist Latin American leaders including Ecuador’s Correa, Nicaragua’s Ortega, Argentina’s Kirchner and Fernandez, Brazil’s Lula and Rousseff, and especially Venezuela’s Chavez and Maduro, not to mention her long association with Cuba’s Castros. Her East German hosts when she and her mother were in exile, Erich and Margot Honecker, were welcomed in Chile after their dictatorship ended; they both ended their lives there.

Chileans do not give unconditional loyalty to their political leaders; they only loan it, reluctantly, on a very short term basis. When Bachelet was named High Commissioner for Human Rights, you might have thought that most Chileans would be proud of her achievement simply in being named to this prestigious post. After all, Chile has not seen many of its top leaders honored in the international arena, especially the political cauldron of the United Nations and other multinational institutions. One case that favorably compares in stature is the election of Chilean politician José Miguel Insulza to the position of Secretary General of the Organization of American States, a position he held from 2005-2015. Or, going way back, Chilean economist Felipe Herrera was the first President of the Inter-american Development Bank from 1960-70. (He too was opposed by the US when his name was put forward subsequently for Secretary General of the UN). But that is it. Bachelet’s appointment is a big deal.

But while important, Bachelet’s job may also be an impossible one. While she was President of Chile, Venezuela was imploding to the point that it may now present the most difficult case of political crisis including human rights violations in the hemisphere.

For years, beginning with the presidencies of Hugo Chavez and now with Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela has degenerated from an economically prosperous oil producing member of OPEC, to essentially a failed economy with rampant poverty, extensive scarcity of basic foods resulting in unparalleled weight loss in the population, and resultant emigration to the US, Europe, and neighboring Latin American countries. In the past three years, the International Office of Migration reports that four million Venezuelans have left their country of about thirty million.

A large number of Chileans either were exiled or chose to move to Venezuela during the governments of Allende and Pinochet, in the 1970s and 80s, so now Chileans are repaying that neighborly gesture with hospitality for 400 thousand Venezuelans who have emigrated to Chile, with more surely to come.

The Venezuelan socialist economic model is not the only issue at play in Venezuela. After Maduro claimed in 2018 to be reelected in an election most observers deem illegitimate, the opposition head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself to be “Interim President” of Venezuela. Since then, political chaos has been added to the economic disaster of the country, leading inevitably to a grave humanitarian crisis.

While some countries do support the position of Maduro as Venezuela’s rightful leader (Cuba, Russia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Turkey, and China), more than fifty others (including the now rightist governments of Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and yes, Chile) have switched their official recognition to Guaidó in the hopes that Maduro can be coaxed out of power and fairer elections held for a new leader.

Of course, in the best resurfacing of “manifest destiny” seen in years, the Trump team, starring Secretary Pompeo and national security adviser Bolton immediately laid on layers of commercial and financial pressure, as well as a very poorly veiled threat to use military force, to unseat Maduro and install Guaidó in the Venezuelan presidency.

Now, refocus this discussion on Michelle Bachelet, nicely installed in her new job in Geneva, Switzerland, overseeing all things human rights. While her Chilean compatriots attempt to be good neighbors to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan immigrants, at the same time they and everyone who is paying attention is increasingly concerned about the crisis occurring in Venezuela. For months the press has carried reports of political leaders being imprisoned with little justification other than opposing Maduro. Freedom of the press is under attack, reporters intimidated and jailed, and protesters brutally attacked by government militia or civilian supporters of the government.

And in the midst of this political/economic/humanitarian chaos that is today’s Venezuela, Chileans wonder, in very explicit terms: What is the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, going to do to resolve the dire situation in Venezuela?! 

In early May, Bachelet was in the US and she made a series of visits in Washington, DC. Not much was written in the press about her visit, but she did make a public presentation at the American University, where she spoke to a group of students about her new job and how she saw the situation in Venezuela and other human rights hot spots. Bachelet admitted that she was under pressure to visit Venezuela with expectations that she could help resolve the issues there.

High Commissioner Bachelet at American University

This, she argued, she can not do just because she would like to. She tried to explain that she has a boss and must work within a complex UN system of other interests and responsibilities beyond human rights. In fact, In an attempt to lower expectations of her involvement she downplayed her authority and even claimed that she probably held more influence with leaders in other countries when she was President of Chile, than she does as High Commissioner. In the end, she promised that eventually she would  visit Venezuela, but a visit would be contingent upon her having free access to all parties involved in the struggle and there would have to be some expectation that her visit would be consequential.

A few weeks later, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, spoke about the Venezuela situation to a group of students at Shenandoah University, including many resident Venezuelans. Towards the end of a long and interesting presentation about Latin American politics, one of the Venezuelan students who was visibly frustrated with the relatively generalized presentation, asked the Secretary General: “But what can any of us who live here in the US do to help resolve the situation?” Almagro is a very intelligent scholar and lawyer who was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the leftist government of Uruguayan President José Mujica. His answer was surprising. He explained that given the history of outside intervention in the past in Latin American countries’ internal affairs (implication: by the US), Latin American leaders are now totally reticent to support or join in attempts to interfere with their neighbors’ affairs, such as this case in Venezuela. Latin Americans are especially allergic to military intervention, and will not join in attempts to put economic pressure on another Latin American country through embargoes or similar restrictions, the usual means used by the US to effect political change in the past in Latin America. So, Almagro continued, it appears that the only force that can make change in Venezuela is the US. “We don’t like military force, but how long can we tolerate humanitarian crises such as that going on in Venezuela?”

Almago further surprised the audience by stating categorically that  democracy does not exist in Venezuela, it never existed in Cuba, and in Nicaragua democracy is on life support, all facilitated because of Latin American leaders’ habitual unwillingness to act when political crises begin to gestate. 

High commissioner Bachelet finally made her promised visit to Venezuela in mid June 2019. The Maduro government seemed to be confident she would present a favorable report, and her detractors in the right wing governments in the region, including her own in Chile, expressed skepticism that she would be able to see what she needed to see and talk to the people who could describe for her the reality of the situation of human rights in that country.

Additionally, many doubted that Bachelet could bring herself to present a critical analysis of the dire situation, given that while she was president of Chile, up to 2018, she joined other Latin American leaders who did not publicly criticize Maduro’s authoritarianism,

Her statement upon leaving Venezuela at the end of her three day visit was responsive but not very notable, nor encouraging. She reported that she told Maduro he must release all political prisoners, and had urged the two sides in the struggle for leadership to pursue the  dialogue process begun recently under the auspices of the government of Norway, a process frankly few think will accomplish anything. She obtained agreement from Maduro to leave a two person monitoring team in country with access to detention centers, and agreement to allow more access by other human rights groups monitoring the situation. She also asked the government to prepare an analysis of humanitarian needs. 

Bachelet emphatically cautioned that her visit only focused on human rights problems, not resolution of the underlying political problems. The UN is conflicted on the case of Venezuela, given the divisions in the Security Council of the UN. For now the only issue the UN will address in Venezuela is the human rights situation, leaving any political involvement to the Organization of American States under Luis Almagro and the Latin American countries in the so called Grupo de Lima which for the most part supports Juan Guaido’s position of opposition to Maduro.

Bachelet left Venezuela promising a full report on the Venezuelan human rights situation by July 5, but consistent with her characteristic modest approach to her role, cautioned “I don’t do magic”.

This past week at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Bachelet, as High Commissioner, made an opening speech that revealed the wide scope of human rights issues on her agenda and before that world body. She appealed for speedy trials for Islamic State captives in Syria and Iraq, a group estimated at 55,000 suspected combatants and family members being held but not facing trial or repatriation to their homelands. Bachelet took objection to increased human rights violations in Syria and Libya, extrajudicial executions in Philippines and Saudi Arabia, capital punishment of minors in Iran, and increased sectarian conflict in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In her own region of Latin America, she noted an increase in negation of violations of human rights, leading to amnesties in Nicaragua and other Central American countries which obviate the judgement and punishment of human rights violations. On Venezuela she simply noted that her promised report was due out shortly.

On the morning of July 5, Michelle Bachelet’s report ( on Venezuelan human rights was made public. Even for rights advocates, the report must have been shocking. Death squads called “operations for the liberation of the people” reportedly killed over five thousand people in 2018 and so far in 2019 as many as 1,500. Of course, the actual could be a lot higher. The detailed accounts of illegal arrests and torture, late night home invasions, disappearances at the hands of military, intelligence, and security officers, and electric shock used on women and men must have set off terribly disturbing memories of her Chile in the late 1970s.

If Bachelet harbored any hopes that she could somehow avoid a major indictment of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, that illusion has now passed, and she seems to have recognized it. But now the question is whether anyone other than the Trump administration will actually act to remove Maduro and begin a rebuilding process in Venezuela, top to bottom.

As the report was being digested, Maduro strategically arranged for the release of some political prisoners, including a Venezuelan/Chilean reporter and several students. In response, and faced with predictable criticism of her report from Maduro and his supporters, Bachelet welcomed this new approach to human rights and again called for dialogue between the parties as the only way to escape from the present political stalemate. Her attempt at optimism will surely be met with generalized scepticism.  

For the moment, Bachelet has now done what she can on Venezuela, and maybe she can’t “do magic”. But for the political prisoners who were released, the decision was a sort of magic. In the arena of human rights, every case matters, every prisoner released is a victory, and every victim of abuse rescued is, in fact, a bit of magic.

Michelle Bachelet has spent her entire adult life dealing with issues of human rights violations, political exile, dictatorships and torture. What is impressive to this writer is the apparent peace of mind with which she approached her responsibilities as a national leader in her country, more broadly in Latin America, and now internationally. With her history of personal struggles, she could be bitter and harbor anger. You could also understand if she were overly subsumed by pessimism. But Michelle Bachelet seems to live off the empathy she has for the lives, struggles, and needs of others, especially women and children.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights may turn out to be the perfect place for Michelle Bachelet to “work her magic”.

Posted in  Leesburg, Virginia on July 6, 2019.



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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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