Chile’s Star Turn

Chile is 5,000 miles from Chicopee, but for Noelia E. Cruz, it is pounding in her heart. She can hear it. The joyful ruckus of democracy.

Now 32, when she was a little girl, the heartbeats came too fast and out of fear: “I remember the 8 p.m. curfew; everyone had to be indoors by then. Military trucks drove by with soldiers carrying machine guns. I will never forget that.”

And who could ever forget Gen. Augusto Pinochet? Certainly not mourners of the dead nor survivors of his torture chambers.

Last month, one of those survivors was elected president of Chile.

President-elect Michelle Bachelet, 54, is continuing where outgoing President Ricardo Lagos is leaving off – pushing Chile further along the road to democracy.

Both are members of the progressive Concertacion coalition. Since 1990, the party has been rebuilding a Chile wounded by nearly two decades of the right-wing dictatorship of Pinochet.

Thousands were tortured and killed or disappeared during his reign. Neither money nor fame protected those whose opinions weren’t kept private.

Bachelet’s father, a general who dissented from Pinochet, died in prison. She and her mother survived torture that they will not speak of today.

“The plan was, don’t speak out,” said Cruz, describing survival in Chile. “There are many widows still crying their loss.”

About 1 million Chileans live in the United States. None of them have the right to vote absentee, but many watch developments in their country on television and the Internet as if they were going to the ballot box.

Cruz moved here four years ago. An accountant, she is taking English as a Second Language so that she get work in her field. She plans on staying here, raising a family with her husband. But she yearns to be heard in Chile.

“If you vote,” she said, “you speak.”

When Chile spoke, Bachelet won. Her victory wasn’t only that a woman had won in a man’s world, but that a person who had been imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet rule now ruled over him.

Bachelet will be sworn in as president next month, and she has much to accomplish to benefit the 16 million Chileans, said Cruz.

Efforts to reconcile the past with the present, the torturers with the tortured, is ever ongoing. Lagos proposed and the Chilean government passed a bill to compensate Pinochet’s victims monetarily as well as provide special housing, health and education benefits.

But how to forgive the men who raped and killed your mother? How to reconcile with others who made your husband cry as he writhed in unknowable pain?

If anyone has the standing to move the country forward, it is Bachelet, said Cruz.

Bachelet, a pediatrician, fled the country in 1975. When Chile once again embarked on the great democratic journey, she was appointed health minister, then later, defense minister.

She is admired as a no-nonsense yet compassionate hard-working woman. A mother of three, she is separated from her second husband. In a Latin American country heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, Bachelet’s independence from the hold of religious law makes the Vatican seem like it’s made of smoke and mirrors.

“She has character,” said Cruz, whispering to emphasize.

Chile has character. It has endured.

Pinochet tore up the Chilean Constitution in 1973 and ordered the assassination of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. It is the Chilean’s Sept. 11 tragedy.

But that is the past. The present is about reconciliation. The future is about a Chile that is not known first as Pinochet’s evil playground, but as a country of startling beauty, natural resources like copper, great wines and good people.

What a far cry that will be from the days when Pinochet was thirsty for the taste for blood. Now 91, his days are numbered and once gone, maybe one of Cruz’s many wishes for Chile will come true: “I would like Chile to be known for its riches.” One of which is democracy.