Directly from the New York Times, a story worth reading (actually an op-ed piece).
By RAFAEL GUMUCIO
CHILE is one of the more conservative countries on a continent that is not especially renowned as tolerant, forward thinking or democratically minded. Divorce was legalized here just last year, and abortion continues to be a taboo subject even for the most progressive of politicians. Our social codes and racial prejudices are deeply engrained. We are an overwhelmingly Catholic country with a history that has been marked - and continues to be marked - by the power of its military.
Given this context, it is nothing short of extraordinary - even revolutionary - that the clear front-runner in the presidential vote being held on Sunday is Michelle Bachelet, a divorced mother of three who is an atheist and a member of the Socialist Party.
Polls show Ms. Bachelet, a former defense minister, far ahead of her rivals, Sebastián Piñera, one of Chile's wealthiest businessmen; Joaquín Lavín, the ultraconservative former mayor of Santiago; and Tomás Hirsch of the Communist Party. Although a runoff is likely, the prevailing opinion here is that Ms. Bachelet will be the ultimate winner.
If she is, she will be the first woman in the Americas to be elected president not because she was a wife of a famous politician, but because of her own record. That this is a probability is even more astonishing when one considers that nothing like it has occurred in countries like the United States or France, where the democratic tradition is far more stable and feminism's impact presumably far greater. Curiously, American television is now running a series that revolves around the "novel" idea of a female president. What is fiction in the United States may well become reality in Chile.
The twist is that the Chilean candidate is a far more interesting character than the female president portrayed on American TV: as defense minister, Ms. Bachelet oversaw the successors and subordinates of the men who killed her father and tortured her and her mother during the darkest moments of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
How has this happened? Chile, more than ever, is proving itself to be the polar opposite of Lampedusa's Sicily: in order for things to change, they have to stay the same - or rather, they have to look as if they are staying the same.
That is the best way I can describe the spirit with which the country seems to be anticipating the elections: people are aware that no matter what the outcome an unprecedented cultural, political and social revolution is taking place. And at the same time, they seem surprisingly unfazed by it all, observing these sweeping changes with ease, aplomb, even delight.
Perhaps this is because Chileans have by now grown accustomed to wild fluctuations in the country's political fortunes. This past year, the Chilean people saw rightist leaders - until recently General Pinochet's staunchest allies - renouncing all ties to him. General Pinochet is now under house arrest, held not only on human rights charges but also for his alleged role in a financial scandal involving millions of stolen dollars.
In countless other ways, the Pandora's box of Chilean politics has been flung wide open: nowadays it isn't at all strange to see an ultraconservative Catholic candidate signing his name on a transvestite's legs as a publicity stunt, nor is it odd to hear Ms. Bachelet talk about how hard it is to find Mr. Right.
For decades, even centuries, Chilean politics have largely been of the old-boy's-network variety, in which an all-male group of power brokers have run things on their own terms, within a select inner circle, forging alliances with one another and making deals with the press behind closed doors, far removed from the citizenry they represent.
Change in Chile has come at a breakneck pace in recent years, as justice is finally being delivered to dozens of dictatorship-era cronies, and the pillars of the church and the political elite have been shaken to their foundations by a wave of pedophilia scandals involving both.
The changes are abrupt and the contradictions are evident. Thanks to the country's growing economy, Chileans have access to more creature comforts than ever before, and yet prosperity somehow hasn't dulled their sensibilities: the populace that benefits from free-market economics also turned out in droves to pay tribute to Gladys Marín, the president of the Communist Party, when her coffin was carried through the streets of Santiago in March. People may be gulping down Starbucks and coveting iPods, but they are also devouring highly irreverent political magazines like The Clinic (for which I write) and flocking to politically oriented movies like "Machuca," which is about the 1973 coup led by General Pinochet.
Some analysts think that the free-market economy is responsible for this unprecedented change in Chile's political and social landscape. But other countries that follow that economic model (Indonesia, Malaysia and the United States), seem to be slouching in the opposite direction toward a retrograde, hard-line conservatism. Economics, then, clearly do not tell the entire story.
Other analysts attribute the change to the current president, Ricardo Lagos, who has concentrated on reconciling Chile with its tortured past. Even so the general consensus is that nobody - not Mr. Lagos, not the Chilean intelligentsia, and certainly not the power elite - was prepared for the seismic social and political shift represented by Ms. Bachelet's thriving candidacy. I don't think anyone would have predicted 10 years ago that we would ever arrive at this moment, but it seems that Chile is eager to usher it in. For us, political and economic stability - despite being so recent and so precious - is not enough.
Just as in 1970, when they went to the polls and elected a Socialist president, and again in 1988, when they rejected their dictator, Chileans have proved themselves to be far more daring with their vote than their lifestyles.
Perhaps this is because when they vote - in secret, where nobody can judge or criticize them - they reveal their truest colors, their passion for change, for improvisation and for leadership in a world that seems hell-bent on moving in the opposite direction.
Rafael Gumucio is a columnist for El Diario in New York and for newspapers in Chile. This article was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.