Orations and responses
Her Excellency President Michelle Bachelet
Oration given on 3 April 2008, presented at the Canning House
Vice-Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved
that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon HER
EXCELLENCY PRESIDENT MICHELLE BACHELET
The election of Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet to the Presidency of the
Republic of Chile in 2006 serves as a fitting metaphor for the country's
social, economic and political transformation over the past 20 years. Her
personal experience of political repression in the aftermath of the coup of
1973 only strengthened her resolve to work for a better Chile. Her
extraordinary achievements provide a mirror for others striving to advance
the vital processes of truth and reconciliation, of strengthening democracy
and justice; in short, building the Chile of the future.
To expand briefly on a few aspects of this.
First - most obviously, but none the less remarkably: she is a woman.
She is Chile's first woman president, and I believe the first in the
Americas to be freely elected on her own merits. It would have seemed
impossible even a few years ago that this could happen, but as well as being
an appropriate symbol of the way in which the country has changed, and a
role model for young women everywhere, her election is also in a sense a
product of the country's recent history. The death and disappearance of so
many men under the Pinochet regime meant that women had to take control of
their own lives, as President Bachelet knows from personal experience. As a
result, since 1989, women have made significant contributions to the
democratisation of the country.
Secondly, having herself experienced torture under the dictatorship,
President Bachelet has very real, personal commitment to Human Rights. She
chose a career in medicine as a concrete way of helping people, especially
children, cope with pain: emotional pain as well as physical. One
could say that the Hippocratic Oath is a good summary of the precepts by
which she had chosen to live: she believes human life deserves the utmost
respect, and that Human Rights violations are inexcusable always, anywhere,
and everywhere. In Chile admitting to the Human Rights violations of the
past is an essential part of moving on.
And moving on involves reconciliation with the past, and reconciliation
between different points of view. Many people have told me that it is her
personal tact and sensitivity, together with her accessibility (gifts, as
someone said, not common in Latin American presidents), that account for her
success in this area. President Bachelet has devoted a great deal of time
and energy to building bridges with different groups - most notably, with
the military. She recognised that the development of a healthy democracy in
Chile required good, trusting relations between civil and military worlds,
and that this in turn required good relations between politicians and the
military. So in the 1990s she took the highly unusual step of returning to
college to study military strategy, taking courses in Santiago and
Washington. She proved an outstanding student and in 2002 the then
President Ricardo Lagos appointed her Minister of Defence – the first woman
to be appointed Minister of Defence in Latin America. She has been highly
successful in getting the military on board: she has earned their respect.
President Bachelet represents hope for Chile's future. And Chile
holds a very special place in many people's hearts, in the UK as elsewhere
around the world. The 1973 coup, the other September 11th, marked the end of
the age of innocence for many of my generation, and not only for those on
the Left. The terrible stories that came out of Chile, the personal contact
with traumatised exiles, shook many people in Britain out of their
comfortable complacency: how could this happen in a country like Chile? The
shock triggered unprecedented efforts to provide help for exiles and
refugees: in the UK the then Labour government made available substantial
sums of money to the World University Service (WUS) through the ODA,
Overseas Development Agency, (forerunner of DfID). The group 'Academics for
Chile' was established to place exiles in education in the UK, to pressurise
universities to waive fees and accept students with non-standard
qualifications, and in some cases to negotiate the release of political
prisoners with the promise of a university place. 900 grants were awarded
under this system and Alan Angell from Oxford and Christian Anglade of the
University of Essex were key members of the Academics for Chile group.
A number of those early refugees, including several that studied at Essex,
returned to make valuable contributions to the strengthening of democracy in
Chile. As indeed have subsequent Essex graduates, particularly from
the departments of Government and Sociology, and from the Human Rights
Centre; and we are proud of them. And there are also those who have remained
in the UK, where they maintain links with Chile while also contributing to
their adopted home. We are proud of them too. So our links with Chile
are strong and deep. We wish to mark our respect for President Bachelet's
remarkable achievements, and to strengthen the ties that bind our University
to her country.
Vice-Chancellor, the Senate of the University of Essex has
resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Her
Excellency Michelle Bachelet, President of the Republic of Chile.
Vice-Chancellor, I call upon you to present Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet
with her degree.
Orator: Professor Valerie Fraser