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Michele Bachelet to South Sudan: figure out how to live together

Former Chilean President Michele Bachelet was in town today, taking time out from a whirlwind schedule of events at the Women Deliver conference to speak to an audience at the National Press Club. As Latin America’s first female president and the first female Minister of Defense in the Americas (U.S. and Canada included), she could ...

MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images
MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

Former Chilean President Michele Bachelet was in town today, taking time out from a whirlwind schedule of events at the Women Deliver conference to speak to an audience at the National Press Club. As Latin America’s first female president and the first female Minister of Defense in the Americas (U.S. and Canada included), she could likely find a place at nearly any international table she wished to join.

But what caught my attention wasn’t her discussion of women’s leadership or impressive accounts  of all that her government accomplished in a few short years, but the answer to a question that was asked by an audience member at the National Press Club — a member of the Mission of Southern Sudan: How do you build a country after so many years of internal conflict?

Her answer: figure out how to live together. "Probably one of the most difficult things you can do …  is build confidence," she replied. "When you’re talking about a nation that has been so divided for so long, and there’s a lot of suffering there, a lot of pain, it’s not easy. But it’s a must. You need to do as much as you can to be able to be able to be a country where you can live together. And then the political system has the responsibility of creating the conditions where people can live together."

This sounds pretty simple and obvious, but it’s essentially missing from all the plans that could see an independent Southern Sudan following a referendum on that region’s independence in January, 2011. On top of the North-South conflict that is well known in the country, internal division exist within the South that will surely be among the greatest obstacles to forming a state there. And in fact, figuring out "how to live together" is quite profound advice, essentially necessitating a constructive and willful compromise by both sides wherein the agree to disagree — and to work together despite that. It takes an amount of political courage that is rarely seen. In Chile, it meant years and years of negotiation, peacemaking, and reassurances to the supporters of the military regime that Bachelet’s Concertación political coalition ousted. It meant that spoils couldn’t go to the new victors at the detriment of the defeated. Chile managed that transition more eloquently than most countries could dream of, which is Bachelet’s advice should be taken so seriously. (She is seen in the picture above with her successor, a right-leaning businessman who unseated her own political coalition.)

An anecdote from Bachelet’s own experience summed up just how courageous it is to do what she is describing. Bachelet’s father was killed by the military regime, and she herself worked tirelessly to democratically unseat the conservative junta of General Augusto Pinochet from power. And after democracy was restored, she was named minister of defense. "In my first meeting [with the commander in chiefs,] immediately, I said it as direct as you are: Ok guys, I know that I am a socialist, I am agnostic, I am divorced, and what else? Oh yes, a woman. I have all the things that you can imagine [going against me], but I can assure you we will work well together."

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