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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York…

“Without Yesterday There Is No Tomorrow”: Ricardo Lagos and Chile’s Democratic Transition

Former Chilean President will be one of several notable plenary speakers at ASA’s upcoming 102nd Annual Meeting

by Peter Winn, Tufts University

In April 1988, as Chile emerged from 15 years of total censorship under its most brutal dictatorship into its first electoral campaign since the 1973 military coup, a plebiscite was held on whether General Augusto Pinochet should rule the country for another decade. In a nation accustomed to controlled media, Socialist leader Ricardo Lagos was allowed a rare national TV appearance. Pointing straight at the camera, Lagos defied the dictator: “You promise the country eight more years of tortures, assassinations, violations of human rights,” he said. “It is unacceptable for a Chilean to have such ambition for power as to try to be in power for 25 years!” When his panicked interviewers tried to interrupt, he insisted, “I speak for 15 years of silence.” With that courageous act—and those defiant words—Lagos assured his place in history and gave Chileans the courage to defeat the dictator “with just a pencil,” as Chilean sociologist Teresa Valdes later marveled.

Lagos has numerous claims to a prominent place in Chile’s history. As a social scientist, he published the first major study of Chile’s concentration of economic power. As a leader of a clandestine Socialist party, he played an important role in Chile’s transition to democracy and in the 1988 plebiscite ending Pinochet’s authoritarian rule. He also founded and led the Party for Democracy, which became one of Chile’s main political parties. As minister of education and minister of public works, Lagos demonstrated skill as an administrator and ability to innovate within the constraints of an authoritarian constitution and a neoliberal economy.

In 2000, Lagos was elected Chile’s first Socialist president since Salvador Allende. Despite a narrow electoral mandate and an inherited economic recession, Lagos was one of the most successful presidents in Chilean history. Moreover, he nurtured the political career of Michelle Bachelet and was instrumental in her succeeding him as the first woman president of Chile. At the opening plenary session of the Annual Meeting, Lagos will be honored for his courageous and path-breaking career as a social scientist in politics— sustained even in Chile’s darkest hour by a belief that another world was possible.

In the Beginning

Ricardo Lagos Escobar was born in 1938, the same year as the Center-Left Popular Front won the national elections. The dominant party in the Chilean Popular Front was the centrist Radical Party, secular reformers with a middle class base. His uncle was a Radical Deputy and it was as a Radical student leader that Lagos would first enter politics. He studied law at the University of Chile, but became increasingly interested in economics. His thesis on the concentration of economic power in Chile, a pioneering study, concluded that the top 4.2% of corporations in Chile controlled 59.2% of the capital invested in joint stock companies and laid bare the interlocking directorships through which Chile’s elite controlled the economy. By the time his thesis was published, Lagos was doing graduate work at Duke University (1960–62) where he earned a PhD in economics. Returning to Chile, Lagos became an economics professor at the University of Chile and later director of its School of Political Science. In 1969, he was elected Secretary-General of the University of Chile as the candidate of the leftist Popular Unity Alliance of Radicals, Socialists, Communists, and Christian Leftists, the same coalition that backed Allende’s successful presidential campaign the following year on a platform of a “democratic road to socialism.”

Under Allende, Lagos was a United Nations (UN) delegate and government manager of the nationalized Banco Edwards. In 1973, Lagos became head of FLACSO, the Latin American regional social science graduate school in Santiago sponsored by the UN, a position he held when the violent military coup of September 11, 1973, ended Allende’s via chilena and with it Chile’s “model democracy.” In the perilous aftermath of the coup, Lagos courageously tried to protect his many Latin American leftist students and faculty from the Pinochet regime’s repression. Lagos became an obstacle to the military junta’s effort to liquidate “subversive” views, and by early 1974, his own safety was in jeopardy. Lagos moved FLACSO and his family to Argentina and later accepted a visiting professorship at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. There he co-directed a pivotal conference attended by moderate Christian Democrat and Popular Unity leaders on the lessons from the Chilean tragedy. That meeting began a dialogue between erstwhile enemies, leading in the 1980s to the creation of the Concertación, the alliance of Christian Democrats and ex-Popular Unity leftists that would defeat Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite and govern Chile for two decades.

Transition to Democracy

Lagos was a leader in the inception of that dialogue and he would be a key figure in the formation of the Concertación and its governments of the 1990s. In the 1977 conference volume that he coedited, Lagos rethought the Popular Unity’s economic program, prefiguring the Concertación’s combination of market economics with targeted government social spending to help the poor and to humanize Chile’s neoliberal model.

In 1979, Lagos returned to Chile to lead PREALC, the UN regional program on employment, and to join Vector, a Socialist think tank drawing up plans for a transition to democracy. This marked his transition from academic and international functionary to political actor and leader. Lagos joined Allende’s Socialist party then in a process of “renovation” under the influence of European exiles and its own post-coup reflections, which would transform Chile’s Socialists into social democrats similar to Felipe Gonzalez or Tony Blair. In 1983, Lagos resigned his UN position and became president of the Democratic Alliance of Christian Democrats, Radicals, and [renovated] Socialists, a Concertación predecessor.

The economic crisis of 1982-85 caused by the neoliberal policies of Pinochet’s advisers provoked widespread social protest, which raised illusory hopes that the dictator would fall. After Communist guerrillas tried to assassinate Pinochet in 1986, the dictator unleashed a new wave of repression, closing opposition media and detaining democratic opposition leaders, including Lagos, whose detention and interrogation evoked international protests.

Playing by the Rules

The failure to end the Pinochet dictatorship with bullets left only one way to oust him: playing by the rules that the dictator established that provided for a 1988 “yes/no” plebiscite on Pinochet’s continued reign. If voters approved, he would be president of Chile for another decade; if not, there would be competitive elections for president and a new congress. Many on the Left opposed participation in the plebiscite, expecting fraud, as in previous Pinochet referendums, and fearing that their participation would legitimate the dictator’s authoritarian constitution. Lagos argued there was no alternative and emerged as a leader in the 17-party coalition against Pinochet, including the Party for Democracy (PPD). As its first president, Lagos made his famous April 1988 primetime TV appearance in which he denounced Pinochet and gave others courage to oppose the dictator.

Lagos played a central role during the plebiscite campaign, and was instrumental in winning both Chilean Communist and U.S. government cooperation to prevent another coup. The “No” won a decisive victory and Pinochet reluctantly accepted his defeat.

A New Day

A year later, Patricio Aylwin, the Christian Democratic candidate of the Concertación, was elected Chile’s President, and Lagos became his Minister of Education. Lagos gradually pushed the limits of Pinochet’s legacy, working from within to begin to change the tenor and character of schooling in Chile. As Education Minister, Lagos set a strategy for change that his successors continued.

In 1994, Lagos became Minister of Public Works for Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei. Here too Lagos demonstrated administrative and executive skills. As a social scientist in politics, Lagos analyzed problems with detachment and exhibits more head than heart, although his policies are informed by social sensibility. As minister, Lagos demonstrated that civilian government is as efficient as military government and that democracies can accomplish as much, or more, as dictatorships.

By 1998, Lagos was ready to be Chile’s president, and a majority was ready to vote for him, as made clear by his landslide victory over the Christian Democratic rival in the primary. Despite an economic recession and the Right’s overwhelming financial advantage and media monopoly, Lagos defeated Joaquín Lavín in 2000 to become Chile’s first Socialist president since Allende’s violent overthrow.

President of Chile

Lagos was determined that his presidency would have a different ending. At first, it seemed as if finishing his six years in office and handing it over to his elected successor was all he would accomplish. Problems Lagos faced included an inherited economic recession, an Argentine crisis, and ideological business elites who refused to cooperate with “Socialist” president even though his socialism was closer to their neoliberalism than to Allende’s Marxism. Also, the Right had veto power over his legislation through the Pinochet Constitution’s appointed senators, and his Christian Democratic partners were often reluctant allies.

Yet, Lagos never lost confidence in his presidency. Gradually, his government began to gain ground and win respect. The last half of his presidency would be his best—and his presidency Chile’s best.

Lagos had been elected on a platform of “growth with equality” and talked about the need for Chile to address an inequality so extreme that people spoke of “two Chiles.” (Chile was the second most unequal country in the world’s most unequal region). Inequality, a Pinochet legacy, remained high under the Concertación despite a long economic boom and targeted social policies that dramatically reduced the country’s poverty rate from nearly 40% to less than 20%.

Lagos concentrated much of his government’s social spending on Chile’s poor, with positive results, although he was unable to reduce inequality. Seventy percent of his public housing budget, for example, was focused on the poorest 30% of the population and he fulfilled his promise to construct decent permanent housing for the 105,000 families living in shacks in temporary campamentos, part of the half million housing units built by his government. Public health was another area where Lagos’ social spending targeted the needy. Under Lagos, public primary care consultations doubled. To deal with the extensive delays in surgical operations in Chile’s underfunded public health care, his government initiated a program to pay for operations of the seriously ill who could not afford private care.

Working from Within

As president, the lifelong educator and former Education Minister made education a priority, in part because education was the Concertación’s longterm solution to inequality. Between 1990 and the end of his presidency, public educational expenditures quadrupled, with an increase in special assistance for schools and children in poor districts, ranging from free preschool to university scholarships.

The former Minister of Public Works also continued to undertake and complete major development projects as president. In social terms, the most important may have been extending the Santiago Metro from the city center to the working-class suburbs. This meant that poor Chileans who previously spent four to five hours a day commuting on multiple overcrowded buses now commute in less than half that time in relative comfort at a lower cost. This major extension of the Santiago Metro is a typical Lagos initiative—starting with what is already there and working from the inside—to push the envelope and derive a social benefit while creating jobs and not incurring an unacceptable financial cost. A pragmatic reformer, who believes that the way to build a better world is to renovate the existing structures, Lagos proved an expert renovator.

The Lagos administration was also notable for its legal reforms. A 2005 Constitutional reform abolishing Pinochet’s appointed senators and restoring the elected president’s right to fire the armed forces commanders came close to completing the transition to democracy that Lagos had played so prominent a role in launching during the 1980s. Other legal reforms eased authoritarian restrictions on free speech, modernized the criminal justice code, and modi- fied Pinochet’s probusiness labor code. These reforms required compromises to win the support of rightist senators in order to pass, and their passage is another example of his ability to work from within the system for change.

For many Chileans, the most important legal reform under Lagos was the country’s first divorce law. Divorced and married to a divorcee, Lagos was very aware of the importance of the right of Chileans, especially abused spouses, to divorce. He pressed for the law over the opposition of the Catholic Church and leading Christian Democrats. It was one of several Lagos initiatives that addressed issues of gender, among them his effort to bring more women into his cabinet, including in key “male” posts such as Foreign Minister and Defense Minister. Significantly, the women he named to those positions emerged as the leading candidates to succeed him as president, including current president Michele Bachelet.

Yesterday and Tomorrow

The defining moment of Lagos’s presidency came in 2003, on the 30th anniversary of Pinochet’s military coup that ended the government (and life) of Allende and began 16 years of state terror in which thousands were “disappeared” and tens of thousands tortured. While the first Concertación government had created a commission to establish the fate of the “disappeared,” Chile had never confronted the far larger number of tortured, many still walking the same streets as their torturers—and most political analysts doubted that Chile ever would. In 2003, however, Lagos announced the formation of a truth commission to establish what had happened to former political prisoners claiming to have been tortured. With moving eloquence, Lagos told his people that they had to confront this traumatic past because “Without yesterday there is no tomorrow.”

The strong conviction that Chile could no longer suppress its past led Lagos to use the 30th anniversary to revisit it and to rehabilitate Allende as a republican hero who died defending Chilean democracy. Lagos erected a statue of Allende outside the presidential palace and symbolically reopened its side door, which Pinochet had ordered closed because it had been used by Allende’s aides to escape.

A year later, the Commission made public its report that at least 28,000 Chileans (including pregnant women and children) had been savagely tortured, in more than 1,000 sites, by the Chilean armed forces. In the face of indisputable evidence that these human rights abuses were official military regime policy, the new army commander formally apologized to the victims on behalf of his institution. Even rightist politicians who had denied the accusations before now competed to propose compensation for the leftist victims. This was a major step as well in the army’s distancing itself from Pinochet and its transformation into the army of a democracy, a process Lagos numbered among his most important accomplishments.

Lagos is also justifiably proud of Chile’s international achievements during his presidency. Since his UN days, Lagos has been a strong internationalist. One hallmark of his presidency was Chile’s high profile in international affairs, particularly remarkable for a small country. In 2004, Chile became the first South American country to host a summit meeting of the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization, and negotiated free trade agreements with the United States, the European Union, and South Korea (its first with a Latin American nation). Chile played a leading role in the international intervention in Haiti that culminated in a democratically elected government. Moreover, Lagos’s chief minister was elected president of the Organization of American States (OAS) over a U.S.- backed candidate. Under Lagos, Chile was elected to a seat on the UN Security Council and in 2003 was pressured by Washington to endorse its Iraq invasion. Instead, Lagos supported a multilateral approach that would give the UN a chance to negotiate a peaceful solution.

After the Presidency

By the time Lagos left the presidency in 2006, the economy was booming, most of his projects had come to fruition, his approval rating was 70%, and he was judged the most successful president in Chilean history. Moreover, he was able to deliver the presidential sash to his hand-picked Socialist successor, Bachelet.

After completing his term, Lagos was asked to assume another presidency, the Club of Madrid, a private organization that emerged out of the 2001 conference on Democratic Transition and Consolidation, held in Madrid. The Club brings together former heads of state and leading academic experts to assist countries with “critical elements of their democratic transition or consolidation.” Its members include former world leaders Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel, and Mikhail Gorbachev. This invitation reflects the high esteem with which Lagos is viewed by international peers and reflects his unusual ability to bring together the worlds of social science and policy making, a strength throughout his career.

Next Step

Lagos’ career seems far from over. His name has been mentioned as a future secretary-general of the UN, and as a future president of Chile, where Lagos would be a strong favorite if he chose to run again. It is not clear that he will seek another presidential term. The next Chilean chief executive, however, will preside over the Bicentennial of its independence, an occasion that will define what Chile has accomplished in the past and point the way to its future. Lagos was one of the first in Chile to focus on the Bicentennial as an important symbolic event. Presiding over Chile’s Bicentennial might be too tempting for him to resist. After all, he has stressed that “without yesterday there is no tomorrow,” and that reflecting on the past can make a better future possible.

Peter Winn is Professor of History and Director of Latin American Studies at Tufts University. He is also a Senior Research Associate at Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies. He is the author or editor of several books on Latin America, including the critically acclaimed Weavers of Revolution and Victims of the Chilean Miracle.