Books Chile Culture Chile Economy — 25 April 2012


Walker Rowe


Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile, has written a book with the assistance of two writers from Foreign Affairs magazine and includes an introduction by Bill Clinton. While the title of the book, “The Southern Tiger: Chile’s Fight for a Peaceful and Democratic Future”, seeks to emphasize Chile’s economic success, the majority of this presidential memoir is dedicated to detailing the political events which saw the ouster of the dictator Augusto Pinochet and the subsequent return to democracy. But this Socialist President, trained as an economist at Duke University, does explain how he played a vital role in turning Chile into a thriving economy–even if the gap between the rich and poor is still very wide.  The book is well-written, interesting, and easy to read if at times it seems a bit too self-congratulatory.

Last week Chilevision television–formerly owned by the current president and billionaire Sebastián Piñera–broadcasted a two part series on the attempted assassination of former dictator Pinochet in 1986. For one who lives here “Love and Death in Chile” (Amar y Morir en Chile) is more frightening than any Hollywood thriller because the events were real.

In the movie a band of partisans expertly puts together a plan to ambush the general as he returned from the a resort area high above the capital in the Andes. The general was traveling in a caravan of security vehicles and three armored Mercedes Benz sedans. The partisans had learned in which vehicle the general was riding. They ambushed the motorcade, killing a handful of guards, and fired a rocket through the roof of Pinochet’s car. The partisan who fired the rocket was heard muttering expletives about its reliability as he let fly the round. The general sped away in his car with minor injuries.

Even before the partisans had launched their daring attack the security apparatus of Pinochet had infiltrated the group. Their leaders were kept one step ahead of the dreaded secret police, the CNI. The police had captured one of the rebels, and as was the practice of the regime, tied her naked to a metal frame bed to which they applied electric current. You can see one those ghastly devices in the museum of human rights here. (This week that same museum, whose goal is to teach students and remind adults of the human rights abuses in Chile, is showing an exposition of paintings by Fernando Botero which depict the torture of Iraqis by American troops that occurred in 2004 at Abu Ghraib prison).

After the ambush Pinochet was swift to retaliate. He rounded up numerous left wing politicians and intellectuals, and tossed them in jail. Ensnared in this trap was Ricardo Lagos himself. As he later found out, a former student arranged to have him picked up by the regular police, the carabineros, and not the secret police. The CNI had orders to kill him while the carabineros simply locked him up. Thus, Lagos was saved from execution by dreadful police captivity.

Like many left-wing people in Chile, Lagos joined the exodus of 30,000 people who fled the country after Pinochet came to power in 1973. But then Ricardo Lagos returned to the country as an employee of the United Nations with diplomatic immunity. It was then that he began to build his campaign on how to oust the dictator.

In 1980 Pinochet put forth the idea for a plebiscite to be voted by the people in 1988 that would allow him to rule 8 more years beyond that. There were of course no other candidates on the ballot. One could only vote “yes” or “no”. Lagos got behind the “no” vote and propelled it to victory.

In the USA people are familiar with the “McCarthy moment”. This is when the famed journalist Edward R. Murrow faced down the red-baiting politician Joseph McCarthy who for years had tyrannized artists, actors, and ordinary people as he attempted to flush out communist sentiment in the USA. Murrow faced him down in a television interview and McCarthy’s credibility deflated in an instant. The man who was once a menace and a genuine threat was shown to be shrill and consumed by empty rhetoric.

Here in Chile Ricardo Lagos had his own McCarthy moment. At a television broadcast set to discuss the upcoming plebiscite, Lagos wagged his finger at the dictator who watched from his home. As Lagos ramped up his attack, the alarmed moderator of the program attempted to cut him off but Lagos pressed on “I am speaking for 15 years of silence”.

Lagos was worried that the broadcast had not given him ample time for the well-rehearsed speech he and his political allies had put together. But in the days that followed people welcomed him on the street even if discretely. He set out from one end of Chile to the other to sign people up to vote in the upcoming plebiscite. The people were leery because of the risk. Lagos writes that at one northern mining town people were “looking through the peepholes of the doors they dared not open” and  “the day after our meeting all the workers were fired”.

Pinochet lost the referendum and politicians on the right and even his closest military advisers and generals told the dictator he must step down. Lagos writes:

“To wake up that morning was to realize that you had been carrying a heavy burden for the last decade and a half. And it was gone. You couldn’t help but run into the streets and join the celebrations. When the carabineros came to disperse the crowds, they were not met with jeers; they were met with the same contagious joy with which people greeted their neighbours. The crowds hugged the policemen they once feared.”

Next began the long process to rewrite the constitution made more difficult because Pinochet remained head of the armed forces who retained the power to appoint a large number of senators. Lagos was unable to revise the electoral system which continues today in which the top two candidates running for office are both deemed to win. Consider the USA which has two political parties unlike the European and Chilean mix of coalitions. Can you imagine a legislature where each congressional district is represented by one Democrat and one Republican? Change would be difficult to effect because the same people political parties would keep power year after year–such is the situation here. Some say this system has given Chile the political stability it enjoys today because wholesale change is difficult.

Lagos did not become president until 10 years after Pinochet stepped down declining to run because he said his candidacy would be too provocative to those on the right and middle with which he hoped to build a governing coalition. Instead a more moderate candidate was elected. Lagos became Minister of Education, but also assumed a leadership role in the truth and reconciliation process. The first document released by the commission, the Rettig Report, Lagos argued, failed to go far enough to find and dig up the estimated 2,000 missing victims of the military regime–most of whose bodies had been excavated and reburied to hide what happened to them. It was only the second such investigation and the resulting Valech Report in which the military finally cooperated. Of the tens of thousand of people who had been detained an astonishing 95% of them had been tortured. Lagos struggled to understand how people could be so medieval. He writes, “I peered deeply into their faces as they passed, searching for some kind of explanation of the kind of humanity that had inflicted such acts upon itself. I did not have and still do not have an answer…to read it (the Valech Report) is to take a walk to the depths of the human spirit what Dante Alighieri must have imagined when he thought of hell.”

An outsider coming to Chile and witnessing the violent student protests of last year would find the preceding and following words ominous:

“Pinochet wasn’t just a bad seed; something about Chile at that time had allowed him to flourish. We needed to find out what–and make sure it was purged from Chile’s character for good. Because to understand the awful nature of what our society had inflicted upon other human beings was to understand ourselves.”

Could it be that the truth and reconciliation process has not yet and perhaps never will expel the “bad seed” from the Chilean character? Certainly violent protests are a common occurrence here. At this time blockades have been setup in Patagonia in the Aysen region to protest economic disparities with the capital. Rebelling Mapuche indians recently killed a policeman. Chile has its own September 11 commemoration each year because it was on that date that the Chilean armed forces sacked the Marxist President Salvador Allende with USA covert backing–that commemoration usually turns violent. And each year on March 29 the so-called “encapuchados”–meaning “hooded ones” for the hooded jackets they wear to hide their faces from the camera–take to the streets in violent protests on the “Day of the Young Combantant” (Día del joven combatiente) to commemorate the deaths of the brothers  Rafael and Eduardo Vergara Toledo who were killed by Pinochet’s henchman. Buses are overturned and set afire. Tires are burned in the streets and storefronts bashed in. The police respond with tear gas and water cannons. This back and forth mayhem characterized much of last year’s student demonstrations. The student leaders said they did not condone such violence. But they did not condemn it either. This does not sound like a culture totally at peace with itself and its history.

In the latter part of Lagos book he writes about the economic changes made by himself and the Presidents who came before and after him. His guiding principle is:

“If there is one overarching lesson of the six years that I served as president of Chile, and the many years I worked in the Concertación (the coaltion of centrist and leftist powers who came to office after Pinochet) it might be this. A good government stands on three legs. In order to prosper any modern country needs democracy, economic growth, and social equality. Lose any one component and the whole apparatus could come crashing down. Work hard on all three and you’ll find the sum is greater than its parts.”

When the Concertación took power, those on the right worried that the government would once again begin nationalizing industry, initiated by Allende (notably the copper mines) and President Frei (land redistribution) before him. On the contrary, there weren’t funds nor the desire to implement a purely Socialist agenda. Instead the Socialist Lagos turned to the private sector to build freeways and the modernize the water system. The fiscal policies put in place by the ardent capitalist General Augusto Pinochet were enlarged albeit tempered with Socialist sentiment.

In Chile everything appears to be privately run. The city buses in Santiago are owned by private operators. The health care system is a mix of private and public systems with substantial oversight and subsidies in place. The pension system is private with public subsidies for those who fall below a minimum monthly remuneration. Pinochet spun off the public schools into a private system.  Like the charter schools in the USA the subsidy follows the student.

The Chilean economy is dominated by copper exports so that dominates the government’s budget since the major copper company here is government owned. Lagos says this fact is both a blessing and a curse. He writes, “But what was equally clear was that Chile demonstrated the tell-tale symptoms of a country cursed by its natural wealth. At the whims of the price of copper, we were vulnerable to crisis and unable to stand strong when the global economy was wavering.”

Lagos had the idea the the budget should be based on the long term price of copper and should not be adjusted for price spikes. So in good years money is set aside and in bad years money can be borrowed from that fund. The result is that while the USA and Europeans are suffering crushing debt, Chile has very little debt. This tight budgeting left enough of a surplus so that Lagos could implement part of a Socialist agenda. Under his presidency he built some 100,000 houses per year and sold them to the poor at a cost of $400 per house. Today Chile is largely free of those shanty towns which ring most South American cities.

Lagos knows that the copper will not last forever so he says, “The wealth we gain from the earth today must be re-invested in creating another natural resource, an educated people who are able to run a new modern economy after the copper is gone.”

As student demonstrations have shown, the subject of education, and what an educated people able to run a new modern economy might look like, are still open questions.


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