By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 18, 2000; Page A01
SANTIAGO, Chile, Jan. 17—Among the cheering thousands in Santiago's
Constitution Plaza, Guillermo Vega wore a smile with more voltage than
the spotlights shining down on the country's new president, Ricardo Lagos.
Lagos, a celebrated former dissident, had just been elected the first
Socialist president since Gen. Augusto Pinochet's bloody coup ousted
Salvador Allende 27 years ago in the very same square. And Vega, a
19-year-old Santiago law student who came to hear the Sunday evening
victory speech, raised his hands in the air and shouted for joy as he took in
Lagos's promise of economic justice, respect for human rights and deeper
These are promises that millions of Latin Americans have heard
before--generally only to see them broken. Vega is nevertheless among
those riding a wave of optimism surrounding Lagos that is washing over
Chile and beyond. "Today, I feel like I have a future," said Vega, the son
of an unemployed store clerk whose family has had a hard time coping
with a grinding recession in Chile. "I have hope, you know, that this guy
really means it. I'm counting on him."
And so are a lot of others. Lagos, a 61-year old economist educated at
Duke University, has become the champion of a new, left-leaning message
for Latin America. It says it is possible to fight the region's gravest
problem--gross income disparities between the wealthy and the vast
underclasses--without violence and within the confines of the free markets
and parliamentary democracies established over the last two decades.
As Latin America struggles through yet another period of economic and
political upheaval, especially in such nations as Ecuador, Venezuela and
Colombia, Lagos has been invested with the hopes of many who embrace
his search for that Latin American third way--avoiding the revolutions and
dictatorships of the past but fighting the economic disparities of the present.
"The expectations are that he will build a model in the region through
attempt to change Chile into a just, social democracy," said Marta Lagos,
a Santiago-based political analyst, who is not related to president-elect.
"He is a light of democracy in Latin America at a time when many Latin
Americans have lost faith in democracy as a tool to better their lives."
Sensing widespread frustrations with the disparities left by market-oriented
economic reform, Lagos's right-wing rival, Joaquin Lavin, also embraced
the themes of inequality and poverty-busting, making inroads in Indian and
other poor communities that typically support the left. Lavin's success--he
lost Sunday's vote by only 3 percentage points--came largely by shifting
the conservative agenda toward the political center and emulating Lagos
with a message of change that seems to resonate across the continent.
In Latin America today, all countries except President Fidel Castro's Cuba
are free of military rule. But polls show that only two nations, Uruguay and
Costa Rica, indicate a rate of satisfaction with democracy of over 50
percent. Although massive government corruption has promoted much
disillusionment, analysts say it also stems from the fact that the benefits of
the new free market have gone disproportionately into the hands of the
Enter Ricardo Lagos. In March, when Lagos moves into the presidential
palace once occupied by his old foe, Pinochet, Chile will become a closely
watched Latin American laboratory for Lagos's European-style socialism,
which bears no resemblance to the divisive Marxist policies advocated by
In the very nation that became the model for free market reform in the
1990s, his moderate leftist platform calls for the state to play a greater role
in offering a range of new social services, such as unemployment benefits
and oversight of privatized utilities that today, as in much of Latin America,
operate largely without government regulation.
"We want to be the star country of the new millennium," said Lagos,
"overcoming inequality and offering the same opportunities to all of our
Disenchantment with weak and corrupt political institutions has fostered
rise of elected presidents with authoritarian tendencies, such as Peru's
Alberto Fujimori and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. But Lagos, along with
Argentina's new President, Fernando de la Rua, and Brazil's Fernando
Henrique Cardoso, hopes to define a new school of Latin leadership, in
which corruption and inequalities are not tolerated and, at the same time,
democratic institutions and civil liberties are strengthened.
Lagos brings to the table a history of fighting for democracy unlike that
any other leader in the region. An exile during Pinochet's rule in the 1970s,
he came back to Chile in the '80s to confront the feared dictator. On
national television during a referendum campaign that would ultimately
force Pinochet from power in 1990, Lagos emboldened the nation by
wagging his finger at Pinochet and warning him that he must be called to
account for the atrocities of his government.
"Chile is marking the end of an era that was filled with difficulties and
and launching a new one, where freedom of expression, civil liberties and
economic equality are all going to dominate government," said Sen. Sergio
Bitar, another Pinochet opponent.
Democracy in Chile is still tainted by a constitution drafted during the
Pinochet era that provides for a number of appointed senators--largely
from the far right and allied with the old military dictatorship. Lagos has
promised to make eliminating those posts one of his top priorities.
But perhaps his biggest challenge remains the unfinished business with
Pinochet--who has been under house arrest in London for 15 months
fighting an extradition request from Spain on human rights charges but may
soon be returned to Chile because of ill health. As Lagos delivered his
speech Sunday night, he was interrupted by the chanting crowd, which
screamed: "A trial for Pinochet! A trial for Pinochet!" Although Lagos was
trying to start his term on a note of political unity, he stopped speaking,
looked at the crowd and answered: "The Chilean courts will do their job,
and I am going to make sure those courts are respected!"
But analysts here say Lagos will have to do a lot more to win the respect
of the people who voted for him.
And in a nation with a wealthy establishment whose candidate gave Lagos
a hard run for the presidency, he not only will have to push through his
economic theories but make them work as well.
"In Lagos, we may have a chance for justice, but he's got to prove it,"
Congressman Juan Pablo Letelier, son of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean
ambassador to Washington who was assassinated there in 1976 by
Pinochet's secret police.
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