Socialist leader leaves his country in prosperity
With Chileans set to pick his successor Sunday, President Ricardo Lagos enjoys a high approval rating amid a national economic boom.
BY JACK CHANG
Knight Ridder News Service
SANTIAGO, Chile - On the eve of elections in this booming Andean country, President Ricardo Lagos is set to leave office as one of Latin America's most popular leaders, an inspiration to leftist governments around the region.
A poll released this week shows Lagos enjoying a 71 percent approval rating three months before the end of his five-year term. Michelle Bachelet, a former minister in the Lagos government, is expected to lead in Sunday's presidential vote.
With the economy predicted to grow by nearly 6 percent this year and the country teeming with new highways and apartment towers, the 67-year-old president will hand over an energized Chile.
''This country has moved forward since Lagos became president, and people think he's done a wonderful job,'' said Marianela Multarello, a preschool teacher who was visiting the capital Friday. ``Economically, I'm better off than I was five years ago and so are my friends.''
Chileans credit Lagos with rescuing the country from a 1999 recession that had threatened to erase the economic gains that had been made during boom years earlier in the decade. Lagos boosted the economy by opening the country to foreign investment while building budget surpluses. Soaring international prices for copper, Chile's chief export, also have helped.
''He came in at a very bad moment economically and is leaving things in strong shape,'' said Marta Lagos, the executive director of the Santiago-based political research firm Latinobarometro. She isn't related to the president.
``It can't be a better moment for him to leave.''
An economist with a Ph.D. from Duke University, Lagos got his political start with Socialist President Salvador Allende, who named him Chile's ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1972.
The appointment was never ratified, and after Allende was ousted in a military coup in 1973, Lagos went into exile in Argentina and the United States. He returned to Chile five years later and went on to lead pro-democracy movements that ended the dictatorship in 1990.
He won the presidency in 2000 after serving as minister of education and then of public works under two presidents during the 1990s.
A member of Chile's Socialist Party, Lagos represents the Concertacion coalition, which has controlled the executive branch since democracy returned.
This week, Lagos embarked on a political victory lap in which he was hailed as a model for the region, a designation he didn't refute.
''You have to work to live up to this kind of support, and that's what we're doing,'' he said Thursday in the city of Concepcion.
The honors continued Friday, when South American leaders applauded him at a meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc in Montevideo, Uruguay.