BY ANDREA ELLIOTT
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Ricardo Lagos stepped onto a rickety wooden
stage in one of
Santiago's poorest neighborhoods and was met, as usual, with a sea of faces
from the Chilean working class.
They cheered and chanted as the Socialist presidential candidate,
who is leading
in the polls, talked about ``equal opportunity,'' but it wasn't until he promised to
build a neighborhood subway stop that the crowd went wild.
``All Chileans have the full right to dignity,'' Lagos told the
roaring crowd, many of
whom face long commutes in Santiago's smoke-belching buses. ``We're going to
bring it to this sector, too.''
With presidential elections set for Sunday, no proclamation could
capture the theme of the Lagos campaign. Chile boasts one of Latin America's
longest periods of sustained economic growth -- to which Santiago's swift and
modern subway is a testament -- but also one of the region's worst distributions of
income. There is no subway line north of the Mapocho River, where many of the
With the slogan ``Grow with Equality,'' Lagos, 61, promises to
growth, tarnished by a recent recession, while closing the gap between the rich
and poor with improved education, health and work opportunities in both the
private and public sectors.
NOT LIKE ALLENDE
It's a modern form of liberalism something akin to that of British
Tony Blair, said Javier Martinez, one of Lagos' top aides, and nothing like the
socialism of former Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was ousted by Gen.
Augusto Pinochet in 1973.
``Allende was all about planned economy,'' said Martinez. ``Lagos'
socialism is a
socialism after the fall of the [Berlin] wall. It fixes inequalities generated by the
market without calling into question the market economy itself.''
To counter memories of economic chaos during Allende's three-year
Lagos is quick to point out that he would not be Chile's second Socialist
president, but the third consecutive president of the Concertacion -- the four-party
coalition that has governed Chile during the 1990s. Lagos' aides also charge that
their conservative opponent, Joaquin Lavin, is running a populist campaign that
promises much more in the way of government handouts.
Lavin, the former mayor of the wealthy Santiago suburb Las Condes,
100,000 new jobs in 90 days, subsidized child care for mothers who want to work
and funding to send Chileans to private hospitals if they must wait more than
three months for an operation in a state facility.
``Next to Lavin, Lagos is the conservative candidate,'' Martinez
said. Lagos' main
initiatives include an unemployment insurance fund to which workers would
contribute and regulations that would make private health insurance less
Lagos, who received a Ph.D. in economics from Duke University,
advocates a market economy but not a market society. In another position
reminiscent of Blair's, Lagos advocates rebuilding community ties as a way of
addressing drugs, crime and other social ills. His proposal to improve parks and
other public spaces, he claims, is one step in that direction.
``Lagos is the candidate of the poor,'' said Juana Uribe, 45,
a housewife from the
working-class Santiago neighborhood of Independencia.
He is also the candidate, of a ruling party that many say is starting
to look tired.
The Concertacion, of which Lagos was a minister of education and public works,
replaced Pinochet in 1990 after the general was ousted in a national plebiscite.
Ten years later, critics say the ruling party is too easily stalled
by infighting as
both President Eduardo Frei and his predecessor Patricio Aylwin have had to
please four political parties and several interest groups.
``It's a big elephant,'' said retired Santiago banker Roberto
Barahona, 59, who is
unsure for whom he will vote Sunday. ``You have to satisfy this segment, that
segment. Nothing gets done.''
The economy is not helping Lagos either. As a result of the Asian
copper prices that reached an all-time low, Chile hit its first recession since 1983.
After more than a decade of 7 percent annual growth, the economy will shrink by
1 percent this year. Unemployment is 11 percent -- the highest since the early
A serious drought earlier this year resulted in sporadic electrical
months on end, further dampening the country's mood.
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald