Herald Staff Writer
SANTIAGO, Chile -- The biggest irony of former Chilean strongman Augusto
Pinochet's detention in London is that it could fracture the center-left coalition that
has ruled this country in recent years, and may eventually benefit its right-wing
There is a widespread belief here that Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair
ideological soul mates in Chile no favor by authorizing Pinochet's arrest Oct. 16.
The case has driven a serious wedge within Chile's ruling coalition at a time when it
was about to pick a candidate who seemed poised to win the 1999 presidential
The two largest parties in Chile's ruling alliance -- President Eduardo
Christian Democratic Party and the Socialist Party -- seem to be at odds over
Pinochet's arrest. While Frei has demanded Pinochet's release, many of his
Socialist Party coalition partners who were imprisoned or exiled during Pinochet's
17-year-rule could hardly hide their glee over the former ruler's detention.
``In sharp contrast to what had been happening for the past 10 years, Pinochet's
figure, rather than unifying his opponents, has begun to divide them,'' political
analyst Cristian Bofill said in his weekly magazine Que Pasa.
A crack in Chile's ruling coalition would raise doubts over whether Chile
able to maintain the political stability and economic growth that have turned it into
a model for Latin America's development. Many analysts fear that political turmoil
would lead to capital flight, or at least a halt in foreign and domestic investments.
``Chile is the window through which we see the Americas tomorrow,'' President
Clinton proclaimed last year. At a White House speech during an official visit by
Frei, the President added that Chile could become ``a cornerstone of the vibrant
free trade area we are working to build in our hemisphere.''
The strains within the ruling coalition became most evident last week,
leftist members of Congress -- including Isabel Allende, a Socialist Party
congresswoman and daughter of late leftist President Salvador Allende -- traveled
to London to ask British magistrates not to release Pinochet.
It was open defiance of the ruling coalition's official stance. Frei and
under pressure from the pro-Pinochet army, had argued that Pinochet's possible
crimes had to be prosecuted in Chile, and that his detention in London was illegal
because as a senator-for-life he was traveling on a diplomatic passport.
Trying to put the best face on the situation, Foreign Minister Jose Miguel
leading Socialist Party figure, said members of the congressional delegation had
traveled to London as victims of the Pinochet regime, and not as ruling coalition
legislators. But Insulza conceded that the Pinochet affair is creating strains in
``The [government] coalition is united, but there's no question it will
serious tensions if this situation drags on for a long time,'' Insulza said in an
interview. ``It's not the same for a group to face a problem for five days as it is to
face it for five months.''
Boom eases as election nears
Pinochet's arrest could not have come at a worse time for the ruling coalition.
Chile's booming economy has begun to slow to a projected 4.5 percent annual
growth, from near double-digit growth rates in the mid-'90s, and the coalition is
preparing for primary elections in May to nominate its presidential candidate.
Until Pinochet's arrest last month, there was a near-consensus that Socialist
leader Ricardo Lagos, a Tony Blair-style moderate, would be the coalition's
candidate. He is far ahead in the polls and, after two presidential terms by
Christian Democrats, it was the Socialists' turn to have one of their own in the
Lagos, who recently resigned as minister of public works to prepare his
had managed in recent years to allay fears among Chilean conservatives that a
Socialist-led government would scrap the country's successful economic program,
or would bring about political turmoil. But the events that followed Pinochet's
arrest resurrected old fears about the Socialist candidate.
``The conventional wisdom in conservative circles was that Lagos was a
but that the Socialists were still too immature to govern,'' said a well-placed ruling
coalition politician. ``Now, they point at the Socialist congressmen's trip to Britain
and say, `You see, Lagos cannot control his people.' ''
Lagos remained largely silent during the early days after Pinochet's arrest,
publicly supported the government's stand in favor of Pinochet's release -- a
statement that irked many in his own party.
Heraldo Muñoz, a top aide to Lagos, concedes that his candidate
found himself in
an ``uncomfortable situation.'' But he added that while Lagos was criticized by
many of Socialist Party activists, ``others are congratulating him for having
behaved like a statesman.''
Could coalition split?
Meanwhile, there is growing speculation that if Pinochet remains under
Britain or is extradited to Spain, where a Spanish judge lodged the charges that led
to his detention, the ruling coalition could split, and Christian Democratic
presidential hopeful Andres Zaldivar could seek an alliance with conservative
parties to win next year's election.
On Tuesday, Zaldivar scoffed at such speculation, as presidential hopefuls
ruling coalition made a joint appearance in which they announced they will stay
``This is a baseless suggestion,'' Zaldivar said, referring to reports
of a coalition
breakup. ``The accord that I'm signing today is proof that any electoral alliance
other than [this one] it totally out of the question.''
Muñoz says he does not foresee any split, either. But he adds, ``If
lasts several months, it's possible that there will be an even greater polarization,
which will benefit the extremes of all parties.''
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald