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Lagos, Ricardo: 1938—: Chilean President

Ricardo Lagos: 1938: Chilean president

The political history of Chilean President Ricardo Lagos will always be defined in relation to former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. In 1973 when Pinochet seized control of the country and installed a right-wing dictatorship, Lagos was forced to flee into exile. When Lagos returned he rose to prominence as an outspoken critic of Pinochet. In 2000, when Lagos was elected to the presidency, his inauguration shared top billing with Pinochet's return to Chile after being detained in London for human rights violations. Lagos inherited a country obsessed with the former dictator. Half the country called for Pinochet to be tried while the other half wanted to let the matter rest. Meanwhile, Lagos faced pressing domestic problems: an economic recession, an antiquated constitution, and an unequal distribution of wealth that left nearly a quarter of Chileans in dire poverty. Lagos knew to move forward he had to escape Pinochet. His mantra as quoted by Institutional Investor became, "I was elected not to administer what happened in the past, but to write the new lines of the future." In a country whose history, economy, and government is also deeply defined by Pinochet, this would not prove to be easy.

Established Academic Career as Economist

Ricardo Lagos Escobar was born on March 2, 1938, to Froilán Lagos and Emma Escobar. Lagos's father, a landowner, was some thirty years older than his mother, and he died when Lagos was just eight years old. Escobar, a piano teacher, raised Lagos on her own. A precocious child, Lagos raced through his primary education and entered the University of Chile at the age of 16 where he studied law. Following his 1960 graduation he married Carmen Weber and moved to the United States where he had a scholarship to Duke University. He earned a doctorate in economics and returned to Chile where he and Weber divorced. Lagos began an academic career at the University of Chile working in the Institute of Economics. In 1967 he was named director of the School of Political Science, a post he held until 1969 when he was appointed secretary general of the university. In addition he taught economics and from 1971 to 1972 served as the director of the economics department. In 1971 he married his second wife, Luisa Duran.

At a Glance . . .

Born Ricardo Lagos Escobar on March 2, 1938; son of Emma Escobar (piano teacher) and Froilán Lagos (a landowner); married Carmen Weber, 1960s (divorced); married Luisa Duran, 1971; three children, two stepchildren. Education: University of Chile, law degree, 1960; Duke University, PhD, economics. Politics: Moderate Socialist. Religion: Agnostic.

Career: University of Chile, School of Political Science, director, 1967-69, secretary general, 1969-71, director, Economics Department, 1971-72; appointed Chilean ambassador to Moscow, 1972 (post never assumed); University of North Carolina, professor of economics, 1973-75; United Nations, economist, 1976-84; Alianza Democratica, president, 1983-84; Partidos por la Democracia, founder and president, 1987-90; Chilean government, minister of education, 1990-93, minister of public works, 1994-98; president of Chile, 2000.

Memberships: Partidos por la Democracia. Has also belonged to other left wing political parties in Chile including: Alianza Democratica, Partido Socialista, and Partido Radical.

Addresses: Office La Moneda, Presidential Palace, Santiago, Chile. Website

As Lagos' academic career developed so did his interest in politics and by 1972 he was aligned with the Partido Socialista, the country's ruling socialist party. At the time Chile was governed by Salvador Allende, a devoted Marxist who enjoyed the support of the Partido Socialista. Allende soon tapped Lagos to serve in his government, nominating the young economist as ambassador to Moscow. However, Lagos would never make the trip abroad. On September 11, 1973, Pinochetwith heavy backing from the United Statesstormed the presidential palace and ousted Allende. Pinochet dissolved Congress, suspended the constitution, and imposed censorship. He named himself president, but began ruling as a dictator with absolute power. Those who spoke out against him were tortured, executed, or simply made to disappear. It is estimated that over 3,000 people disappeared during Pinochet's reign. Lagos and other former government officials fled to the relative safety of exile. Back in the United States, Lagos became a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. In 1976 he left that post to work as an economist for the United Nations.

Returned to Chile to Fight for Democracy

Lagos returned to Chile in 1978 with a U.N. passport. His official job was economist for the U.N.'s Regional Employment Program for Latin America and the Caribbean, however, he began to become more involved in Chile's left wing politics. He was an early founder of the Alianza Democratica, a party that called for Chile's return to democracy. In 1983 Lagos was elected president of this group and became the left's most public figure. The following year Lagos left the United Nations to devote himself full-time to politics. In 1986, after an assassination attempt against Pinochet, the dictator cracked down on the left and conducted massive arrests. Though Lagos had nothing to do with the murder plot, he was detained and interrogated. After a great outcry by the Chilean people as well as pressure from abroad, Lagos was released 20 days later.

In 1987 Lagos founded the Partidos por la Democracia, another party which pressed for Pinochet's ouster. Lagos was also instrumental in forming the Concert-ación para la Democracia (Concert of Parties for Democracy), an alliance made up of several leftist political parties, from the centrist Partido Democracia Cristiana (Christian Democrats) to the Partido Social-ista. This unified opposition, along with international condemnation of Pinochet's human rights violations forced the Chilean government to call for a plebiscitea national yes/no vote in which the Chilean people could allow Pinochet to remain in power or demand he step down. Lagos called out loudly and defiantly, "No." In a famous television appearance Lagos turned to the camera and thrusting his index finger at it, spoke directly to Pinochet. In front of a Chile long terrified into silence by secret police, midnight arrests, and the constant threat of disappearance, Lagos accused the dictator of "torture, assassinations, and human rights violations," according to the Presidencia de la Republica website. The bold accusation brought Lagos increased political fame and helped break the grip of fear that paralyzed the Chilean people. In October of 1988, the country voted no against Pinochet. He stepped down as requested but he retained his role as commander of the armed forces. In addition during his reign he had created nine seats-for-life on the senate and peopled them with his supporters. Pinochet was also entitled to one of these positions. The seats were protected by the Chilean constitutionalso created by Pinochet's governmentwhich provided the senators with immunity from criminal prosecution. Pinochet was not going to give up power easily.

Appointed Minister in New Democratic Government

In 1990 Chile enjoyed its first free elections in two decades. Patricio Aylwin, a Concertación member from the Christian Democrat party was elected president. Despite his prominent role in the return of democracy, Lagos was unable to obtain a senate seat in Aylwin's government. The problem was his socialist leanings. Despite the atrocities with which Pinochet governed, he had brought economic competition to Chile, resulting in what Institutional Investor called, "Chile's 'free-market miracle,' some two decades of extraordinary economic success." With that success had risen powerful middle- and upper-classes dependent on private business and enterprise. They feared that Lagos would work to limit the free market. Unable to gain an elected seat, Lagos accepted an appointment as minister of education. Lagos began initiating reforms to reduce the educational gap between poor and rich schools. Lagos wrote in Socialist Affairs Online, "I believe that the future of Chile depends to a large degree on deeper educational reform. We must discriminate in favor of those who have less in their access to education and training." He also reversed a law banning pregnant girls from attending school.

As Chile's second free presidential elections rolled around, Lagos put in his bid for the Concertación candidacy with the backing of the Party for Democracy. However, in the primary Concertación members chose Eduardo Frei, another Christian Democrat, as their candidate. After winning the presidency, Frei appointed Lagos his minister of public works in 1994. During this appointment Lagos was able to alleviate some of the fears of the business world by demonstrating he was not bound to socialist dogma. For example, Institutional Investor noted, "[Lagos] won plaudits for privatizing Chile's highway system." In 1998 Lagos left his government post to gear up for the 2000 presidential elections. The same year, a Spanish judge learned that Pinochet was in London and issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of human rights violations. British officials detained the aging dictator and an international media frenzy ensued. Chileans were hysterical. Many took to the streets in support of Pinochet's arrest, brandishing pictures of loved ones who died or disappeared under the dictator. Others, mainly from the conservative right and the business realm, decried the arrest as illegal and demanded Pinochet be returned to Chile. It was in this environment that Lagos won the Concertación's candidacy by over 70%. Unfortunately his run for the presidency would not be so easy.

Under the two Concertación presidencies, Chile enjoyed some remarkable growth. Neither Aylwin nor Frei altered the country's successful free market system. Instead they instituted "a mixture of gentle social reform," according to The Washington Quarterly with the result being "Per capita income has almost doubled, the business neighborhoods of Santiago have filled with opulent glass-and-marble office blocks, and even the roadsalways a blot on Chile's copybookimproved, thanks to a private concessions program." Nonetheless, voters had lost confidence in the party. The source of this loss stretched back once more to Pinochet. The nine senatorial seats he had installed during his reign were preventing the Concertación government from reforming the military-focused constitution. "This failure has fueled voter frustration and helped to discredit politicians and the government." Nearly a decade after stepping down, Pinochet was still manipulating Chile. The opposition's presidential candidate, conservative Joaquin Lavin, took advantage of this irony to promote his campaign under the slogan of "Change." Lavin's strategy almost worked. He forced Lagos into a run-off election which Lagos won by barely 30,000 votes.

Became New President for New Millennium

Lagos became president of Chile in March of 2000. A journalist described his inauguration in The Economist: "Car horns were honked. The red, white, and blue Chilean flag was draped out of windows, trailed from cars and waved in the streets. It was one of the biggest spontaneous political celebrations Chile had seen since 1988, when General Augusto Pinochet lost the plebiscite that ended his rule." It was a joyous moment and political analysts worldwide agreed that Lagos's ascension to the presidency marked Chile's final transition into democracy. Lagos agreed. "This is a fiesta for democracy," the Miami Herald quoted him as saying. "Chileans should come celebrate to applaud the beginning of a new century, new government." However, when the party ended Lagos faced one of the country's biggest problemsthe ever-present rift between rich and poor. Also, Chile had entered its first economic recession in decades in 1999. In addition, like his predecessors Lagos would find it difficult to make changes with the ghost of Pinochet still strangling the constitution. Finally, there was the problem of Pinochet himself. After his arrest in London, Chileans pushed for an investigation into Pinochet's actions as dictator. Through a loop in the constitution, the Chilean courts were able to indict him despite his senatorial immunity. By 2000, under investigation for dozens of human rights violations, Pinochet continued to mire the country in the past.

Some of Lagos' first actions as president carefully straddled socialism and capitalism. An economist by training, Lagos has resoundingly supported the free market system and the wealth it has brought to Chile. "We have the highest growth in Latin America," he told Institutional Investor. In support of that growth, Lagos secured lucrative free-trade deals with the United States and the European Union. However, he also acknowledged that the free market was ineffective in solving social ills as deeply wrought as those in Chile. "The market is the right place for allocating resources, but it shouldn't be the model on which society is built," he was quoted in The Economist. To that end he vowed to pump more funds into social programs such as health care, housing, and education. Lagos also proposed labor reforms including bargaining and striking rights. For this he received heavy criticism from the conservative business fronts. He countered this by explaining to Institutional Advisor, "All I am trying to do is have the kind of legislation that is normal in a developed country, no more than that." He also introduced an unemployment insurance program. Despite his efforts, by 2003 consensus on Lagos's presidency was mixed. Rifts were forming in the Concertación, the economy was still sluggish, and the trials of Pinochet continued to divide the nation. Many agree that Lagos has the skills to resolve these problems. One Chilean business analyst told Institutional Investor, "Lagos is the brightest president we have had in a long time." However, in a country where history still polarizes politics and blurs economics, being bright might not be enough. Though the outcome of his presidency is still yet to be written, his place in history is firmly assured. Lagos will always be known as the man who helped topple Pinochet, leading Chile out of bloodshed and fear and into the light of democratic freedom.



Economist, January 22, 2000, p. 37; March 11, 2000, p. 41; October 14, 2000, p. 43; March 8, 2003.

Institutional Investor, March 2001, p. 69.

Miami Herald, March 12, 2000, p. 11A.

Progressive, May 2000, p. 24.

Washington Quarterly, Autumn 1999, p. 181.


"Biografia de Ricardo Lagos," Gobierno de Chile, Presidencia de la Repulica, (May 23, 2003).

"Chile's Lagos Takes Oath, Begins 2-Day Celebration," Miami Herald, (May 20, 2003).

"Looking towards the future," Socialist Affairs Online, (May 22, 2003).

Candace LaBalle

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