Chile Is the Place to Watch

By Castaneda, Jorge G. | Newsweek International, June 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

Chile Is the Place to Watch


Castaneda, Jorge G., Newsweek International


Chile has always been a sort of leading indicator in Latin America, foretelling the direction other countries are headed, or suggesting where they should be going. In the 19th century it was one of the first nations in the region to adopt a functioning model of constitutional democracy; it also built one of the first semi-independent judiciaries in the hemisphere, and toward the close of the last century it experienced one of the first confrontations between local government and foreign ownership of valuable natural resources--its huge nitrate deposits. Much more recently, Salvador Allende attempted the first modern experience of combining socialism and democracy in the region, and Augusto Pinochet put in practice the most effective and brutal authoritarian experiment in Latin America. Finally, since 1989, Chile has been considered by many to be a model of successful transition in the region, combining economic growth with a progressive social policy and a broadening democratization of political life.

No scenario can ever be as rosy as this quick description suggests, but last Sunday's primary elections in Chile tend to confirm the country's role. By a wide margin Socialist Ricardo Lagos became the Concertacion alliance candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for December of this year. He defeated Christian Democrat Andres Zaldivar by a 3-to-1 margin, and became the first Socialist at the top of the ticket of a coalition that has governed Chile since the return to democracy in 1989. Lagos is a heavy favorite to win the presidential vote in December, currently leading the strongest right-wing candidate, Joaquin Lavin, by nearly 20 points. And while Lagos represents about as moderate a left as one can imagine, there is no mistaking the importance of his probable arrival at the Moneda Presidential Palace early next year--for Chile itself, and for the Latin American left in general.

Ricardo Lagos will face two basic challenges: proving that the left can govern effectively, competently and democratically, on the one hand; and, on the other, showing that having a Socialist president does make a difference. He can address these tasks on three fronts, and his success or failure will determine the impact of his likely victory in December. First, Lagos will have to make significant headway in removing the "locks" or safeguards imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship before it left power to protect its policies, people and crimes. Until now, the two Concertaci*#243;n governments of Patricio Alwyn and Eduardo Frei have proved impotent in the face of these safeguards: the "designated" senators, who have a virtual veto on all constitutional amendments, are still in place. They are mostly Pinochet appointees or allies--the general under house arrest in London is one of them himself--and they have until now blocked any constitutional reform in Chile. …

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