The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future

Article excerpt

The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future Ricardo Lagos Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, Hardcover, 258 pages


Ricardo Lagos has been a central figure in creating the Chile we know today-a prosperous democracy and a model for much of the region. Whether as an academic, an activist in the struggle for democracy, a minister of education (1990-1992) and of public works (1994-1998), a president (2000-2006), or once again, a major figure in the opposition, Lagos has been almost omnipresent in the country's major policy decisions.

By any measure, he has had an extraordinary career in public service.

In The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future- written with Foreign Policy magazine managing editors Blake Hounshell and Elizabeth Dickinson- Lagos retraces some of those steps and reflects on the impact of his policies both at the time and today. The former president makes it clear that he too views himself as a central player in Chile's democratic and economic transition.

Two themes emerge in The Southern Tiger. The first, now a cliché in studies of Chilean politics, is that of continuity and change; the second is Ricardo Lagos standing up to authority.

On the first theme, Chile is a very different country from the one that Lagos' coalition, the Concertación, inherited from the regime of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990. Although the foundations of today's economic model were laid by the dictatorship, the Concertación opened up the economy, reinserted Chile into the international community, instilled and expanded basic social services in areas such as health care, and expanded access to primary, secondary and postsecondary education. By almost any measure-GDP, household income, poverty, education, health, government spending, infrastructure, connectivity, international trade, or corruption-Chile has made great progress in the last 20 years.

Lagos' recollection of the turbulent past recounts episodes of cacerolazos (pot-banging demonstrations, mostly by the middle class), guanacos (water cannon-bearing trucks used to break up street protests), and fights and divisions among opposition parties as they vied for frontrunner status in electoral battles. For a Chilean reader in 2012, a time when social movements have swept the country, the Chile of yesterday seems very similar to the Chile of today.

But other longstanding debates would also resonate: the appropriate economic model for Chile; the need for infrastructure; and how to overcome interest groups and other obstacles to improve the education system.

In these areas and others, Lagos is quite candid about the unfinished tasks at the end of his term in office. He expresses frustration at the imperfect Transantiago public transportation system, the inability to have a bridge built to the island of Chiloé, the lack of reform to a binomial electoral system that offers some minority parties overrepresentation in congress, and the centralization of Chile's political system, among others.

For several of these, he seems to be pointing the finger at his successor, Michelle Bachelet: "After I leftoffice [...] the project stalled."

Another sign of how little Chile's elitism has changed is in Lagos' retelling of more personal episodes. Naming colleagues and adversaries from the 1960s onwards, for example, he mentions many people-from Heraldo Muñoz, the current head of the UN Development Programme's Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, to Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to José Tohá, former President Salvador Allende's minister of the interior and minister of defense-who continue to be active, or whose children are active, in the public sphere (Lagos' own son is a senator).

The lack of renovation among political (and other) elites stems from longstanding cultural traditions, but also from political institutions-principally, the political parties and the electoral system-that do not encourage the emergence of new actors. …