Chile: At Half-Way Point in Term, President Ricardo Lagos Battles Corruption Scandals
Chilean President Ricardo Lagos marked the half-way point of his presidency on March 11 buffeted by government-linked scandals. The president said that, despite the recent corruption scandals, Chile continues to benefit under both his and the governing Concertacion coalition's leadership.
"The Concertacion is proud of what it has done," said the president in an interview with Radio Cooperativa. "We still have tasks pending for the next three years, but the most important thing is that the parties of the Concertacion alliance define a political project for the 10 or 15 years following 2005."
Among the Concertacion's various accomplishments, Lagos mentioned the "normalization" of relations between civil society and the armed forces, renewed cooperation between the government and business sectors, and an improved relationship with the Catholic Church.
The president also spoke of the nation's economic growth in recent years, saying that, for the first time, more than 250 thousand Chileans have unemployment insurance and half a million young people enjoy the benefits of higher education. He also touted of the free-trade agreements recently signed with the European Union (EU), the US (see NotiSur, 2002-12- 20), and South Korea.
"We have firm indicators in every area of the country pointing to solid progress and advancement in infrastructure, in judicial reform, and, for this year, we will continue improving health-care through the AUGE [Acceso Universal con Guarantias Explicitas en Salud] reform plan," he said.
The day also marked the Concertacion's 13-year anniversary in power following the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The coalition comprises the Partido Democrata Cristiano (PDC), the Partido Socialista (PS); the Partido por la Democracia (PPD); and the Partido Radical Social Democrata (PRSD).
Along with citing accomplishments, Lagos also referred to the ongoing government-corruption scandals and the recent collapse of the Inverlink financial holding company. Promising to continue to fight government corruption, Lagos said it was necessary for legislators to pass a series of government-backed measures aimed at regulating government and campaign spending. Because of the scandals, Lagos suspended the official celebration of his three years in office.
In a radio interview, Lagos said newly discovered irregularities in the Ministry of Public Works (Ministerio de Obras Publicas, MOP) were disturbing. Carlos Cruz, the former head of MOP, and the ministry's former financial officer Sergio Cortes were arrested Jan. 7 and later charged with defrauding the Treasury of approximately US$415,000. They are accused of siphoning funds through the bogus Gestion Territorial y Ambiental (GATE) company. If found guilty in the MOP-GATE case, the men face up to five years in prison.
Lagos makes Cabinet changes
Lagos marked the half-way point in his term by swearing in several new ministers appointed as part of a major reorganization of the Cabinet. Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza, of the PS, was retained in his post despite widespread speculation to the contrary. Other key ministers given a vote of confidence included Finance Minister Nicolas Eyzaguirre, Foreign Relations Minister Soledad Alvear, and Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet.
The most radical change in the Cabinet was the appointment of Luis Bates Hidalgo (independent) to the Department of Justice, where he replaced Jose Antonio Gomez of the PRSD. Bates, ex-president of the Consejo de Defensa del Estado (CDE), has a strong anti-corruption reputation and is expected to take control of the ongoing investigation into the MOP-GATE scandal.
Heraldo Munoz of the PPD was replaced as secretary- general to the
government by Francisco Vidal Salinas, also of the PPD. Sergio Bitar Chacra (PPD) took over from Mariana Aylwin (PDC) as the minister of education; Pedro Garcia Aspillaga (PDC) replaced Osvaldo Artaza (PDC) as minister of health; Francisco Huenchumilla Jaramillo (PDC) took over from Mario Fernandez as secretary-general to the president; Andres Palma (PDC) replaced Cecilia Perez (independent) as minister of planning and cooperation. …