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Defeat for the right in Chile

Issue No. 1680

News of the world

Defeat for the right in Chile

"PUT PINOCHET on trial!" was the chant of the jubilant crowd which gathered in Chile's capital, Santiago, to greet Ricardo Lagos's presidential election victory on Sunday. Lagos was the candidate of the ruling centre-left Concertacion coalition government. He beat his right wing rival, Joaquin Lavin, by a narrow margin. The result is being hailed as a victory for the left. Lagos is a former supporter of the 1970-3 Socialist government of President Salvador Allende.

Allende was overthrown and murdered along with thousands of others in the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet's brutal dictatorship ran Chile from 1973 until the end of the 1980s. Those celebrating in Santiago on Sunday were hoping that Lagos's victory might open the way for Pinochet to be put on trial in Chile.

The former dictator could be back in the country this week if British home secretary Jack Straw goes ahead with his plan to allow him to return. Lagos's victory is welcome. The right wing candidate, Lavin, was a supporter of Pinochet's regime in its early years before he later fell out with the dictator. Lavin's election campaign was backed by those who helped Pinochet. It won heavy support from the viciously reactionary Catholic group Opus Dei, of which Lavin is a member. Its members include many of Chile's richest businessmen.

But despite Lavin's brutal allies and free market economic programme, Lagos came close to losing. That is because he is associated with the terrible record of the governing coalition of which he has been a key supporter. The nature of that coalition stems from the deal which saw a return to democracy in Chile at the end of the 1980s. Pinochet's regime mixed repression with extreme free market policies from which only a wealthy elite benefited.

When the economy slid into crisis in the early 1980s, it sparked the first protests and strikes for many years. By the late 1980s Chile's bosses and military decided that a carefully managed and limited restoration of democracy was better than risking more upheaval. The transition saw a "historic compromise" by the main left wing parties. This mirrored the experience in many other Latin American countries which have undergone a transition in the last 15 years from dictatorship and civil war to forms of democracy.

The Socialist Party agreed a deal with the right of centre Christian Democrats, Pinochet and the military. It guaranteed effective immunity from prosecution for Pinochet and his key supporters. It also left in place many of his appointees, such as the country's top judges. Under the restored democracy a coalition of the Socialist Party and Christian Democrats has run the country through the 1990s. Both agreed there should be no real inquiry into Pinochet's crimes, and the Socialists explicitly rejected any hint of a return to the policies of Allende's regime of the early 1970s. Both agreed on a continuation of the pro-market policies of the dictatorship and have pushed ahead with privatisation schemes.

The extent of the "compromise" was underlined by the choice of the first president under the coalition in the early 1990s - Patricio Alwyn. Alwyn had very publicly orchestrated the campaign for Pinochet and the military to overthrow Allende's regime in 1973. Lagos's election campaign was based on a continuation of the policies of the Concertacion coalition. "I don't aspire to be the second Socialist president of Chile," Lagos said at his victory rally on Sunday. "I aspire to be the third president of the Concertacion."

Lagos has even blamed the Allende regime of which he was once a supporter for its own downfall. "We put the interests of the party before the interests of the people," he said during the election when asked about Allende's regime and Pinochet's coup. "We made critical economic and political errors. Another Allende-like experiment would be a colossal failure. I know the limits of the possible." In fact, Allende's mistake was to trust generals like Pinochet instead of looking to the mass of people who hoped for real change from his regime.

Pressure needed on new president

LAGOS AND his right wing opponent pushed almost identical economic policies in the election. A decade after the restoration of democracy the policies backed by Lagos have done little for ordinary people in Chile. Living standards for most people are at best now back to the levels they were at the time of Pinochet's coup. For many, things are worse. Unemployment has doubled in the last year to around 15 percent. The mood among those people cheering Lagos on Sunday was a marked contrast to what he and his government are offering on all the key issues. Justice The people celebrating want justice for General Pinochet's victims, and real economic and social change for ordinary Chileans. Neither is on offer from Lagos. The only way to get either will be if the mood sparked by his election victory translates into struggle from below.

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Thu 20 Jan 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1680
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