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Ricardo Lagos: 1938—: Chilean President

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 problems—the 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, www.presidencia.cl (May 23, 2003).

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

"Looking towards the future," Socialist Affairs Online, www.socialistinternational.org/9SocAffairs/1-V48/eLagos.html (May 22, 2003).

—Candace LaBalle

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography - C.J. Koch comments: to Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard Lovell (1913– ) BiographyRicardo Lagos: 1938—: Chilean President Biography - Established Academic Career As Economist, Returned To Chile To Fight For Democracy, Appointed Minister In New Democratic Government