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Declarations & Statements


The Washington Post, 17.1.00, p.A15

Chilean Socialist Defeats Ex-Ally of Pinochet. By Anthony Faiola, Washington Post Foreign Service

SANTIAGO, Chile, Jan. 16 - Economist and former dissident Ricardo Lagos, who faced down Augusto Pinochet during his 17-year military regime, defeated the strong bid of a former Pinochet ally in today's presidential elections.

With his arms upraised only a block from the presidential palace that still bears the scars of the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power, Lagos claimed victory as the first Socialist to govern this nation since the former dictator ousted President Salvador Allende.

With nearly all the ballots counted, Lagos received 51.32 percent of the vote, compared with 48.68 percent for Joaquin Lavin, a 46-year-old economist from the University of Chicago and a former Pinochet adviser.

Although the victory was narrow, it was almost 3 percentage points wider than Lagos's victory in the first round of voting last month, when he won by 30,000 votes. In an extraordinary move, Lavin visited Lagos and conceded defeat, then appeared on the balcony of a downtown hotel with Lagos and his wife.

Tens of thousands of supporters descended on Santiago's Constitution Plaza, tying up miles of traffic in a sea of red, white and blue Chilean flags. Among them were torture victims and relatives of the more than 3,000 people who disappeared or were murdered during Pinochet's dictatorship. They cried tears of joy as they sang, "Feel it, feel it, Lagos is president!"

"Justice has finally returned to Chile," said congresswoman Isabel Allende, daughter of Salvador Allende, who died during Pinochet's coup.

But Lagos, a moderate Socialist whose policies bear little resemblance to Allende's Marxist speeches, spoke of national unity, and of a new era of greater economic and social equality for this long-troubled nation of 14 million.

"A new spirit of unity must run through this nation," Lagos said. "We must overcome inequality, providing the same opportunities to every child in this nation. The past century left us . . . sadness [and] unresolved pains. It leaves us a lesson that we need to protect everyone's rights and dignities, and especially defend human rights as the basis of our community." His speech was interrupted by the crowd chanting, "Try Pinochet! Try Pinochet!"

A Lagos victory only 10 years after Pinochet relinquished power and 15 months after his arrest in London marked a symbolic moment in Chilean history. Pinochet - who has been fighting extradition to stand trial in Spain in connection with his government's atrocities - could soon be released because of his failing health. But if he is set free, he will face a dramatic role reversal upon his homecoming, with one of his harshest critics set to lead the nation, succeeding President Eduardo Frei.

The ascension of Lagos, who is renowned here for going on national television during Pinochet's rule, waving his finger at the feared leader and telling him he must be held accountable for his human rights violations, takes the former dictator's international disgrace full circle, analysts said today. Lagos has promised a fair and independent legal process that could lead to a Pinochet trial in Chile, something once unthinkable here.

In part, Lagos may have Pinochet, who is still widely disliked or feared in Chile, to thank for today's win. Last week's decision by British doctors that Pinochet was too ill to withstand a trial in Madrid may have given Lagos a last minute boost. Lavin, who had a slight lead in some opinion polls before the news broke on Tuesday, had gone out of his way to distance himself from Pinochet's legacy and to portray himself as a centrist. But the former military ruler's possible release may have reminded voters of the link between the two, and renewed a general distrust of the militant right wing that had kept candidates of Chile's center-left Concertacion coalition in the presidency since 1990.

But the closeness of the vote, and the fact that Lavin did better than any right-wing candidate in modern Chilean history, underscored that while Chileans remain divided over Pinochet's legacy, other issues have taken precedence. Both candidates largely focused on how to lead Chile out of its first recession in 15 years and tackle high unemployment, poverty and crime.

The election in Chile was viewed as a bellwether vote in the region, where two major political forces in modern Latin America, the "new left" and the "new right," battled it out through Lagos and Lavin. Lagos, whose Socialists won the Concertacion primaries in a landslide last year, represents a changed left that has embraced a more centrist model.

The approach has made inroads in nations such as Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela, calling for the "third economic way" that accepts the free market but calls for a greater state role, especially to cut the massive income gap between the rich and poor that has exploded in Latin America during a decade of rapid economic growth.

In Chile, which was considered a model free market economy in the developing world for much of the 1990s, today's election of a Socialist would emphasize the growing discontent over free-market reforms.

"Lagos is the only man who can bring this nation long overdue economic and political justice," said Reinaldo Mansilla, a bank clerk who voted at Santiago's stark National Stadium, where opponents of Pinochet were detained and tortured in the days after his coup. Lavin marketed himself as a changed rightist who was capable of bringing back a more aggressive management style. A member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, he staged a well-financed campaign on a platform that stressed zero tolerance on rising crime, government efficiency and a declining emphasis on "political issues" such as addressing the military's human rights abuses and deepening democracy in Chile. He, like Lagos, promised to shift the conservative agenda to focus on inequity and poverty.

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