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Chile's Pragmatist Embraces Different Brand of Socialism

Popular Leader Mixes Free-Market Economics, Welfare Policies

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page A19

COQUIMBO, Chile -- Walking along a dirt road in this northern coastal town last week, President Ricardo Lagos was serenaded by a small orchestra perched on a plywood platform. Turning a corner, he encountered a second ensemble of cellists and violinists, playing just loud enough to overpower the first.

The next day, Lagos stopped in the city of La Serena, where he visited an experimental music school named after a teacher killed during the military coup of 1973. As projected images of the man flickered on the wall, a student band provided a melancholy soundtrack. Minutes later, another student orchestra burst into the theme from "Star Wars."

President Ricardo Lagos attended the inauguration of Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez in Montevideo this month. (Enrique Marcarian -- Reuters)

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It was all political theater, like the flag-waving crowds and the gigantic cake that greeted Lagos on his two-day tour to celebrate the fifth anniversary and final year of his presidency. But the enthusiasm was easy to drum up, judging by opinion polls that show Lagos's approval rating near 60 percent -- an upward curve virtually unmatched among regional leaders.

To Lagos, such music is the stuff of legacy.

"We now have more than 160 orchestras in Chile," he told the students of the state-funded school, "compared to 10 at the end of the dictatorship 15 years ago."

Although Lagos, 67, is the first socialist president of Chile since Salvador Allende was overthrown by the army 32 years ago, his tenure has been defined by matter-of-fact pragmatism. As an economist, his speeches are more likely to be studded with statistics than catch phrases, and his views are starkly different from the populist, sometimes anti-American stances being revived by a new generation of Latin American politicians.

"If you have a democracy full of populists, in the long run, it's going to be impossible to fulfill the expectations of the people," Lagos said in an interview during his tour. "And when the people are disappointed, you might have any kind of outcome, but it probably won't be a very democratic one."

Initially, Lagos was seen as the natural heir to Allende, and his administration was freighted with political symbolism. After his electoral victory in 2000, elated crowds marched through Santiago, chanting for political comeuppance: court action against former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses, and a reinstatement of Allende's political principles.

The first demand has been met. Pinochet, 89, has been prosecuted, forcibly returned to Chile from exile in London and charged with various counts of murder and torture; even if he does not go to prison, he is likely to die in disgrace. Some of his top commanders have been put behind bars, and a massive report documenting thousands of cases of military abuse has been released.

But Allende's brand of socialism has not been revived. Instead, Lagos has woven a combination of free-market economics with social welfare policies, seeking a balance that he believes can ease the burden of poverty while propelling Chile into the global economy.

There is considerable irony in this turn of events. When the 1973 coup took place, Lagos was set to become the ambassador to Moscow. But after spending part of the Pinochet years in exile and serving as cabinet minister for two centrist, Christian Democrat-led governments in the 1990s, Lagos now rarely highlights his affiliation with Allende.

Last week, during speeches in a series of small towns, Lagos acknowledged the Allende era tangentially, if at all.

"That was 30 years ago," he said. "The world has changed so much. Back then, everyone was following the Cold War script, and now everything is different. We are trying to achieve some of the same results that Allende was trying to do, but the tools and instruments to achieve them are much different."

By the same token, Lagos is reluctant to give credit to the repressive Pinochet regime for introducing the draconian free-market policies that gradually led to a much-touted economic boom. Instead, he stresses the need to combine capitalistic efficiency with social compassion. During his tour, he visited a variety of projects that he said defined this balanced approach to development.

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