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Chile embraces free market socialism { March 20 2005 }

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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."

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.

At a new health center for the poor, Lagos explained that just as the market alone would never support the construction of such a facility, the government could not afford it without the help of a vibrant economy. In a country like Chile, which depends on trade for 80 percent of its income, separating the two would be suicidal, he suggested.

But despite Chile's remarkable economic progress, some of the problems that greeted Lagos in 2000 remain. Income disparity between rich and poor is as wide as it was when he took office, and poor social mobility is considered the nation's worst problem. While Santiago, Chile's capital, boasts dozens of gleaming new office buildings, the landscape that greeted Lagos this week included scenes of rural poverty -- tin roofs, unpaved roads and dusty miners walking to work.

Lagos will not be able to tackle those problems right after his term. Chile's constitution does not allow consecutive terms.

"Of course there are broken dreams," said Ricardo Nuñez, a Socialist Party senator who once shared Allende's ideals of a democratic socialist revolution. "Of course we would have liked an economic system far from the neo-liberal system we have today."

While Lagos's cautious economic policies have disappointed some on Chile's left, his social positions have provided targets of dissent for the right. The Catholic Church is an important part of Chilean politics, and Lagos -- who has been married twice and is not overtly religious -- has angered some in the church with liberal policies, including last year's legalization of divorce.

But across the domestic political spectrum, Lagos has won praise for standing up to the Bush administration. In 2003, when Chile had a seat on the U.N. Security Council, it voted against the war in Iraq.

Last November, during a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Santiago, Lagos balked when Bush's security detail asked that all guests at an elaborate state dinner pass through metal detectors. Considering it an insult, Lagos canceled the dinner. The Chilean public loved it.

It has been a delicate balancing act, analysts say. Internationally, , Lagos is seen as an economic partner who plays by the rules of the free market. At home, he is seen as a protector of his country's interests.

Some supporters and analysts have suggested that Lagos could serve as a role model for newer Latin American leaders who face similar competing imperatives. There also have been suggestions that he become a regional political troubleshooter and counselor after he leaves office next year.

But Lagos seems content to stand slightly apart.

"Brazil, Mexico, Argentina -- they can take leadership roles," he demurred during a stop on his tour. "We're a small country."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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