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Ricardo Lagos

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Ricardo Lagos served as president of Chile from 2000 to 2006. While in office Lagos was known for pursuing free-trade agreements, improving health care and education, and addressing the crimes of General Augusto Pinochet's military regime.

Lagos was born in 1938 in Santiago, Chile. He earned a law degree from the University of Chile in 1960 and then attended Duke University, where he received a doctorate in economics in 1966. He returned to Chile and served as director of the University of Chile's School of Political and Administrative Sciences and was subsequently appointed secretary general of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences.

Lagos was nominated by President Salvador Allende to be Chilean ambassador to the Soviet Union. But in 1973, Allende was overthrown in a military coup d’état led by Pinochet, and Lagos was never confirmed in that position.

Like many in the democratic opposition to the dictatorship, Lagos left Chile. While in exile in the United States and Argentina, he served at the United Nations as a consultant and economist at UNESCO and the International Labor Organization.

In 1978, he returned to Chile, where he became president of the Democratic Alliance, a coalition of parties opposed to Pinochet. In 1987, Lagos founded the Party for Democracy (Partido por la Democracia). During the historic 1988 national referendum to end the Pinochet dictatorship, Lagos was a key leader in the grassroots efforts to register voters and encourage them to vote against prolonging the military regime.

After democracy was restored, Lagos served as minister of education in the government of President Patricio Aylwin and as minister of public works under President Eduardo Frei before being elected president in his own right in January 2000.

Since leaving the presidency, Lagos founded the Fundación Democracia y Desarrollo (Foundation for Democracy and Development) in 2006 and currently serves as its president. He is also vice-chair of the Inter-American Dialogue and was UN special envoy for climate change from 2007 to 2010.

Twitter: @RicardoLagos

Well, in fact, even though I was motivated by public affairs, if you want to say in a broader way, to be specifically involved in politics that is simply because of Pinochet.

[Augusto Pinochet (1915 – 2006) was dictator of Chile between 1973 and 1990.]

At the time of the coup I was a professor at the University [of Chile] and at the same time I was the Secretary General of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. It was just the beginning of social science in Chile and UNESCO, the United Nations educational branch, decided to have an institute devoted to social science and I was appointed as Secretary General of that [Institute]

[The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a United Nations agency that promotes international collaboration through education, science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights.]

It is true also that President Allende asked me to be his Ambassador to Moscow, to the Soviet Union. During those days it was necessary to have the approval by the Congress, by the Upper Chamber, the Senate.

[Salvador Allende (1908-1973) was president of Chile between 1952-1973.]

And at the time of the coup there was no ambassador in Moscow, in Washington, in Paris, in [Havana]. Simply because there was a non-competition agreement between Allende and the Congress.

So at the time of the coup, I was to be ambassador and, nevertheless, I never went to Moscow till many, many years later when I arrived in Moscow, but as the President of Chile and the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore. 

Chile is a narrow country of over 17 million citizens on the western coast of South America. Economically, Chile is regarded as a developed country, with the highest per capita gross domestic product in Latin America. The country is rich in resources, including excellent conditions for agriculture and has vast mineral deposits, especially copper.

Spanish conquistadors led by Pedro de Valdivia conquered Chile in 1541. The country’s capital, Santiago, was founded in the same year. Throughout the 277 years of Spanish rule, there was resistance by indigenous groups, such as the Mapuche.
In the early 19th century, an independence movement began in Chile with the establishment of a national front. The front maintained power from 1810 until 1814, when Spain reestablished control of the colony. Many leaders of the pro-independence movement reorganized in Argentina. In 1817, the exiled rebel independence leaders regained control of Chile and formally declared independence on February 12, 1818.

While initially under the leadership of authoritarian General Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile later established a tradition of democratic rule that largely continued until the 1970s. In 1970, prominent Marxist leader Salvador Allende won power in democratic elections. While the economy initially boomed under Allende, domestic opposition and international pressure, especially from the United States, led to increasing difficulties for the government.

On September 11, 1973, a military coup overthrew Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet as president. Allende committed suicide as troops advanced on the presidential palace.

The sixteen years of Pinochet’s military dictatorship were marked by significant human rights violations and the abolishment of civil liberties. The dictatorship jailed dissidents, prohibited strikes, and dissolved the national congress and political parties. Thousands were tortured and killed; many more were forced into political exile.

In 1980, the Pinochet regime promulgated a new constitution. It included a provision calling a referendum in 1988, allowing voters a yes or no vote on whether to prolong Pinochet’s tenure as president. The referendum campaign saw massive opposition efforts to encourage voter turnout, with nearly the entire democratic opposition united against the military government. While the Pinochet regime belatedly began making reforms, 56 percent of the population voted “no” to continuing the dictatorship, setting the stage for a return to civilian rule.

In 1989, Chilean democracy was fully restored by a democratic election to choose a new president, the first free election in nearly twenty years.

Since the return to democracy, Chile has implemented significant economic and political reforms, including a free trade agreement with the United States. Although there have been major strides in promoting equality and human freedoms, the human rights violations of Pinochet’s dictatorship still haunt many people. The Rettig and Valech Reports investigated and documented the human rights violations and torture under Pinochet’s government, but many Chileans continue to demand greater accountability for those responsible.

Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom in the World report categorized Chile as “free” with an overall freedom rating of one, with one being the freest and seven being the least. The country also received ratings of one in political rights and civil liberties. However, in the 2014

Freedom of the Press report, the nation was categorized as “party free” due to a lack of diversity in the media.


More from Ricardo Lagos

Ricardo Lagos: Before Pinochet Ricardo Lagos: Before Pinochet Ricardo Lagos: The "No" Campaign “It was very clear that now the only way to defeat Pinochet was through a plebiscite.” Ricardo Lagos: Democratic Transition “I believed it was possible to defeat Pinochet. I had no doubt.” More + Ricardo Lagos: Confronting Pinochet “I will keep doing what I am doing because democracy will return and we will defeat you in the plebiscite”. Ricardo Lagos: Arrested by a "Professional" Police “When I turned the lights on, four or six guys were pointing at me with their guns.” Ricardo Lagos: Defeating Pinochet “The most difficult part was how we were going to convince the Chilean people that it was possible to defeat a dictator through a vote.” Ricardo Lagos: The Disappeared “During those days habeas corpus did not exist.” Ricardo Lagos: Helping Chileans Escape “Quite a number of people were able to leave the country.”