Book review — Ricardo Lagos explains his presidency in Chile

Presidential memoirs are funny creatures that often leave the critic less than satisfied. There never quite seems to be enough detail or careful explanation of why thorny decisions were made. The story told inevitably appears to be a tad self-serving and focused on self-justification. But, if you dig a bit a deeper in successful memoirs a more interesting narrative appears, providing the contextual grounding needed to really understand the detail that can be found through patient archival research. The successful memoir gives a sense of how the author thinks and how their thinking changed.

The Southern Tiger: Chile’s Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future is former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos’s English-language memoir. Perhaps borrowing a page from former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s decision to given a separate accounting to the English-speaking world, Lagos has released what at first glance appears to be a justification for decisions that appeared to contradict the socialist ideals he held in the 1960s and 1970s, moving instead towards the more neoliberal-flavoured version of public policy that he implemented as president from 2000 to 2006. At one level this sharp critique sticks and he frequently appears to be engaged in an exercise of mea culpa for his turn to market-based solutions to problems that were formerly the preserve of the state. But there is more to the book than this.

The persistent ghost haunting the text is the savage Pinochet dictatorship. Lagos’s account admirably explains his part of the story of how this democratic rupture was overcome. The recounting of his own experiences with Pinochet’s security forces gives a sharp sense of the personalized viciousness of the dictatorship and the deep sense of personal insecurity it imparted on most of Chile. His own arrest and detention are presented in a context of members of the police working within existing structures to ensure that Lagos was not disappeared by elements operating outside the supposedly extant legal system. This episode provides an important background for the account of Lagos’s central role in seeking to not only overturn the dictatorship through a long and patient process of door-to-door campaigning throughout Chile, but also for why the constitutional perversions implemented by the exiting Pinochet-regime were permitted.

One of the things that miffed critics of Chile in the 1990s was how the pro-democracy forces could accept a constitution that effectively ensured that the ‘right’ would always have a veto on constitutional change, that the military would be kept largely apart from direct civilian discipline, and that perpetrators of atrocities such as Pinochet were allowed to retire to prosecutorial immunity in the Senate. Perhaps the most significant parts of this book are devoted to providing a clear explanation of how fragile Chile’s democratic transition was. Lagos gives an eloquent account of just how divided the country remained in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps more importantly, he clearly explains the level of fear that dominated politics in the country. The right was terrified that it would be subject to political reprisals. More generally, the population was terrified that there would be a return to the hyperpolarized politics of the early 1970s. As Lagos explains it, these were critical issues that had to be managed to restore Chile to a path of democratic certainty.

Those interested in contemporary events in Chile will also find this book interesting because it provides a window into the thinking that led to the ‘left’ adopting market-based approaches to public policy after the return to democracy. Considerable attention is given to explaining why public-private partnership policies were used in such diverse areas as road construction and prison building and operation. Underlying this shift in policy approaches was an abiding concern that Chile build and maintain a reputation for being an internationally credible country, which meant fiscally rational and responsible per international market dictates. As discussion of the reaction to the start of the Iraq war makes clear, assuaging US political demands mattered far less than ensuring that investment continued to flow into Chile.

This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand where Chile has come from and where it is going. Whether or not the explanations provided are found convincing stands a secondary to the fact that they are a public accounting from someone who has undeniably been one of the most important political figures in Chile over the last forty years.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Book review, Chile, Democracy

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