Ricardo Lagos has been a central figure in creating the Chile we know today—a prosperous democracy and a model for much of the region. Whether as an academic, an activist in the struggle for democracy, a minister of education (1990–1992) and of public works (1994–1998), a president (2000–2006), or once again, a major figure in the opposition, Lagos has been almost omnipresent in the country’s major policy decisions.
By any measure, he has had an extraordinary career in public service.
In The Southern Tiger: Chile’s Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future—written with Foreign Policy magazine managing editors Blake Hounshell and Elizabeth Dickinson—Lagos retraces some of those steps and reflects on the impact of his policies both at the time and today. The former president makes it clear that he too views himself as a central player in Chile’s democratic and economic transition.
Two themes emerge in The Southern Tiger. The first, now a cliché in studies of Chilean politics, is that of continuity and change; the second is Ricardo Lagos standing up to authority.
On the first theme, Chile is a very different country from the one that Lagos’ coalition, the Concertación, inherited from the regime of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990. Although the foundations of today’s economic model were laid by the dictatorship, the Concertación opened up the economy, reinserted Chile into the international community, instilled and expanded basic social services in areas such as health care, and expanded access to primary, secondary and postsecondary education. By almost any measure—GDP, household income, poverty, education, health, government spending, infrastructure, connectivity, international trade, or corruption—Chile has made great progress in the last 20 years.
Lagos’ recollection of the turbulent past recounts episodes of cacerolazos (pot-banging demonstrations, mostly by the middle class), guanacos (water cannon–bearing trucks used to break up street protests), and fights and divisions among opposition parties as they vied for frontrunner status in electoral battles. For a Chilean reader in 2012, a time when social movements have swept the country, the Chile of yesterday seems very similar to the Chile of today.
But other longstanding debates would also resonate: the appropriate economic model for Chile; the need for infrastructure; and how to overcome interest groups and other obstacles to improve the education system.
In these areas and others, Lagos is quite candid about the unfinished tasks at the end of his term in office. He expresses frustration at the imperfect Transantiago public transportation system, the inability to have a bridge built to the island of Chiloé, the lack of reform to a binomial electoral system that offers some minority parties overrepresentation in congress, and the centralization of Chile’s political system, among others.
For several of these, he seems to be pointing the finger at his successor, Michelle Bachelet: “After I left office […] the project stalled.”
Another sign of how little Chile’s elitism has changed is in Lagos’ retelling of more personal episodes. Naming colleagues and adversaries from the 1960s onwards, for example, he mentions many people—from Heraldo Muñoz, the current head of the UN Development Programme’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, to Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to José Tohá, former President Salvador Allende’s minister of the interior and minister of defense—who continue to be active, or whose children are active, in the public sphere (Lagos’ own son is a senator).
The lack of renovation among political (and other) elites stems from longstanding cultural traditions, but also from political institutions—principally, the political parties and the electoral system—that do not encourage the emergence of new actors. These institutions were barely touched during the Concertación’s time in office, which, together with the lack of new political leadership, are at the root of much of the discontent in Chile today.
The fact that public policy challenges remain similar despite so much progress does not mean—as many young Chileans argue today—that little has been accomplished. Rather, it underscores the magnitude of the challenges faced in 1990. One of Lagos’ objectives in the book seems to be to remind readers, especially youth, that the first steps in improving social policy, democratizing the political system and modernizing the economy and infrastructure were accomplished amid tremendous political and ideological opposition.
At the same time, there is an underlying story in The Southern Tiger of Lagos’ own development. The description of the economic debates of the 1960s and 1970s recall a time when the state still had a predominant role in encouraging development. While Lagos would later preside over one of the world’s most neoliberal economies, it is not difficult to identify the origins of his enthusiasm for grand infrastructure projects rooted in the old, developmentalist model.
With an income of roughly $15,000 per capita, Chile is approaching middle-income status. But in Chile and elsewhere citizens demand more than economic well-being. The challenges may be grounded in economic policy—who spends what on education, for example—but as Lagos implicitly recognizes, the obstacles to resolving these challenges are political as well as economic.
He notes that a country’s success rests on three pillars: democracy, economic growth and social equality. Lagos writes that countries that lose sight of this equilibrium quickly lose their way. For him, Chile’s success is a result of constant, even if slow, progress on all three fronts.
But today’s instability indicates that perhaps all three pillars did not develop in unison. Chile’s political system remains very much based on the rules and limitations imposed by Pinochet’s 1980 constitution. For young voters born in a democratic Chile, it makes little sense to continue operating under rules originating in the Cold War. Lagos recognized that, and no postauthoritarian president did more to move beyond these democratic handicaps than he did. In 2005, he spearheaded a set of constitutional amendments that eliminated provisions such as designated and lifetime senators and reimposed civilian control over the armed forces.
Here, the former president underlines the second theme of the book: Ricardo Lagos standing up to authority. The narrative is full of anecdotes of a lifetime of assertiveness, including standing up to Pinochet, to the Chicago Boys, and to the police officers who came to arrest him in 1986. (“‘Sir,!’ I said sharply, offended by the bad cop’s presumption of informality. ‘Who authorized you to address yourself to me like this, using the ‘tu’?’.”) Lagos also recounts standing up to skeptics who did not believe the 1988 plebiscite could be won and, as president, standing up to military generals when they showed insubordination, and to U.S. President George W. Bush over the invasion of Iraq: “Mr. President, friends are supposed to be frank.”
For those more familiar with the presidential Ricardo Lagos, famous for his stern rebukes and fatherly lectures, it is easy to forget his role during the dictatorship—a time when Lagos and others like him showed tremendous courage. Although many opposition leaders were not from the working class, they still were not afraid to demonstrate in the streets, participate in clandestine meetings, go to jail, and perhaps most famously in Lagos’ case, wave an accusatory finger at General Pinochet on television.
That moment on national television—“a cool night of April” in 1988—catapulted Lagos to the national stage, and not coincidentally, it is how he chooses to begin his book. He had come prepared to attack General Pinochet, asking the producer: “Of all these cameras […] which one will be facing me?” When Lagos saw an opening in the questioning, he faced the previously identified camera, and spoke directly to and pointed at Pinochet: “I told him his ambitions to power outstripped any past leader of Chile.” Lagos earned his stripes, and the book has several additional vignettes of how he did so.
But even with these personal accounts, it seems at times as though the book cannot decide if it wants to be a brief history of Chile’s democratic transition (of which there are many) or a memoir of a former president of Chile, of which there are few. The historic details provided should already be fairly well known to a reader interested enough in Chile to tackle a Lagos memoir. As a memoir, it is a bit general: at 258 pages, it is about a third the length of Tony Blair’s memoirs and about a quarter the size of Bill Clinton’s.
Lagos is not prone to public displays of emotion. Well-known episodes are usually recounted in terms of their policy impact rather than their impact on the man. The author does not delve deeper.
But from what Lagos has chosen to tell, and the way he tells it, there is little doubt that he sees himself as someone who stood up for what he believed, and that he is proud of the road he (and Chile) have taken. At a time when many Chileans are questioning that road, there is some value in looking back.