January 16, 2004

Juggling a country’s past with its present

By: Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

Once plagued with the torment and fear that accompanies a brutal dictatorship, the Republic of Chile is shedding its painful past by looming into a more economically stable and progressive country. Fourteen years after the fall of Augusto Pinochet’s self-appointed rule, Chile experiences an ongoing transition to reach true democracy through the evolution and implementation of its laws. A positive step largely attributed to the country’s current president Ricardo Lagos. As a symbol of his efforts in achieving the latter, on the ninth of January, UCSD’s Institute of the Americas presented president Lagos with its highest honor: The Democracy and Peace Award.

Although both Pinochet and Lagos share the bond of holding Chile’s highest rank in government, their opposite stance on the country’s primary issues separated them throughout their political careers. After challenging Pinochet’s regime on live television in the late 1980’s, president Lagos was considered a dangerous figure by the country’s ruling party. A perception that would later result in a three week incarceration. In the year 2000 he was elected president of Chile, making him the third president after Pinochet’s fall.


President Ricardo Lagos

Today Chile welcomes the fruits of a growing economy, social services and higher education in the country. Parliament just passed a new law that makes it mandatory for students to attend school for at least 12 years.

“Education has emerged to become a public good,” said president Lagos. “Essentially society makes the decision of what good will be provided. Now, there is a subsidy for every child in school and 75 percent of schools have access to the Internet.”

In addition to a prolonged education, Chile’s standard of living has also improved through the years. According to the 2002 Chilean census 73 percent of families have their own homes as well as access to public utilities. In addition 52 percent of civilians have telephones in their household. However, despite the country’s gradual growth and developing ways, poverty still lingers in Chile.

“Critics of the Chilean economic model would point to the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor,” said Brian Loveman, political science professor at San Diego State University. “ [There is also] the inability to provide decent health care and social security for most of the population.”

Ironically enough, although Chile prides itself with conquering it’s past authoritarian rule, the country’s links to Pinochet’s dictatorship often block the country’s social advancement.

“Living with the legacy of the dictatorship is much better than living under the dictatorship,” said Loveman. “However, the constitutional and institutional dictatorship has not been overcome.”

Chile is currently governed through virtually the same constitution adopted under Pinochet’s government in 1980. Although supposedly, several of the extreme measures don’t coordinate with the beliefs of the ruling party, some Chileans are still forced to live under authoritarian laws imposed on their country.

“Civilians, including journalists, are still dragged into military courts for certain ‘crimes’,” said Loveman.” president Lagos has recognized this often, as did the previous two presidents.”

Despite Chile’s present downfalls, the country is recognized for it’s relatively prompt transition from a dictatorship to a seemingly democratic governing system. The biggest change however is seen in the people of the country, the Chileans. Jaime Llilillo who was born and raised in Chile recalls how his family and classmates constantly watched their surrounding while trying to avoid military confrontation.

“We were always afraid to make comments,” said Llilillo. “My family didn’t belong to any political party, but if one did not agree with the regime, one was automatically considered a communist.”

Having lived in the United States for almost 15 years, Llilillo still finds the fear instilled in him as a young boy when he visits Chile. In one of his past visits in 2000, the hoopla surrounding the presidential election was underway. He recalls when appointed interviewers went from home to home asking questions about Chileans political preference. As he listened to surveyors asking his niece about her political affinity, he couldn’t help but feel suspicious and distraught.

“I was very afraid,” said Llilillo. “I kept telling my niece not to say anything because the information could land in the wrong hands...but my niece quickly told me that they weren’t living in the same Chile I had lived in.”

Over 2, 000 people were killed or simply disappeared during Pinochet’s 17-year coup. Currently 160 former members of Pinochet’s regime, including the former leader himself are facing human right charges for their direct or indirect involvement in the atrocities. President Lagos acknowledges that concrete changes still need to be made in his country. He insists however, that Chileans are on the right track to making that shift.

“Chileans now go to the tribunal to complain whenever a human right violations takes place,” said Lagos. “Even though at times their complaints are in vain because authorities don’t get things done, they still complain.” This fading fear of reporting human right abuses in the country exemplifies once again, that Chile is in fact a progressive work in process. Perhaps the best way to mirror their improvements is by looking and listening directly to the responses of Chileans themselves.

“I remember her telling me ‘Uncle...Chile is not the way it used to be,” said Llilillo...”It’s o.k to talk about politics now.”

Return to the Frontpage