Pinochet Again a Force in Chilean Politics
By Roberto Candia - AP in The Washington Post
12 January 2000
SANTIAGO, Chile, Jan. 12 -- This Sunday was to mark the first time in
almost three decades that Chileans would elect a president outside the
shadow of their former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Under house
arrest in London for 15 months, Pinochet had largely drifted off the
national radar screen. And although the race pits a former
anti-Pinochet dissident against a former Pinochet aide, both
candidates spent more time talking about schools and unemployment than
what to do with the ailing patriarch.
But in the past 24 hours, all that changed.
The announcement Tuesday that British authorities may release Pinochet
because of his frail health has dropped a political bomb on
Chileans. It has starkly clarified the historical context of the
choices in Sunday's vote--bringing the first socialist to power since
Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973 or restoring the right
wing for the first time since Pinochet stepped down in 1990. But more
importantly, it has once again turned Pinochet into a decisive factor
for a country that cannot seem to escape his legacy.
"Pinochet never seems to leave us alone. He is always affecting
us, always in our lives, no matter what," said Marta Lagos, a
Santiago-based political analyst. "With this last-minute decision
in London, they've turned our elections into something as dramatic as
any opera. I don't think there's any question that Pinochet will now
become a key, deciding issue on Sunday."
Which side will benefit, and how it will benefit, remain very much in
debate. Ricardo Lagos, 61, a moderate socialist who was among the
bravest dissidents during the dictatorship, is now in the fight of his
political life against Joaquin Lavin, 46, the most popular candidate
the right wing here has fielded.
Lagos's center-left Concertacion coalition has won both presidential
elections since Pinochet stepped down, with its Christian Democrat
allies in the presidential palace now. This is expected to be the case
again even with the socialist Lagos as the coalition
standard-bearer. But Lavin almost ran even with Lagos in the first
round of elections last month and, according to some polls, has nudged
His success was attributed largely to his ability to distance himself
from Pinochet. But analysts said the possible return of the former
dictator may give Lagos a last-minute boost by reigniting fears that
have prevented the right from winning either of the prior presidential
races. Those fears had largely dissipated with Pinochet's absence and
Lavin's moderate political stance and youthful, modern campaign.
"But Pinochet's potential return changes everything," said
Marta Lagos, who is not related to the candidate. "If Pinochet
were returned before Sunday, I'd say it would have helped Lagos far
more. But even with it now looking like [Pinochet] may return sometime
very soon after the elections, I still think it gives Lagos a new edge
by reminding people who Lavin used to represent--and who he still may
Both candidates have said the independent justice system in Chile,
which has begun indicting and arresting Pinochet's retired lieutenants
during his absence, should be permitted to proceed, and possibly to
put Pinochet on trial. But Lavin, who maintains at least one of
Pinochet's former ministers in a key campaign position, has tempered
his posture by saying human rights and other political issues should
be put on the periphery of the national agenda.
Lavin, an economist with a degree from the University of Chicago and
former economic adviser to Pinochet, has in any case sought to play
down the issue. "We have to be cautious because this is not for
certain yet," he told reporters today.
"No one seriously believes that Lavin is going to focus on human
rights issues," said Ricardo Israel, director of the Center for
Political Studies at the University of Chile. "Lavin's base of
political and financial support is made up of people who were tied to
Pinochet during the dictatorship. There is simply no way he can
ultimately turn against Pinochet, and Chileans mostly know that to be
That is working both for and against Lavin. Many in Chile believe that
this nation of 12 million simply does not want to relive--through a
Pinochet trial--the horrors committed under his dictatorship, when
more than 3,000 people disappeared or were murdered and hundreds more
were tortured. And Lagos, although he purposely has not made human
rights his primary issue, has zeroed in more than Lavin on the need
"I think the sad truth is that most Chileans just want to forget
what happened," said Mireya Garcia, a board member of the
Associate of Families of the Disappeared. "Now that Pinochet is an
issue in the elections, it's very possible people will decide that
it's even more reason to vote for Lavin, because they don't want Lagos
to rock the boat and start digging up the past."
Lagos, meanwhile, is also trying to play down his support of the
ruling coalition's efforts to have Pinochet returned to Chile rather
than tried abroad. Lagos, an economist with a degree from Duke
University, desperately needs the Communists--3 to 4 percent of the
vote--and they could hold that stand against him.
Fueled by the Christian Democrats, Lagos's partners in the coalition,
the Chilean government fought hard to have Pinochet freed on
humanitarian grounds. It argued that Pinochet should stand trial in
Chile rather than in Spain, where a magistrate was seeking his
extradition for a trial on his regime's atrocities.