In 2000 Ricardo Lagos (born 1938) became the first Socialist president in Chile since the downfall of an earlier government run by Salvador Allende and the reign of the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. He managed to turn the country around and began the righting of many wrongs that had happened in the years before his turn in office. By the time he stepped down as president he had become one of Chile's favorite rulers and had done much to improve the country internally, while forging international ties with countries around the world.
Early Interest in Law and Politics
Lagos was born Ricardo Lagos Escobar on March 2, 1938, in Santiago, Chile, to Don Froilan Lagos, a landowner, and Emma Escobar, a piano teacher. Lagos's father died when he was only eight years old. When he was 16, Lagos went to the University of Chile. There he studied law and was first interested in politics, becoming active in student politics around the university. While he was at university he joined the Radical Party. He also wrote his graduation thesis on economic theories that were radical for Chile at the time. This brought him to the attention of the public and even got him interviewed for Time magazine. He went from there to Duke University where he earned a Ph.D. in economics in 1966. He married Carmen Weber in the early 1960s and the couple had two children, Ricardo and Ximena. The marriage ended in divorce in 1967 when he returned to Chile.
Back in Chile Lagos took the position of director at the University of Chile's School of Political and Administrative Sciences. He also taught economics and in 1970 was given the position of Secretary-General of the university by Salvador Allende. Allende was the president of Chile at the time, having been elected in 1970. He represented a socialist platform for the country, and did many things to improve life for the poor of his country that made powerful people nervous. This included nationalizing the banking and copper industries, something that scared the middle class and upset international leaders such as Richard M. Nixon, the president of the United States at that time. During his time at the university, Lagos met his second wife, Luisa Duran de La Fuente, whom he married in 1971. Fuente brought two children to the marriage, and she and Lagos had one more together: a daughter, Francisca.
Fled the Country with Family
In the meantime, the Chilean people who did not like Allende's socialist ways finally decided to do something about it. On September 11, 1973, after there had been a week of strikes across the nation, Allende's home was fired upon and the army stormed in to put him under arrest, overthrowing his government. It was said officially that Allende committed suicide, for he was dead after the conflict with the army ended; however, many believed that Allende had been assassinated. Shortly thereafter, one of the leaders of the coup, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, named himself president and took over rule of the country. Pinochet was the worst kind of dictator. He disallowed any sort of political opposition, and prevented the press from being able to publish freely.
After this happened many people left the country, including Lagos and his family. Lagos went to Argentina.
Stood up to Pinochet
In September of 1986 an attempt was made to assassinate Pinochet, and immediately almost 50 people known to be politically liberal were arrested, including Lagos. Lagos was held for almost three weeks, even though he had nothing to do with the attempt to kill the president. He came out of the situation angry and ready to do whatever he could to return democracy to Chile.
In 1987 Lagos founded the Party for Democracy. That and more brought pressure on Pinochet, until finally in 1988 he agreed to hold a vote to see whether or not he should remain in office. Even though it was dangerous at the time to be seen disagreeing with Pinochet, Lagos took part in a television interview in which he urged Chileans to vote Pinochet out of office. People around Chile were impressed and awed by Lagos's bravery, and an unprecedented number of people turned up to vote Pinochet out of office.
Elected President of Chile
In December of 1989 elections were held and Lagos ran for a seat in the Senate, although he lost. In 1990 a new president, Patricio Aylwin Azocar, took office. He asked Lagos to serve as minister of education. During his time in this position, Lagos instituted many changes, including allowing female students to continue their educations even if they were pregnant, something that had been absolutely forbidden before. Lagos tried for president in 1993 but lost in the primary race.
In 1999 Lagos ran for president again. This time he ran as a Socialist Party candidate. He did very well in the primary, but when it came time to go against Joaquin Lavin, a Pinochet supporter, he did not do quite as well. He won more votes, but did not win the 51 percent majority necessary for a decided win. A runoff election was held in January of 2000 and this time Lagos won, with 51.3 percent of the vote. While waiting to hear the election results, Lagos gave a speech in which he honored Allende's widow, who was in the crowd of more than 20,000 people gathered at Santiago's Plaza de la Constitucion. He became the first Socialist president elected since Allende.
Looked to Right Past Wrongs
Later that evening Lagos appeared on a balcony with Lavin, his contender, and embraced him. This had never been done before in Chile and won Lagos much favor among the people. Lagos promised that he would bring the right and left sides of the government together during his term, and Lavin during his concession speech promised to help Lagos in his efforts. In March of 2000 Lagos was inaugurated and became the president of Chile.
One of the first things Lagos did, at the call of the people, was put Pinochet in the hands of the judicial system. It was important to Lagos that the human rights issues of Chile were resolved and improved upon, and therefore much of what happened during Pinochet's reign was brought to light and examined. Santiago archbishop emeritus Sergio Valech was put in charge of the commission looking into the crimes. They discovered thousands of victims of torture, and Lagos promised that such horrible infringements on human rights would never happen again in Chile. It was thought by Valech and his commission that those who had been tortured should receive life pensions, and Lagos approved the idea, giving about half the average monthly wage in Chile to each harmed person each month.
Realized Need to Improve Economics
One of the biggest problems Lagos had to face was the huge division in his country between rich and poor. He entered office during Chile's first economic recession in a long time, and he had much to do to improve things. He soon acquired free trade agreements with the United States and the European Union, among others, and he met with President Bush in 2004 to discuss just how the agreement was working. He also gave money to social institutions for better health care, housing, and education.
On the heels of these agreements, Chilean exports to the United States rose by 80 percent, and United States imports went up by 90 percent, helping both economies. Although there were disagreements between the countries concerning the war in Iraq, the two remained allies. According to the New York Times , Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters, "We have had an outstanding relationship with President Lagos. I think he has been not just a great president for Chile, but he's been really a wise and strong force for democracy and for free economies throughout the region."
On June 26, 2000, Lagos and Allende's widow unveiled a statue to the late president, trying to make up for the horrors done to the man decades before. Presidents have six-year terms in Chile, and Lagos set to work right away. He made great headway in his term and changed many laws and situations that no one had considered changing before. In the beginning he set out to improve conditions in the small Andean mining towns. Mining there had slowed down and the people there now needed help. In May of 2004 he signed a bill that stated that divorce was no longer illegal. He also opened his home, the Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of the president, to the public for the first time in a long while, and he rescinded the ban on censorship in movies.
Stepped Down as President
While he was in office, Lagos became known as a deep thinker. He never acted on impulse and he applied reason to everything he did, which was quite opposite to those who came before him. He was a favorite of the people. He enjoyed gardening and rock climbing, reading, classical music, tennis and the theater.
In 2006 Lagos stepped down as president with an approval rating of nearly 75 percent. Lagos left office more popular than when he entered it, something uncommon in Latin America. He was still not popular with either the far right, who found him too radical, or the far left, who found him too timid, but for the majority of his country, Lagos was seen as an effective leader. Chile's economy, in a recession when he took over, was growing faster than that of any other country in South America.
A definite sign of approval for Lagos was the fact that the person taking his place, new president Michelle Bachelet, was also a socialist. Just six years before, people had been suspicious of the party and in 2006 they endorsed it wholeheartedly. "We have had many differences with him, but in retrospect, during the Lagos administration Chile has made the most impressive progress on human rights issues as well as justice reform and freedom of expression," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean lawyer who is director of Human Rights Watch Americas, according to the New York Times . Lagos did not leave politics after he stepped down as president, but instead became the government spokesperson for the new president, continuing in his quest to make Chile a country to be reckoned with.
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