Ricardo Lagos Biography

President of Chile

Born Ricardo Lagos Escobar, March 2, 1938, in Santiago, Chile; son of Don Froilán Lagos (a landowner) and Emma Escobar (a teacher); married Carmen Weber, early 1960s (divorced, c. 1967); married Luisa Durán de La Fuente, 1971; children: Ricardo, Ximena (from first marriage), Francisca, two stepchildren (from second marriage). Education: Earned law degree from the University of Chile, 1960; earned Ph.D. (economics), Duke University, 1966.

Addresses: Office —c/o Embassy of Chile, 1732 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036.


Began career at the Institute of the Economy at the University of Chile; director of the university's School of Political and Administrative Sciences, 1967-69; University of Chile, secretary-general, 1970-73, and professor of economics; also served as director of the Institute of the Economy, 1971-72; appointed Chile's ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1972, but not confirmed for the post; Secretary-General of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1973-74; visiting professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1974-75; consultant and economist for United Nations agencies, 1978-83; co-founder, Alianza Democratica (Alliance for Democracy), early 1980s, and president, 1983-84; founded the Party for Democracy, 1987; Minister of Education, 1990-94; Minister of Public Works, 1994-99; elected president of Chile, January, 2000.

Ricardo Lagos


Chileans elected a veteran political operative, Ricardo Lagos Escobar, as their president in 2000. An ardent socialist earlier in his career, Lagos spent years working to unite Chile's fractured left during the country's repressive era of military dictatorship. He is also the first Socialist Party politician to lead the country since President Salvador Allende Gossens died in the 1973 coup that ended democracy for a generation in Chile.

Lagos was born on March 2, 1938, in Santiago, Chile's capital city. His father, Don Froilán Lagos, was a landowner, while his mother Emma Escobar was a teacher by profession. She became a young widow after Don Froilán died when Lagos was eight. At the age of 16, the future politician entered the University of Chile, where he studied law and became active in student politics. He joined Chile's Radical Party during this period, and concluded his studies with a paper on economic theories that gained him a small measure of notoriety and even an interview in Time magazine. He went on to earn a doctorate in economics from Duke University in 1966. An early marriage, which produced a son and daughter, ended in annulment after his return from the United States.

The first years of Lagos' career were spent at the University of Chile. He served as director of its School of Political and Administrative Sciences, taught economics courses, and was named Secretary-General of the university by Allende. Elected in 1970, Allende instituted a bold socialistcentered reform program in Chile, which included nationalizing the copper and banking sectors—moves that threatened the country's firmly entrenched middle class. It also made the U.S. presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon wary, and the Central Intelligence Agency worked covertly to destabilize the Allende government, though it had been legitimately elected. On September 11, 1973, after a week of national strikes that paralyzed the country, Allende's presidential palace was hit with aerial fire, and then Army personnel stormed in. After a gunfight, Allende allegedly committed suicide with a weapon given to him as a gift from Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but other sources claim he was slain in a shootout.

That day's cataclysmic events, engineered by a group of conservative, top-ranking Chilean military officers, left a scar on the nation that would prove difficult to heal even three decades later. Socialists and other Allende supporters were rounded up by the Army and detained at the main Santiago sports stadium, and a period of brutal political repression followed. Thousands were jailed, tortured, or disappeared altogether. Within a year, one of the coup leaders, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte—the country's commander-in-chief of the army—emerged from the junta and proclaimed himself president. Pinochet banned political activities, dissolved congress, and severely curtailed freedom of the press.

As a result, many more fled the country, including Lagos, whom Allende had named Chile's new ambassador to the Soviet Union before the coup; the Chilean Congress, however, had not yet ratified the appointment. Lagos went first to Argentina, where he became Secretary-General of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Buenos Aires, and then to the United States, where he served as a visiting professor of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Back in Chile, the ruthless campaign against the left continued, and it was to this bleak climate that Lagos returned in 1978 to Santiago with his family, which by then included a young daughter with his second wife, Luisa Durán de La Fuente, as well as two children from his first marriage and Durán's two children. He took a post as a consultant and economist for a United Nations regional development agency.

The Pinochet regime began to relax certain restrictions on political activities after a new 1980 constitution that nevertheless served to firmly entrench the military dictatorship. Lagos became involved in politics once again, forming the Alianza Democratica (Alliance for Democracy) with several other progressives; its goal was to foment opposition to the Pinochet regime. After leaving his United Nations post in 1983, he served as the Alianza's president for a year, and emerged as one of the leaders of the country's Socialist Party.

Chile's political thaw ended in September of 1986, when Pinochet was the target of an assassination attempt. Along with 44 other prominent leftists, Lagos was arrested and held for nearly three weeks, though he had no role in the event. His detention only further incited his determination to help Chile return to democracy, and in 1987 he founded a new political organization, Party for Democracy (PPD). Finally, in 1988 international pressure and growing internal unrest forced Pinochet to hold a plebiscite vote on whether or not he should remain in office. Back in 1980, Pinochet had pledged to serve as president for only eight years. In a climate where dissent was dangerous, Lagos was interviewed on television and roundly excoriated Pinochet for going back on his word, and urged Chileans to vote "no" to what he predicted would be another 25 years of human-rights abuses.

Lagos' brave act stunned the nation, and voters turned out in droves to reject another eight-year term for Pinochet in the plebiscite. Free elections were held the following year, in December of 1989, and Lagos ran for a seat in the Senate from a Santiago district, but lost. A new government was installed in early 1990, a Christian Democratic-Socialist coalition, and President Patricio Aylwin Azocar named Lagos to serve in the cabinet as minister of education. Lagos instituted several significant reforms in this post, including a lifting of the ban on female students from their schools if they became pregnant.

Lagos made his own presidential bid in the 1993 race, as a candidate of the Concertación para la Democracia (Concert of Parties for Democracy), which he had worked to bring together. He lost in the primaries to another Concertación candidate, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, who won the election, and Frei made Lagos minister of public works after taking office. Pinochet was still around, with a seat in the Senate granted to him for life according to the 1980 constitution, and he remained commander-in-chief of the army. But by then, Chile's economy was flourishing, with rapid growth and impressive international trade revenues, and internal dissent against military rule grew along with it.

In late 1998, Pinochet, who had traveled to Britain for medical treatment, was arrested thanks to a joint effort by Spain—a center of opposition to the Pinochet regime—and British authorities. He was charged with a number of human-rights violations, and the situation threatened to destabilize Chile once again, with the immensely powerful military cabal—which retained unprecedented independence thanks to the 1980 constitution—pressuring Frei to break off formal relations with both European nations. In the end, Pinochet remained under house arrest for more than a year, and was then released on health and humanitarian grounds.

By that point, Chile was gearing up for another presidential race, and Lagos entered the fray once again, this time as a Socialist Party candidate. After doing well in the primary, he faced off with Joaquín Lavín, an early Pinochet supporter and newspaper editor who had authored books lauding Pinochet's economic programs. It was a tight race, and though Lagos finished slightly ahead, he failed to achieve the necessary 51 percent majority to win the election. He squeaked by in the runoff election held in January of 2000 with 51.3 percent of the vote. Before the final count was in, Lagos addressed a crowd of some 20,000 at Santiago's Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Plaza), and made a special mention of Allende's widow, who was among them. The first elected Socialist president since the slain Allende, Lagos told the crowd that "a new spirit is spreading across our territory," New York Times journalist Clifford Krauss quoted him as saying. "I want to resolve the pains of our past. There is space here for everyone. I haven't forgotten the past, but my eyes are open to the future."

Later, Lagos appeared with Lavín on a balcony, and embraced him, a move that was unprecedented in Chilean politics and cemented Lagos' promise to reconcile Chile's right and left. Lavín, in his concession speech, promised to support Lagos and his administration's policies, another surprising turn of events. Lagos was inaugurated in March of 2000, and a disgraced Pinochet returned to Chile days later. There were calls to put the former dictator on trial in Chile, and Lagos promised that he would let the courts decide the matter.

During the first years of his six-year term, Lagos worked to initiate many reforms, both social and economic. He took steps to improve conditions in small Andean mountain towns that were once dependent on mining, and courted American support, from both the government and investment community. He also continued to deal with the Pinochet issue, albeit from a distance. The need to resolve Chile's abysmal human-rights record of the recent past was of particular importance for Lagos' government, and he established a commission, headed by Santiago's archbishop emeritus, Sergio Valech, that began investigating the tragic post-coup years. Some 35,000 Chileans testified, and an official list of 28,000 victims of torture was released in November of 2004. In his statement that day, Lagos professed his sorrow over the findings, but concluded with the phrase nunca mas or "never again," which had been a familiar piece of political graffiti in Chile for many years.

The Valech commission recommended life pensions for the victims of torture, and Lagos' government approved the benefit plan, which grants each of the 28,000 a monthly stipend equal to about half of the average monthly wage in Chile. Human-rights groups were still pressuring the military to release information about the missing, but details were slow in coming forth, and there was an amnesty law in place since late 1970s that protected military and police personnel from prosecution. Some argued that Lagos' government should rescind that amnesty law, but instead judicial proceedings against some 300 officers began anyway during the latter half of his six-year term.

Lagos' other achievements in office are similarly historic. In May of 2004, he signed into law a new decree that lifted the country's prohibition on divorce. He also opened the doors of the Palacio de La Moneda, the official seat of the presidency, to the public for the first time in decades. Known as La Moneda, the palace dates back to 1805 and is considered one of the grandest buildings built by the Spanish in South America. It was also the place that the Chilean army stormed in 1973, and where Allende died. Perhaps tellingly, on an official presidential website that reports extensively on Lagos' daily activities, there is also a Web camera feature that provides a number of exterior shots.

Known for his lack of impulsiveness and reasoned approach to reach political consensus, Lagos enjoys high public-approval ratings. He is a weekend gardener and occasional rock climber, and reads histories and listens to Mozart in his spare hours as well. As his country's first Socialist president since the 1973 coup, he does not dispute that his once ardently leftist views have been accordingly adjusted for the 21st century. In a 2002 Newsweek International interview with Joseph Contreras, he was asked if he was still a socialist. "Of course," Lagos replied. "Socialism is still guided by a vision of a just society. The tools that are used to achieve that goal are different today because the world has changed. But the search for greater equality is still just as important as the search for greater freedom."



Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: World Leaders, Gale, 2003.


Guardian (London, England), January 18, 2000, p. 14; November 30, 2004, p. 14.

Newsweek International, August 12, 2002, p. 28.

New York Times, January 17, 2000, p. P1; January 18, 2000, p. P3; January 22, 2000, p. P2; December 10, 2001, p. A3; September 7, 2003, p. A3.

—Carol Brennan

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