Democracy Challenged

Chile’s peaceful election of its first Socialist president since the ill-fated Salvador Allende three decades ago has roused optimism in the regional press. The feeling is that the nation’s struggle to reestablish democracy and achieve social reconciliation following the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet is finally drawing to a close.

“Many things have changed for the better in our country over the past three decades,” the conservative El Mercurio of Santiago asserted on Jan. 18, two days after Ricardo Lagos’s victory. Lagos won by less than 3 percentage points over the conservative Alliance for Chile candidate Joaquín Lavín. “The diametrically opposed economic and political models of the 1970s and the attempts at the time to legitimize them by violent means…have given way to a significant level of consensus with respect to the market economy and democracy as the only legitimate path to attain power,” said the paper.

Bogota’s centrist El Tiempo (Jan. 19) notes that Lagos faces a long list of unresolved issues—an economy just beginning to edge away from recession and still mired in 10-percent unemployment, and a legislative system still hamstrung by the 1980 Pinochet constitution.

Regional analysts were split as to whether Lagos benefited electorally from British Home Secretary Jack Straw’s announcement, less than a week before the presidential vote, that he was prepared to permit Pinochet’s return to Chile. Straw based his decision on the medical opinion that the former dictator was too ill to stand trial in Spain and other European countries seeking his extradition to face trial on alleged human-rights violations during his 16-year tenure. Press commentators generally concurred that Pinochet would return to Chile with substantially diminished domestic political influence and no guarantee that he could avoid trial related to the most serious of the more than 50 charges against him currently outstanding in Chilean courts.

“It is not just his health that will prevent him from assuming a political role,” writes La Tercera (Jan.12), which notes that Lavín and other leaders of the Alliance for Chile have distanced themselves from Pinochet and hinted that he should surrender his Senate seat after his return. “Since his detention, the senator-for-life little by little has faded into the background.”

Chilean observers concur that, while extradition of Pinochet for trial in Spain or elsewhere in Europe would violate national sovereignty, he must still answer to charges brought in Chilean courts. “We do not believe in exonerating anyone of something of which he is guilty,” Santiago’s independent El Metropolitano writes (Jan. 13). “We just believe that…justice must be done in Chile or in an international court that is properly created—never in the court of a country that in its arrogance grants itself the right to judge others.”

By contrast, European press opinion was sharply divided over the Straw decision, with supporters arguing that the case has set a valuable precedent in international law, while critics decried it as diplomatically and politically expedient. “The decisive element in this legal battle is that Pinochet has been condemned by the international community and history,” declares Barcelona’s centrist La Vanguardia (Jan. 13).

In London, the conservative newsmagazine The Economist (Jan. 14) concedes, “There is still a long way to go before the likes of General Pinochet are pursued consistently, or everywhere, by the forces of the law. But many a comfortable exile is now nervously consulting his lawyers, or ought to be.”

While Chilean democratic institutions appeared bolstered by January’s developments, a tumultuous wave of protests rocked Ecuador. The marches organized by a loosely knit coalition of indigenous and labor organizations and supported by dissident junior army officers brought down the 20-month-old presidency of Jamil Mahuad in mid-January, fueling alarm that the small Andean nation’s fragile demo- cratic institutions would succumb as well.

The intervention by the armed forces’ high command to restore order and endorse the accession of Vice President Gustavo Noboa to the presidency means that “democracy has been saved,” Quito’s leftist La Hora affirms (Jan. 23). Still, the editorial adds, “We do not dare to say that the night has been left behind, because the crisis goes beyond the limits of a simple action of constitutional transition. We must overcome our collective disillusionment, recover our self-esteem and our confidence.”

While several commentators questioned the army’s ambivalent role first in abandoning Mahuad, then in rallying behind Noboa, the consensus view in the Ecuadoran press is that the nation’s political elite bears the heaviest responsibility for a devastating chain of bank failures, involuntary freeze of bank deposits, soaring inflation and interest rates, and currency devaluation that have plunged the nation into its worst recession in seven decades.

 “Political leaders and parties must listen to the people’s discontent over a system incapable of resolving the basic problems of the majority and riddled with corruption,” contends Quito’s centrist Hoy (Jan. 23).

“Building a participative democracy is the work of everyone. If leaders of political parties, social movements, productive sectors, and labor unions do not leave behind the culture of confrontation and political cannibalism and move toward a realistic attitude of dialogue and collaboration, it will not be possible to build that democracy and overcome the crisis.”