Chile's way forward

Lagos: President-elect's program is more important than the problem of a former strongman.

January 20, 2000

AUGUSTO Pinochet is history. Ricardo Lagos is the future. The past is important, but less so than the next chapter.

Chile, like South Africa, is torn between the needs of justice and reconciliation. Chileans must work out the trade-offs.

President-elect Lagos is an old socialist who supported the leftist President Salvador Allende, whom General Pinochet deposed in 1973. He helped initiate the agitation to hold the former president and army commander responsible for some 3,000 deaths and disappearances of political enemies.

But the president-elect is also a modern, centrist, democratic sort of socialist. He promises to retain the free-market reforms introduced by the rightist former President Pinochet, which have served Chile well.

He further intends to bring Chile into the southern South American customs union called Mercosur.

The last thing Mr. Lagos needs is a divisive issue to sunder the social compact.

But British justice is threatening to dump just that into Mr. Lagos' lap. London authorities found Mr. Pinochet, after a year's house arrest, too ill to stand trial in Spain. There he is charged with crimes by an idiosyncratic Spanish magistrate for what he did in Chile.

British authorities consider the old general well enough to return home, where half the population wants him prosecuted and the other half wants him protected.

President-elect Lagos pleads lack of authority to get involved. Dozens of lawsuits aim at bringing Mr. Pinochet to trial as a defendant. A title of senator-for-life and a provision of the constitution provide him immunity.

Chile must come to terms with its past, but give priority to its future. It needs the rule of law, civil peace, a successful and tranquil Lagos regime, and continued progress toward prosperity.

The court of history will judge Mr. Pinochet's crimes.

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