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Chilean politics: the art of the possible


As we know, politics is the art of the possible. The former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos seems to have made this his motto throughout his long career as a politician, culminating in his six-year term as head of state. In this autobiography, he looks back on what he and his country have achieved over the past 40 years.

Born in March1938 In Santiago, it seemed at first that he was destined for a brilliant academic career as an economist. But after studying for a doctorate at Duke University in the United States in the early sixties, he returned to his own country and by 1969 became chancellor of the University of Chile.

These though were turbulent times for Chile. Not long afterwards, Salvador Allende, who had been a friend since Lagos’ student politics days, came to power at the head of a Popular Unity government. Lagos goes on to outline how the Pinochet coup developed, and the subsequent reign of terror, then the slow recuperation and consolidation of the political opposition, especially after the economic crisis of 1983.

In 1988-1989 came Pinochet’s defeat in a referendum on his continuing rule, which seems to have taken the dictator almost by complete surprise. Lagos attributes himself a prominent role in the success of the opposition in this campaign; indeed, he opens the book with it, and his famous intervention on Chilean television when he directly challenged the military ruler.

He then goes on to describe the centre-left Concertación coalition’s years in power, when he was in charge of several ministries, finally becoming president in the year 2000: as he says, the first socialist president to hold the office in 30 years. After him came Michele Bachelet, but her term in office marked the end of the Concertación’s stay in power, as the candidate of the right, Sebastián Piñera took over after the 2009 elections.

Throughout the book, Ricardo Lagos comes over as thoughtful and moderate, stressing above all what he saw as being possible to achieve in difficult times. This leads him to reject violent opposition to Pinochet, a consensus approach to changing the military-era constitution and its political legacy, the decision to continue with similar economic policies in which the state and the private sector co-exist peacefully and profitably. Similarly, considering General Pinochet’s arrest in London, he adopts the view that the ageing dictator should have been tried in his own country, although he offers no suggestions as to how this could have been achieved.

In this instance and at many other moments, what is sorely missing from The Southern Tiger is any reaching out towards the impossible that might have led to an entirely different outcome, towards the utopia that should be on everyone’s map. There is little sense of the Chilean people and its aspirations for more radical change. Lagos is positively mealy-mouthed when dealing with his friend’s attempts to carry through a revolution, concluding dismissively that ‘there’s no question the Allende government mismanaged things’.

In fact, management skills seem to be nub of Mr. Lagos’ view of politics. By their successful application, Chile has turned into the economic tiger of the book’s title. The book too often reads like a CEO’s self-justifying account of his years at the top. In part this is due no doubt to the fact that it was co-authored by two US journalists (and includes a foreword by former US president Bill Clinton: ‘my friend Ricardo has never slowed in his efforts to fight the persistent inequalities in Chile and around the world’). This has given rise to a formulaic book from which any real sense of history, the bare bones of a nation, or indeed the honest inner world of a politician are sadly lacking.


RICARDO LAGOS: THE SOUTHERN TIGER; Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN: 978-0- 230- 33816-6; £16.99.

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