Nobody's first choice

Patricio Aylwin, Chile's first president after the Pinochet dictatorship, died this week. A master of the "politics of the possible," his story holds many uncomfortable lessons for our own future (possible) transition, lessons we may not be willing to learn.

Patricio Aylwin, Chile’s first democratically-elected President after the traumatic military rule of Augusto Pinochet, died this week at the age of 97.

By all accounts, Aylwin’s Presidency was a highly succesful one. The economy grew rapidly, Chile consolidated its democracy, he sustained a succesful governing coalition, and he avoided being overthrown by a still restive military.

But this is not how everyone remembers him. Aylwin was seen by many in his own coalition as a weak appeaser who did not do enough to bring the military to justice.

As tributes and criticisms poured in and people reminisced about the man, I started thinking about our own transition, and what Aylwin’s story says about it.

Aylwin was not the first choice of many in his coalition. An elder statesman, he was a fierce opponent of Salvador Allende who initially welcomed the coup. A few days prior to the 1973 coup, he said that “forced to choose between a marxist dictatorship and a dictatorship by our military,” he preferred the latter.

He recanted his initial support for the coup a few weeks after it took place, and became an opponent of the dictatorship along with his party, the Christian Democrats. This made him persona non grata in many of the left wing circles in the opposition.

Still, he became the consensus for a “transitional” president, in part because his party was viewed as the more “centrist” of the coalition, the one that could bridge the gap between two warring sides more deftly.

His tenure was not without controversies. He irked many on the left by saying that he would pursue “as much justice as possible.” He ruled according to Pinochet’s constitution, but at the same time installed the first truth commission to investigate human rights violations during the dictatorship. He accepted that Pinochet remain as Commander in Chief of the Army, which made for an extremely awkward situation that he navigated most elegantly. In a rally in Chile’s National Stadium the day after taking office, he valiantly shouted above the jeers of his countrymen by insisting that Chile needed to reconcile with its armed forces, as can be seen in the end of this video.

At one point during their meetings after Aylwin had taken the oath, when the new President expressed discomfort to Pinochet about remaining head of the army, the general replied that this was better for the transition, because he believed only he could prevent others from overthrowing him.

He inherited a country that was growing strongly, and kept most of the policies intact. His reward is that, in the four years in which he ruled, Chile’s economy grew more than 20%, by an average of 6.4% per year. At the end of his term, Chileans were markedly richer, and Aylwin added important social programs to the model inherited from Pinochet. Social spending in education and health increased tremendously. By the end of the decade, the poverty rate had dropped to about 20%.

What Aylwin’s tenure teaches us is that succesful transitions must involve trade-offs. In his view, a politician unwilling to compromise is somebody who is simply not doing his job. For example, he said that Salvador Allende’s demise proves that he was simply a bad poltician. For him, politics was a job that should be taken seriously, a craft that had to be exercised in the most professional manner as possible.

This brings us to our present conundrum: to what extent are we willing to compromise our own principles in order to achieve a transition? What would be willing to give up? When we negotiate, what can we put on the table?

This is not an easy question to answer. As bloggers, we are used to being uncompromising, judging public figures by our own impeccable prism. We reward the bold and the fearless perhaps more than we should.

On the other hand, we tend to dismiss the old guard, the people who exercised the “politics of the possible” before Chávez came to be. All of our current political leaders came of age during the Chávez era, and while they have learned to negotiate amongst themselves, they have little clue as to how to engage the other side in dialogue.

We need to ask ourselves if this is what is going to bring democracy to Venezuela.

Because as much as we pine for Henrique, or Leopoldo, or Maria Corina, perhaps we really should be grooming our own version of Aylwin.