Nobody’s first choice


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.

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  1. Aylwin’s outstanding legacy speaks for itself, and your summary is a good reminder.

    Eventually, the choice of a successor Presidential candidate will depend on local, political realities that are hard to gauge from outside the inner maw of history.

    For me, a near-ideal transition was done in South Africa, by Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, and F. W. De Klerk. It tells me that you don’t necessarily need a figure standing between the two sides; independent of both. Rather, you need one who understands the need for forgiveness, and the corresponding need to unite the country to face the challenges of the future.

  2. Thanks for this introduction to a place and history time I know so little about. I just wonder about the last part of your account. Grooming? A. was 72 when he took office after Pinochet, right? Grooming is something I associate with people who can evolve a bit…that excludes guys who are too linked with corrupt circles like Allup, I think. I do not see anyone of that generation taking the part – perhaps there might be but no one comes to mind. Younger politicians in their forties or thirties? I hope they will have the opportunity. I know a few have got some informal grooming by interacting with other Latin American and European politicians in trips, but as far as I know they are few.

    I wish we had a bit of an open discussion about the need for debates…debates in the original sense Greeks used 2400 years ago.

  3. Lo que logro entender del articulo es que en Chile, el conflicto fue ideológico y se debatían entre una dictadura marxista o una dictadura militar con una posterior transición hacia la democracia por Aylwin.

    El caso venezolano pareciera que tiene un ingrediente adicional: narco-trafico y narco-lavado.

    Seria interesante observar como se produciría una salida en Venezuela con este elemento dentro de una eventual transition. Van a dejar de lado ese punto los nuevos actores?

    • La dictadura chilena también fue bien corrupto. Es algo que pasa en cualquier país donde no hay división de poderes, y es algo que se resuelva con ese misma máquina

      • Una cosa es ser corrupto con dineros públicos y otra muy distinta es formar un cartel narcotraficante con implicaciones criminales globales. Estos tipos son criminales con orden de captura internacional. No tienen inmunidad posible fuera de conservar el poder.

      • From 1974 to 1989, Chile went from 9th in Infant Mortality to 3rd in Latin America, behind Costa Rica and Cuba. From 1998 to 2014, Venezuela went from 6th to 7th in Infant Mortality in Latin America. Nor did the Pinochet regime have a copper bonanza that could compare to Venezuela’s oil bonanza. Better results with less money.

        That measure of effective governance would indicate to me that while the Pinochet regime undoubtedly had some corruption, a much higher proportion of government funds went to effective governance than to line the pockets of insiders under Pinochet, compared to Chavista Venezuela.

        If the Pinochet regime was “bien corrupta,” by comparison Chavismo has been BIEN BIEN BIEN BIEN BIEN CORRUPTA.

  4. I always read this blog, and never comment… But here I go.

    There isn’t going to be any transition in the near future… Essentially because chavismo, as much as we love the idea of seeing it powerless, they hold all the right cards at all times. They always, ALWAYS, play dumb or weak, but they’re neither and we all fall in the same trap, every time: The illusion of defeating a political beast that’s been trained and carefully crafted and proven effective by the cubans for over 40 year.

    Lost the AN? I’ve got my TSJ. Oh, is there an attemp to Revocar? Worry not, I’ve got my CNE… Let’s leave the kids have a go at feeling powerful.

    Yes, we should be grooming our transition guy, but there should be a transition in sight in the first place, which is unlikely with this MUD’s “every man for themselves”


    • Manu,

      Nothing lasts forever, especially corrupt dictatorships. The transition IS coming, and it is not because of the Opposition politicians. It is because the entire structure of the regime was designed to pilfer the public treasury with impunity. It survived because enough powerful people continued to benefit from it, and they even allowed many of the public to participate in the corruption via CADIVI. But, now the regime is broke. There is no more money to keep them in power. The regime will fall of its own accord, and that time is very soon.

      The point of the article is who can lead the transition. The Opposition must be ready, because in the event of a true power vacuum, the only other choice will be military government.

  5. T”his 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?”

    Is there anything left we can put on the table? Chavismo and the military have all the power, we are reduced to hoping that they’ll eventually share some of that power

  6. So, what’s the message here? That Venezuela needs to “achieve peace disregarding justice”? That the “transition man” should be a ruthless murderer such as MRT? Or that Venezuela has to continue living under the stupidest economic rules in this hemisphere that condemn its people to critical poverty forever?

    Yes, as some people stated, dictatorships don’t last forever, but you MUST understand this: For people it doesn’t matter “forever”, what it matters for them is that the dictatorship doesn’t last for ALMOST ALL OR ALL OF THEIR ENTIRE LIVES

    Or, the message here is, that Pinochet wasn’t that bad (except for the communists) because the policies from his regime were the ones that paved the road for Chile’s economic growth after he stepped down from power?

  7. Understand that within the whale they are convinced that some groups inside it are engaged in plots to tumble the current top boss , using military allies if needed………, we dont really know how this is going to end , but there is a chance that a regime change might ocurr from the inside , everyone is conscious that the situation is extremely difficult and some are banking on it to advance their own ambitions …..!!

  8. In my view, several of the “lessons” are:

    – If a “transition” is going to come, it will probably be with somebody closer to chavismo, ideologically. Not much chance of a jump from infrared to ultraviolet, settle for orange.
    – You will have to get used to seen the same assholes looking at you from important posts like they are the Fathers of the Country while you wish them to have a kidney stone.
    – Compromises to enable said fuckers to play the part will be necessary to avoid bloodshed.
    – Years later there is going to be a tension between the people that want to actually go for justice after said assholes have been losing power, and those that for many reasons, including being on the side of assholes, want the compromises that were made under the tacit threath of “is this or civil war” to be eternal. I’m on the first camp, of course; while politics is the art of the possible, it is also the art of moving what is possible to what you want, and is also the art of going back and undo whatever compromise you had with somebody now that you can.

    • It’s disgusting just to thik that capodado, maburro and company will get away with all they’ve done just because a handful of fools consider that’ll be guarantee of “avoiding bloodshed” (Just as Cladera excused himself for releasing Chávez the butcher and all his coupsters, because according to him the other chavista people in the FAN threatened with terrorist actions a la ISIS to have him released), as long as they’re stealing millions of dollars, the country will continue sinking like a rock in tar, and people will be howling for their blood.

  9. Whatever the political compromises made to ensure a transition (assuming it ever happens) the main problem is incompetence, We as a culture have always given much more preference to allegiance over competence. Therefore, the majority of people who have any expertise, abandon this country in a hurry. Would they come back if there was a credible attempt at getting out of the current mess? Maybe, Maybe not. The thing is that they have to able to contribute effectively in the long term. Our culture works against that. The big question though is: WILL the Opposition be able to favor competence over allegiance? So far: they haven’t proven to do so.

  10. I think the current Venezuelan politician that most closely resembles Aylwin is Eduardo Fernandez. Although I would prefer Capriles as the president during the transition. I think he would be able bridge some of the difference between them and us.

  11. A further point to make about the relationship between Aylwin and Pinochet is that three weeks before the coup, the Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution by a 81-47 vote, a strong 63% majority, which essentially gave legislative support to the coup. As leader of the Christian Democrats, Aylwin played a leading role in the crafting of this resolution. The resolution is sometimes called Declaration of the Breakdown of Chile’s Democracy.

    No discussion of Chile of the Allende-Pinochet years is complete without an awareness of this resolution.

    • They were trying to prevent communism. That’s why they had the moral ground to later lead the transition: much the opposite of what Caldera was. Their alliance was for civil society and against histeria. We tried the same kind of move with Estanga, and I think we were justified. It’s just hard for that kind of move to pan out.

      • Also, we don’t have the cold blood the Chileans had for military dictatorship, thank havens. We passed that fase in 53.

  12. Oh, look, chavismo has done another communist dictatorial thing, now the amendment that shortened the president’s term won’t apply to Maduro, what a surprise:

    Look, folks, you should not compare chavismo to Pinochet’s regime, you have to compare chavismo with ALLENDE’S COMMUNIST REGIME, which razed Chile to the ground and left it as a wasteland before Allende got betrayed and murdered by orders of the Castros.

  13. Am I the only one who can’t help read this and link it with Henri Falcon’s call to a “Gobierno de Unidad Nacional” ? If not him, surely I get the feeling the transition in Venezuela will be likelier with his brand of MUD politics, or as some would prefer to call it, los colaboracionistas.


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