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Los Angeles Times Interview

Lagos

Chile's President Looks to Expand His Country's Economic Profile

November 26, 2000|SERGIO MUNOZ | Sergio Munoz is a Times editorial writer

SANTIAGO, CHILE — Ricardo Lagos' election to the presidency of Chile earlier this year set a new landmark in the country's long transition from dictatorship to democracy. He is the first Chilean Socialist president since Salvador Allende, who was elected in 1970 and overthrown in a 1973 coup staged by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Throughout his political career, Lagos has been a Western European-style social democrat. He is praised as a man always willing to walk the extra mile to reach consensus. During his presidential campaign, however, his political moderation cost him the support of the communists.

Lagos rose to national prominence in 1988, when he led a campaign to defeat a referendum to keep Pinochet in power. During a memorable television appearance, Lagos pointed his finger at the camera and, as if talking directly to the dictator, he told Pinochet that the country had had enough of his repression, torture and executions. Later that night, according to reliable sources, Pinochet was "climbing the wall" after watching the broadcast.

Lagos' act of defiance earned him the leadership of the Socialists, and in 1990, a coalition of the Socialist Party of Chile and the Christian Democratic Party won the presidency. Lagos served first as minister of education and then as public-works minister in two successive administrations. He holds a doctorate degree in economics from Duke University and a law degree from the University of Chile.

Though he has been in office less than a year, Lagos has led his country out of its first recession in almost 20 years. Chile's gross domestic product is expected to grow by as much as 6% in 2001. Unemployment, however, continues to run at close to 9%.

A confirmed free-trader, Lagos is pushing for more free-trade zones in the Western Hemisphere, starting with strengthening Chile's trade relations with Mercosur, the trade bloc that includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. After that, Lagos wants to revive President Bill Clinton's idea, first broached in late 1994 at the Summit of the Americas in Miami, of a hemispheric free-trade zone that would include Chile, Mercosur and members of the North American Free Trade Agreement--Mexico, Canada and the United States. Because of its strong free-market economy and political stability, Chile is seen in the United States as the model for Latin American countries to emulate.

Lagos will be visiting California Nov. 28-29 to reaffirm his conviction that of all the countries in South America, Chile is the one most capable of creating its own Silicon Valley. To support his optimism, he cites Chile's high levels of education and high-tech communications infrastructure. Internet use in Chile, as a percentage of the population, is the highest in South America.

Lagos, 62, is an agnostic in a Catholic country. He divorced his first wife, with whom he had two children, even though divorce is illegal in Chile. Since 1971, he's been married to Luisa Duran de la Fuente. They have one daughter. He loves classical music and gardening.

He was interviewed at the presidential palace, La Moneda.

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Question: How would you characterize the U.S.-Chile relationship?

Answer: It is now going through one of its best moments. In the political realm, we share the same values. We both believe in representative democracy as the best form of government and we both place a lot of emphasis on the respect for human rights. Regarding economics, we both support free trade. We await the arrival of the new administration in the U.S. to renew talks about Chile's participation in NAFTA.

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Q: Does Chile really want a free-trade agreement with the U.S.?

A: Yes. Chile has a very open economy. More than 50% of our products are imports. Very few countries have this level of openness. Our trade is very well-balanced. About one-third of it is with Europe, 25% to 20% with the U.S. and a similar percentage with Asia.

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Q: But your main trading partner is the Mercosur trade bloc, isn't it?

A: With Mercosur, we have a political agreement more than an economic alliance. You do your foreign policy from your own region.

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Q: Do you think the influence of the United States over Latin American countries has diminished since the end of the Cold War?

A: Most evidently. One of the effects of the Cold War was that the whole world understood Latin America was under the U.S. sphere of influence. I realize what I am going to tell you sounds a bit paradoxical, but the end of the Cold War brings a higher degree of independence to Latin America . . . as long as the United States continues to be the undisputed economic, political and military power.

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Q: Can you negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.S. if the U.S. president lacks fast-track authority?

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