Patricio Aylwin, Chile’s president from 1990 to 1994, passed away on April 19th at the age of 97. Aylwin will be remembered as a symbol of the country’s transition to democracy. Yet his story was marked by profound contrasts, from his role in Chile’s democratic breakdown to his leadership in the transition from authoritarian rule back to civilian rule.
Today’s political leaders, in Chile as well as the rest of Latin America, would do well to learn a few lessons from his political career.
As president of the opposition Christian Democrats party in Chile, Aylwin opposed President Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government of 1970-1973. He even initially supported the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet that put a violent end to Allende’s “Chilean path to socialism.” However, Aylwin reassessed his stance once it became clear that the military junta led by Pinochet had no plans to return power to a civilian-led government, and that the human rights violations being committed were both widespread and systematic. Having come to this realization, though he had contributed to the breakdown of democracy in Chile, Alywin promptly began to work for its restoration.
Aylwin became one of the most prominent leaders opposed to Pinochet’s dictatorship. After Eduardo Frei Montalva’s death in 1982 (now known to have been staged by Pinochet’s secret police), Aylwin once again became the leader of the Christian Democrats. It was from that position that he led efforts to overcome the dictatorship. Aylwin was among the signatories of the National Agreement, a failed 1985 cross-party attempt at achieving a democratic transition. Then, in 1988, Aylwin and the Christian Democrats joined the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, an alliance of political parties that aimed to oust General Pinochet from office in a plebiscite held that year. The coalition was ultimately successful, defeating Pinochet in the ballots with 56 percent of the national vote.
Ultimately, in 1989, Aylwin was elected President of Chile, bringing an end to the General Pinochet’s dictatorial rule and returning Chile to civilian-led democracy. He achieved victory in that election with 55 percent of the vote—defeating his closest rival, Hernán Büchi (Pinochet’s former Minister of Finance) by a margin of 26 percentage points. On the day of his presidential inauguration, Aylwin told the crowd that gathered at Chile’s National Stadium (used as a concentration camp in 1973 by Pinochet), that “civilian or military: Chile is one!”
Once in office, Aylwin faced the difficult task of guiding the country through a fragile democratic transition. His government ruled over a polarized country, filled with institutional and non-institutional hurdles created by the out-going military junta as part of the transition. General Pinochet and the military did not make it easy for the new administration. Before returning to their barracks, they oversaw the creation of high legislative quorums, an electoral system that overrepresented their political sector, and designated senators—all protected by the (still in effect) 1980 Constitution, aimed at blocking reform in Congress. Moreover, Pinochet remained as commander-in-chief of the Army until 1998, and would later serve as senator for life (until he retired in 2002).
Pinochet did not shy away from threatening to demonstrate his power over President Aylwin. In 1993, he ordered elite military commandos to surround key government buildings after a newspaper published an article that linked one of his sons to a corruption scandal. Aylwin quickly reassured the country that “democracy in Chile is not under danger.” Yet, he knew the disgruntled military were attentive to his every move and were waiting for an excuse to step in. Hence, Aylwin’s famous phrase of attaining “truth and justice insofar as possible.”
Despite numerous obstacles, Aylwin succeeded in leading the country through its first post-authoritarian government. In 1991, he received the National Truth and Reconciliation Report (commonly referred to as the Rettig Report); the first of two extensive documents that registered the systematic violation of human rights during Chile’s 17-year dictatorship. Through a televised broadcast, President Aylwin, bordering on tears, asked the family members of victims for forgiveness—a gesture of reconciliation that, to this day, has not been undertaken by Chile’s armed forces, police or Supreme Court.
Aylwin retired from front-line politics after his term in office ended. Though many criticized his government because it played by the rules imposed by the outgoing military junta, others praised his ability to successfully lead the country’s transition to democracy. Public opinion polls allow us to see what Chileans thought of his presidency: Aylwin’s approval ratings never fell below 49 percent, averaging 53 percent during his administration.
Aylwin’s political talents seem to be lacking in today’s Latin America’s political class. As a politician, Aylwin knew how to recognize his mistakes and was neither too afraid nor too proud to ask for forgiveness. He sought widespread agreements and enabled consensus in policy-making. He did not enrich himself by pursuing elected office. Finally, he was a politician that did not fall into cheap populism, recognizing when to retire from office. Today’s politicians, in Chile and the rest of Latin America (even the United States’ polarized Congress), would do well to familiarize themselves with Aylwin’s story. They could learn a lesson or two from him.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. student in politics at the New School for Social Research in New York. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.