Former President of Chile Discusses Human Rights, Democracy at First Cleary Lecture
Ricardo Lagos, the former president of Chile, says it’s easy to take human rights for granted.
“Human rights is something like the air,” he said. “Only when the air is polluted, only when the air is unclean that you realize what you have lost.”
Lagos, a professor-at-large at Brown University, was the speaker for Providence College’s inaugural Father Edward Cleary, O.P. Memorial Lecture, coordinated by the Department of Political Science and Latin American Studies.
Father Cleary, who died in 2011, was a professor emeritus of political science who served as director of the College’s Latin American Studies Program for 12 years. During his career, he was the author or co-author of 14 books, including The Rise of Catholic Charismatics in Latin America (University Press of Florida, 2011). In honor of his research, annual lectures will focus on the themes of Father Cleary’s scholarly work, including human rights and religion in politics and society.
At the beginning of the talk, Ethan Gentes ’13 (Durham, N.H.) offered a tribute to Father Cleary, who was his academic and personal mentor.
Father Cleary “taught me priceless lessons about politics, religion, and culture,” he said.
They first met when Gentes was applying to study at the College. The professor started an email conversation with the student and even sent him hard copies of books about Latin American politics. When Gentes arrived at PC, Father Cleary invited him to sit in on senior seminars.
“Coming to PC was one of the best decisions of my life, in part because there are incredible resources for students who want to study Latin America,” Gentes said.
Lagos presented his talk, “Human Rights, Transitional Justice, and Democratization in Chile,” in Slavin Center ’64 Hall. He was elected president in 2000 after opposing the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and served until 2006.
As president, Lagos created a commission to investigate the killings, torture, and human rights violations during the Pinochet regime. He brought a copy of the commission’s Valech Report for the College. It helped lead to a more meaningful process of transitional justice and accountability, according to Father Cleary’s book, Mobilizing Human Rights in Latin America (Kumarian Press, 2007).
Some people used to say the only way to defeat a military dictatorship was to use military means, Lagos said. However, “if you go through military means, what are you going to have afterward? Another military rule,” he said.
“If you’re going to be talking about the transitional experience, the transition has a lot to do with the road you follow in order to defeat the dictator,” Lagos said.
Turning the tables
The former president explained that according to the constitution that Pinochet instituted, a plebiscite was going to take place after eight years of the dictator’s rule. “He had the power to impose and observe the constitution,” Lagos said. The opposition decided then “let us use the constitution to defeat him.”
“I used to say, ‘We defeat Pinochet with a pencil and a pen,’” Lagos said. But that’s not entirely correct — the results of the plebiscite represented a huge social movement in which the Catholic Church and other religious institutions played important roles, he said.
The role of the presidential commission was a “very peculiar thing” to explain to the Chilean people.
“When they appointed the commission, I said that there is no tomorrow without yesterday,” Lagos said. “We cannot assume that nothing happened since all of us know what happened.”
In the 20 years since Pinochet’s rule, the percent of people living under the poverty level has decreased from 40 percent to 11 to 13 percent, and per-capita income has tripled to $15,000, Lagos said. Seven out of 10 college and university students are the first in their families to reach that level of education.
He described it as “tremendous success” but added that the emerging middle class now demands more goods and services.
“In short, I would say that democracy and the process of democratization never ends,” he said.
— Liz F. Kay
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