Former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos’ political career has spanned some of his country’s most dramatic decades. He had close ties to the administration of President Salvador Allende, which was overthrown in a military coup. He was one of the first to openly oppose the dictator behind the coup, Augusto Pinochet. And as president (2000-2006) Lagos negotiated a U.S.-Chilean free trade agreement and pushed for restraint in the run up to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. We speak with him about the challenge of restoring democracy to Chile, leadership in an increasingly global society, and his political and personal ties to the U.S.


  • Ricardo Lagos President, Chile (2000-2006); and author, The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future (Palgrave MacMillian)


  • 13:26:50

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Mothers the world over dreamed their child will grow up to become president, but not Ricardo Lagos' mother. The president of the university, sure but the president of Chile, no. She thought that job and the pursuit of it was much too dangerous for her son. She was right about the dangers, mothers often are. And as sons often do, he ended up doing it anyway, becoming the third president in the era following the downfall of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Ricardo Lagos joins us now in studio. He was president of Chile from 2000-2006.

  • 13:27:28

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's currently President of the Foundation for Democracy and Development. He's also a professor at large at Brown University. His new book, written with Blake Hounshell and Elizabeth Dickinson is called "The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future." President Ricardo Lagos, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:27:48

    MR. RICARDO LAGOSThank you for your invitation.

  • 13:27:50

    NNAMDII'd like to start with your experience in North Carolina in 1961. You went to graduate school there and when you first arrived, you were startled by what you saw when you boarded a bus to the campus of Duke University. Tell us what surprised you?

  • 13:28:08

    LAGOSWell, first of all, you know, coming from Chile, we don’t have many Afro-American in Chile. It's very unusual to see one of those. Today's day, is little bit more cosmopolitan and you see those things, like an Afro-American. Number two, I landed in (word?) airport, I went to the restroom and I discovered colored men, white men. And then was the question of a crisis, what I am?

  • 13:28:39

    NNAMDIWhere am I going?

  • 13:28:39

    LAGOSI'm rather dark, as you can see. But probably don't qualify for the Afro-American color, so I decided to go to the Hawaii. And then we went in those typical all southern houses that are converted to many apartments and an old lady was there. And then he told me, tomorrow you can pick up the bus here, go to the university, but don’t forget, white people in the front of the bus and the others in the backseat. I couldn't believe that, you know. And I couldn’t believe that that was the United States.

  • 13:29:20

    NNAMDIYou had seen poverty before in Chile.

  • 13:29:23

    LAGOSOf course.

  • 13:29:23

    NNAMDIWhat you had not seen was the kind of stark racial division and segregation that you encountered in North Carolina.

  • 13:29:31

    LAGOSNo, because was a formal, institutionalized, you know.

  • 13:29:35


  • 13:29:36

    LAGOSTherefore, it was so unusual for me then to go to a cine and in the cine, in there, well, there was a picket line, you have to boycott coming to the cine because colored, et cetera, et cetera.

  • 13:29:53

    NNAMDIThis is a theater that you're talking about?

  • 13:29:54

    LAGOSA theater, yes.

  • 13:29:55

    NNAMDIGoing to the movies.

  • 13:29:55

    LAGOSCarolina in theater, yeah, going to a movie, yeah.

  • 13:29:59

    NNAMDIAfter getting a doctorate in economics, you returned to Chile and got a teaching job...

  • 13:30:04


  • 13:30:04

    NNAMDIFulfilling your early career aspirations. When and why did you decide to set aside your career in academics to pursue politics instead?

  • 13:30:17

    LAGOSWell, after the coup d'état, I went to live abroad. I returned to North Carolina but now to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Difficult period of time because you have to make a decision. You are in favor of the Blue Devils or...

  • 13:30:35


  • 13:30:35

    LAGOSYou see what I mean? In the basketball game.

  • 13:30:37


  • 13:30:38

    LAGOSAnyhow. And after that I worked for the United Nations, I returned to Chile. And in 1993, after five years living in Chile, there was a small opening and the socialist party, which is I belong, asked me to go to represent them in a defense coalition of Mukti parties against Pinochet. And I found in the awkward decision to say, look, I cannot do with that because I have a job.

  • 13:31:09

    LAGOSSo I decided that I meet with my wife, my children and I told them, look, I'm going to resign from my job because I think that not many people can say no if you are going to fight against Pinochet. But let me tell you, at that time, I still was thinking that I was only an academic trying to perform some transitory jobs, you know.

  • 13:31:34

    NNAMDII find it interesting when I read this book "The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future," that when you talk to your wife and when you talk to your children, your children don't call you Papa, they don't call you Dad, they call you Lagos.

  • 13:31:51


  • 13:31:51

    NNAMDIHow come?

  • 13:31:52

    LAGOSWell, I have no idea. But not my girls. My two girls call me Papa. Let's be clear. But the males, they say Lagos, Lagos here, Lagos there. You know, it's...

  • 13:32:04

    NNAMDIIt's what everybody else says.

  • 13:32:05

    LAGOSYeah, yeah, that's right.

  • 13:32:06

    NNAMDIThat's why they go along. You joined, as you pointed out, the socialist party. And in this country, socialist is a hot button word.

  • 13:32:14

    LAGOSYeah, I know.

  • 13:32:16

    NNAMDITell us why you identify with that party and do you think that the word socialist tends to be misunderstood in our culture?

  • 13:32:24

    LAGOSYeah. Yeah, I think so. Because you see, in Europe, socialist is somebody that is very much like liberal, like what you may call here a liberal. But at the very end, the socialist would like to make possible to combine freedom with equality. And I know, 100 percent equality's important. It's impossible but in a democratic system, can you improve the equality? Can that be a decision of the citizens to live in equality, in what sense? In equal opportunities for everybody. But if you want to have equality opportunities for everybody, probably you will have to discriminate and to give a little bit more to those that have less resources or are poor.

  • 13:33:19

    LAGOSI like to say this. Now, I have grandchildren, when grandchildren come to my house, say, hello and they go to play with the computer. I wonder, in Chile, how many kids, when they go to see their grandfather, go to play with their computer? I posed that question once to a lot of ladies that work in a textile factory and they say, this guy doesn't know anything. Normally when my children go to play at their grandfather's house, they have no computer there.

  • 13:33:55

    NNAMDIAnd that is the balance that you wanted to strike, the balance that the most difficult thing to strike in a democratic environment. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Ricardo Lagos. He was the President of Chile from 2000-2006. He's currently President of the Foundation for Democracy and Development. He's also a professor at large at Brown University. His new book is called "The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for Democratic and Prosperous Future." I'd like to trace that freight, first both in political terms and then in economic terms. The political, you were one of the first Chileans to publicly, on television, denounce General Augusto Pinochet.

  • 13:34:34

    NNAMDIFifteen years after he took control of the Chilean government, he did that as a result of a violent coup in 1973. He had a record that was well known, even here in Washington, D.C. where an assassin nation was carried out in the vicinity of Dupont Circle, of one of his opponents. Given that record of his regime and your prior run-ins with the regime, you'd been arrested, also yourself confronting him on television, calling him out, as they would say in today's language...

  • 13:35:03


  • 13:35:03

    NNAMDI...calling him out on television seems rather brave. But you didn't see it that way, did you?

  • 13:35:11

    LAGOSWell, let me put this way. I told to the people in Chile that we have to register a party in order to be able to be there and count the votes in the plebiscite. And therefore, to ask them to do that, they say, but, sir, this is very dangerous to sign for your party because you're on the opposition team (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:35:33

    NNAMDIBecause this was a plebiscite deciding whether or not the leader of the ruling party, Augusto Pinochet, should be in power for another eight years or...

  • 13:35:41

    LAGOSThat's right.

  • 13:35:42


  • 13:35:43

    LAGOSAnd then, I say, look this is not possible. But if you sign, if you dare to sign, then we are going to be on TV because some kind of discussion are going to be around the plebiscite. And this is exactly what happened. About a month after being a legal party, which is very unusual to talk about the legal party under the dictatorship, but this is according to Chile's tradition. So we prepare very well in order to be fit for what was going to be on TV. And therefore, I have to show them that because they dare to sign for the party, it was worth because somebody was telling the truth to their dictator.

  • 13:36:31

    NNAMDIExcept that when you appeared on that television program, as happens in broadcasting a lot of time, they were running out of time, your period was cut short.

  • 13:36:42


  • 13:36:42

    NNAMDIYou had already planned to stare directly into the camera and speak to the President and the journalist who was conducting that interview attempted to interrupt you while you were doing it and you said "No, no. I'm speaking for 15 years of silence." How did you feel when you were doing that?

  • 13:37:05

    LAGOSWell, the (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:37:05

    NNAMDIWere you afraid at all?

  • 13:37:05

    LAGOS...what I had to do. Now, I guess in the book I tell a bit that the first time that I spoke public in Chile was to about 20,000 people in the second largest city of Chile. And I say, at that time, because it was '83, I'm speaking for 10 years of silence. And I remembered that sentence and I say it, now, excuse me, I'm speaking for 15 years of silence, on TV, of course.

  • 13:37:35


  • 13:37:35


  • 13:37:36

    NNAMDIWith Pinochet watching.

  • 13:37:37

    LAGOSAnd Pinochet watching. And I knew that. But I discovered that to address to the dictator and this is something that I explained in the book, I discover just by chance and was very moving for those that listened to that. Now, I have no particular idea to what -- to say that way on TV. But radio and TV are such an important media to convey the message because in the case of the radio, you are listening like the one that are listening to us and to you. And you can discuss issues in a much deeper way then on TV. And you can discuss many issues in such a way that probably you can discover if the guy that is talking is honest or not very honest. You say (unintelligible) .

  • 13:38:32

    NNAMDIAnd the people who saw you in that interview, people who you thought might be afraid after they saw you and might stay indoors after they saw you. You walked out of that television studio...

  • 13:38:44


  • 13:38:45

    NNAMDI...and you were surprised because there were already people in the street waiting to greet you. What did that tell you about what would likely happen in the plebiscite?

  • 13:38:56

    LAGOSWell, you know, first of all, that was about at 11:00 o'clock at night. It was rather unusual to have that many people there. But second, I thought that this was no more whenever you go to TV. I told you, you have people saying, bravo, bravo. You did it very well, you know.

  • 13:39:12

    NNAMDINo, that's not true.

  • 13:39:12

    LAGOSNever again happen, of course, to me. I have been many...

  • 13:39:14

    NNAMDIIt never happened to me.

  • 13:39:15 many occasions on TV and of course, there was only one. And then, two days later, I discovered how important it was because there was a label union demonstration and everybody was very happy to see me around that. So you'll discover that that kind of media is so important, you know. And that people probably...

  • 13:39:38


  • 13:39:39

    LAGOS...lost fear.

  • 13:39:40 had another experience where you were arrested after a failed assassination attempt on Augusto Pinochet, though you were not involved in the plot. It did not impress you at first when the men who came for you in the middle of the night said that they were professionals. But you later learned that that distinction and a stroke of luck probably saved your life. How come?

  • 13:40:06

    LAGOSWell, because those that arrived to my house, I was living in a condominium, and the door in my house was open in that condominium normally, so that the guys from the police arrived to my house and they went straight to my bedroom, and when I turned the lights, I discovered -- I was with my wife in the bed at about 2:00, 1:30 o'clock in the morning, and I discovered that you have, I'd say, six people around with their...

  • 13:40:36


  • 13:40:37

    LAGOS...weapons addressing to my -- all the weapons...

  • 13:40:40

    NNAMDIPointing to you?

  • 13:40:41

    LAGOS...pointed to me and my wife. And then you make those stupid questions, what are you doing here? It was so obvious what they were doing there, you know?

  • 13:40:51


  • 13:40:51

    LAGOSAnd then when they say, Mr. Lagos, would you please put your clothes and follow us, and I say, I want to see the order to do that, and they say, Mr. Lagos, please, you have to obey it. Then I say, excuse me, first I call my lawyer, and I called a friend of mine, and what can he do? Nothing. Anyhow, and when we arrive to the car where they were waiting for us, they say, you see we are professionals, because the cars say police. And I say, well, but you know that the secret police also can have access to those cars.

  • 13:41:28

    LAGOSFinally, we arrive to the headquarters of the police that I knew that was the headquarters, and they again say about that we are professionals. Later on I discovered -- I discover, because the following day that published who people has been arrested, and all those arrested were with me in the same cell, with the exception of one that was not there and was a journalist, well-known journalist, opposing Pinochet, and that journalist appeared dead the same day about 12 o'clock, at noon.

  • 13:42:04

    LAGOSAnd then I discovered when they meet because what happened that those that came to see me were professional in the sense that they belong to the Policia. They're investigaciones. They're official police cops. And when they arrived to my house, they asked to my son and say, has came before anybody here, and he thought that if I was being arrested before, I could say no. Later on, he discovered that they wanted to know if they were the first.

  • 13:42:38

    LAGOSIt was lucky, but also probably because when I used to be a professor of the university, one of the officers that that night was on duty at the Policia say, why don't you go to pick up Mr. Lagos first?

  • 13:42:54

    NNAMDIAnd that officer was a student of yours.

  • 13:42:57


  • 13:42:57

    NNAMDIAnd had it not been those professionals, and had it been the CNI...

  • 13:43:02

    LAGOSWe are not going to be talking today.

  • 13:43:04 wouldn't be sitting in front of me talking today at all. We have to take a short break, and when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Ricardo Lagos. He was president of Chile from 2000 to 2006. If you'd like to speak with him, call us at 800-433-8850. If you've lived in or traveled to Chile, we'd like to hear from you. Don't know much about Chile, what questions do you have or any questions for President Lagos? What's your view of post-Pinochet Chile's economic progress? 800-433-8850. You can send email to, send us a tweet @kojoshow, or simply go to our website and joint the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:44

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ricardo Lagos. He was president of Chile from 2000 to 2006. He's currently president of the Foundation for Democracy and Development, and a professor at large at Brown University. We're talking to him about his new book, it's called, "The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future." To say that U.S. relations with Chile have been complex over the past four decades may be, well, an understatement. How did Americans' support for the Pinochet regime affect what came after?

  • 13:46:16

    LAGOSWell, affect in a sense that the -- well, you could understand because that was the time of the Cold War, and therefore, you were against me or in favor of me, et cetera, and Pinochet presented as a fighting Marxism and Communism and all those things. But on the other hand, you know, affected us because the human rights were being violated in Chile.

  • 13:46:45

    LAGOSAnd this is why I explain in the book that in the middle of the '80s, well, there was a change in the U.S. policy. Even though it was President Reagan in power, George Shultz was, at the time, to Secretary of State, and they decided that probably the future was better bet on the area of people fighting for democracy, rather than those in favor of Pinochet.

  • 13:47:10

    LAGOSIn fact, you know, when I was taken to prison, the first visit that I received Monday, the following day, early in the morning, was somebody from the American embassy.

  • 13:47:22

    NNAMDISo by that time the American embassy seemed to be -- the U.S. government seemed to be tilting in favor of democracy. But here's how complicated it can be. While you were president, Chile withheld support for the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. You had then one of the swing votes on the U.N. Security Council and you had also a pending free-trade agreement with the U.S. at the same time. Why did you oppose the invasion, and did you worry at all that your opposition to the invasion would endanger the trade agreement?

  • 13:47:58

    LAGOSWell, with regard to the last question, I would say I always thought trade is trade, and not political alliances, and therefore, I thought it was important for Chile, but also from the point of view of United States. Not because we had a large country and we have a big trade with United States from the point of view of United States. From our point of view, we have trade with the U.S. That is about 18 percent of our trade, it was the United States.

  • 13:48:24

    LAGOSNevertheless, I thought that was the case of Iraq invasion, we -- you are right. And because we have such an important vote at the Security Council, we thought it was possible to give at least one additional month to Mr. Blix, the inspector of United Nations to make sure that you have or you have not the weapons of mass destruction, because that was the reason for going to war. And I say in the final call from President Bush, I knew that it was final, I say, Mr. President -- well, at that time, we say, George and Ricardo.

  • 13:49:03


  • 13:49:04

    LAGOSAnd George called me said, Ricardo, I want you to know what are you going at the Security Council, and I say, George, I think that it's necessary one additional month, and he told me that's impossible. I have 200,000 troops in the frontier and we have to have operations following Monday, and I say, but George, don't you think it's worthwhile to wait for one and he say, no. And then he said at that moment, Ricardo, if you say no, I would not take the issue to the Security Council. I will have a coalition of the willing and then I would like to have you on my side in this coalition of the willing.

  • 13:49:45

    LAGOSAnd then I have to say, George that's impossible for us. We are in a small country. When you're a small country, you want to have rule of law at the international arena, and that rule of law are the United Nations institutions. If you want me to go to war without the agreement of the U.N., I'm undermining those institutions. Therefore, because we are a small country, we need the rule of law, and at that time I was not Ricardo anymore, because President Bush said immediately, Mr. President -- I discovered at that time...

  • 13:50:22

    LAGOSYou're formal now.

  • 13:50:22

    LAGOS….at that time, I was Mr. President. Mr. President, I would like to thank you because you are extremely open and frank. And I say then, but Mr. President, precisely because we are friends, I think that friends have to be open and frank and honest, and I give you the best what I can and that's my answer.

  • 13:50:44

    NNAMDIThat was in March 2003, and the U.S. Chilean Trade Agreement went through in June of the same year. I do want to get to the telephones, because we do have a couple of calls, because we do have a couple of calls, but I have to go to the economy first, because free market economic theories taught at the University of Chicago back in the 1950s and '60s, played a big role in shaping Chile's current economy.

  • 13:51:06

    NNAMDISome say the theories are responsible for Chile's current economic strength, others criticize them for the big hit Chile took during the Latin debt crisis in the late 1980s. Who are these so-called Chicago boys, and what do you see as their legacy?

  • 13:51:22

    LAGOSWell, I think that the Chicago boys made a tremendous mistake when they think that the market will solve everything, because there are many areas in the economics of the country that are too important to leave to the market. Are you going to leave to the market the health of a citizen so that the citizen has no money to pay for the health insurance has no health at all?

  • 13:51:49

    NNAMDIYou wouldn't leave that to the market.

  • 13:51:51

    LAGOSI wouldn't. I wouldn't leave to the market education, I wouldn't leave -- I mean, there are many things. You can define democracy as a system by which the citizens. I know the market listen very well what the consumer have to say. The only difference is that as a consumer the size of the pockets that we have is different. As citizens all of us are equal. So I say there are many areas that citizens will have to make a definition what kind of society they would like to live in, and if citizen says everybody had to have equal opportunity to go to college, then that's very important.

  • 13:52:33

    LAGOSIf I'm proud of something, it's that in today's Chile ten -- of ten students at the college or the university, seven is first generation in their families.

  • 13:52:46

    NNAMDIWell, speaking of college students in Chile, I will ask you now to put on the headphones because I'm going to go to the telephone where our first caller, Randy in Columbia, Md., has a question about I guess students in Chile. Randy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:03

    RANDYHello, Kojo, and thank you for your show. As always, an excellent program, and Mr. President, it's very wonderful to hear you speaking to us in our country as we're going through elections about the importance of democracy. I have been in Chile several times, and visited folks from Santiago (unintelligible) beautiful country with beautiful people.

  • 13:53:26

    LAGOSThank you.

  • 13:53:27

    RANDYAnd given the numbers of young students, college students, who became --there's about a few of us in Chile during the Pinochet era, I just wonder what you had to say about their impact during his time and also especially now with all of the student protests asking for greater democracy in the Constitution, what are your thoughts on their requests.

  • 13:53:52

    NNAMDIA student movement underway in Chile.

  • 13:53:53

    LAGOSYeah. What I think -- I would like to say two things first. All those students are the sons and daughters of a democratic country, and I like so much when they have a (unintelligible) to say they are afraid of us because we are not afraid of anybody, and this is the new movement, you know. Number two, because I say that seven out of ten is first generation, the problem is that tuition are so expensive and, therefore, even though you are an (word?) with the class, in Chile we used to have 40 percent of population 20 years ago living under the poverty line.

  • 13:54:38

    LAGOSThat has been reduced to 13 percent, 1-3. But those 27 percent that leave poverty behind, now are some emerging with the class. Now, if you have an income in Chile of -- a per capita income of 15,000, well, if you have per month let's say $2,000, it's quite an amount of money in Chile $2,000 per month. Well, if you have to pay tuition, 2 or 3 or 400 per month, then it's very expensive.

  • 13:55:09

    LAGOSSo what they demand today is, if it is possible to make an effort from the point of world public finances and public finances will be able to help, and I think that now we are in a position to do that, and that is why I'm rather sympathetic to what the students are asking for.

  • 13:55:26

    NNAMDIRandy, thank you very much for your call. Don your headphones again, please, because we now go to John in Washington, D.C. John, your turn.

  • 13:55:35

    JOHNHi. I'm really glad that President Lagos is here. We met a couple times. My name is John Dingus (sp?). Chile is really my second country. I've been involved with it ever since I was a correspondent down there during the period of the Allende government, and then for five years of the Pinochet dictatorship, and I wanted to make the comment that Chile is often seen as a showcase.

  • 13:56:00

    JOHNI mean, that was true in the '60s, a showcase for the Alliance for Progress for Progressive Reform, and now it's seen as a showcase for economic development and for democracy, but I wanted perhaps, President Lagos, if you would comment on that period when things were really tough in the democracy right after Pinochet gave up power in 1990. It was a peaceful transition, but Pinochet remained as head of the armed forces, so you had this unique situation of an elected government, but the dictator was still the head of the armed forces, and the armed forces didn't recognize the authority of the civilian government. And perhaps you could address that question in the context of the emerging revolutions in the Middle East.

  • 13:56:47

    NNAMDIPresident Lagos?

  • 13:56:48

    LAGOSWell, first of all, I would like to thank John Dingus for what he have done. Here from the point of view Chileans he was able to expose what means Pinochet's dictatorship and thanks a lot for that. And number two, I would like to say to John that it's true that we have to make a decision with Pinochet still as commander-in-chief. Where my Spanish friends used to tell me, why don't you learn from us? I say, excuse me, but you wait for (word?) to die to make the transition, and we have to make our transition with Pinochet alive and as a commander-in-chief, because this is both the contradiction and we have no forces strong enough to defeat that. But after saying that, let me tell you that, when I became...

  • 13:57:37

    NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds left. This reminds me of 1988, but go ahead, please.

  • 13:57:41

    LAGOSYes. No. No. No. No. What I'm trying to say is this. That with regard to the Arab Spring, the essential thing is this, the how and when are you going to use force because military has the monopoly of force, is making a decision by the civilians that are elected officials and, therefore, what I would say is, it's going to be difficult, but the military friends in Egypt has to learn that the how and when is something to be decided by those that are elected, and today they have elections in Egypt.

  • 13:58:16

    NNAMDIAs they did in Chile. Ricardo Lagos was president of Chile from 2000 to 2006. His new book is called, "The Southern Tiger: Chile's Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future." Thank you for joining us. Good luck to you, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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