Patricio Aylwin, who as president of Chile in 1990 led the country’s transition to democracy from the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, died on Tuesday at his home here. He was 97, The New York Times reports:
Mr. Aylwin, a law professor and leader of the centrist Christian Democratic Party for more than half a century, was the first elected civilian after Pinochet’s 17-year rule.
“Chile has lost a great democrat,” President Michelle Bachelet said, “a man who always knew how to place the unity of democrats above their differences, which helped him build a democratic country.” She declared three days of national mourning.
The deft political management of Aylwin, who initially seemed to favor the coup but later became a staunch opponent of Pinochet, focused on generating broad agreements between left- and right-wing parties to consolidate the then-fragile democracy in Chile, The Los Angeles Times adds.
“A teacher and statesman, President Aylwin helped peacefully restore democracy to Chile during his historic presidency, which followed 17 years of military rule and helped solidify Chile’s democratic institutions,” said a White House statement. “His life and leadership are hopeful reminders of the progress that can be made in a world where many societies are still struggling to transition to democracy.”
As president, arguably his greatest achievement was to set up the Rettig Commission, which investigated human rights abuses from the dictatorship era, the BBC notes:
The commission had to tread carefully – the military was still a powerful force. But under a mandate from Mr Aylwin, it drew up a comprehensive list of names of thousands of people who were kidnapped, tortured and killed during the Pinochet years.
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Aylwin co-founded an opposition bloc, the Democratic Alliance. Later, as president of the Christian Democratic Party, he was involved in negotiations with the military to reform the Constitution and set the terms of Chile’s transition to democracy, The Times adds: He was also a founder of a center-left coalition, the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which triumphed in the December 1989 elections and carried him to the presidency.
In 1988, Aylwin participated in a campaign asking Chileans to cast a “No” vote in a referendum to allow Pinochet to rule for eight more years, Bloomberg adds. The victory of the ‘No’ campaign triggered Chile’s first democratic presidential election since 1970.
With the help of international cooperation, the opposition camp succeeded in building a parallel tallying system for the plebiscite, according to one account:
The accession of Patricio Aylwin to the Presidency in 1990, signaled an end to one of the most relevant and unifying phases of international cooperation in Chile. Unlike in any other time period, a single common objective succeeded in uniting a variety of public and private organizations that, through their programs of technical, financial, and political assistance, argued for the removal of the ruling military regime and a return to democracy.
North American funding of the opposition groups…..allowed a counterbalance to the regime’s control of funding resources and means. This is apparent by the U.S. Congress’ approval of a budget directly aimed at the promotion of democracy in Chile through the National Endowment for Democracy, a fact that indicated the United States’ interest in pressuring the regime toward liberalization and respect for human rights.
Most notable among the international groups providing assistance to Chilean democrats were the National Endowment for Democracy and the German stiftung, a Stanford University study notes:
One of the most active of the organizations [who were receiving funds from the NED] was the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which established itself in Chile in May 1985 and sponsored conferences, seminars, and visits by external consultants to promote free elections. The NDI also had an active role in the 1988 plebiscite, sending to Chile a group of observers, among whom were Kenneth Wollack, Lewis Manilow, Larry Garber, and others.
Leaders of the National Command for the No, acknowledging the sensitivity of the question of foreign intervention, said the policy [of assistance from non-governmental groups] was probably as far as the United States could go without stirring up a backlash that would help General Pinochet, The New York Times reported at the time:
The grants to opposition groups announced in late May are part of the $1 million grant that Congress authorized the National Endowment for Democracy to distribute to Chilean organizations this year.
”Outright support by the United States for a yes or no vote would be counterproductive,” said Patricio Aylwin, president of the Christian Democratic Party.
Some accused Aylwin of favoring stability over deeper political reforms, The Guardian adds:
He was criticized for not taking a strong enough stand against the human rights abuses committed under his predecessor, General Augusto Pinochet, who had ousted the socialist president Salvador Allende in a military coup on 11 September 1973. Aylwin, a lawyer by profession, defended his record, saying he did the best he could during a difficult time.
“Criticism of the transition makes pretty soundbites, but demonstrates ignorance of what really happened,” Aylwin said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2012.