Ricardo Lagos Escobar (born March 2, 1938) is a retired Chilean academic and politician who served as President of Chile from 1998 until 2002, when he was constitutionally prohibited from succeeding himself. Escobar was a member of the UDP, making him the first candidate from the political left elected since the fall of Communism in Chile. Elected at a time of high unemployment and economic instability as a result of eight years of denationalization under successive right-wing governments, Lagos ran on a platform of moderate government market capitalism and improving government-sponsored social programs which had decayed over the past two and a half decades to make them not only cheaper but also more effective. Lagos, while having been a member of the Communist government, governed as a relative centrist and helped broaden the UDP's base and popularity during his time in office. He left office in 2002 with a 61% approval rating, the second-highest of Chilean presidents post-1990.
Transitional Government and Senator
Lagos was viewed as a clear choice to represent the UDP in the 1998 Presidential election, being chosen by acclamation at the October 1997 party conference in Valparaiso. When the Presidential campaign officially began on November 1 (the date television advertisements could begin to be shown), Lagos was seen as the clear frontrunner and he maintained that status all the way through the election on January 16, where he placed first with 33.5% of the vote. He and Christian Democrat candidate Andrés Zaldívar faced off on February 10 in the runoff, where Lagos won with 55.1% of the vote. He was the first candidate from the left to advance to the second round.
Despite his predecessor being personally popular, the National Party in early 1998 was suffering from high unemployment and general economic unrest after eight years of corrective economy policy to try to rebuild Chile. The UDP gained control of the Congress of Chile as a result, installing an across-the-board leftist government in Chile for the first time since Communism fell in 1989. While this concerned the right and led to the formation of the CDN in 1999, Lagos promised in his inauguration speech to govern as a moderate and said, "The lessons have been learned from the dreadful nightmare of Communism." Lagos was relying heavily on the support of the moderate Party of Social Democracy, which was staunchly anti-Communist, and so he supported the free-market principles of his predecessor to the dismay of his own party while pleasing his base by instituting new welfare programs, including reconstructing the funding and execution of the Federal Health System of Chile, which had been decaying since the mid-1970's and had been grossly neglected by both Aylwin and Alessandri Besa. The Chilean economy recovered from its mid-1990's recession early in his term and by 2001 was the second-fastest growing economy in South America behind Colombia and emerged in 2002, shortly before he had to step down, as the third-largest economy on the continent behind Colombia and Brazil. This was referred to as the "Chilean miracle."
The strengthened Chilean peso assisted the manufacturing base in and around Santiago, boosting labor's ranks and helping broaden the UDP's base. In 2000, Lagos re-instituted subsidized university education depending on academic performance in secondary school and guaranteed free education to the poorest Chileans. However, Lagos agreed to create private retirement accounts with investment opportunities after seeing a pension crisis unfold in Colombia during this time, and so semi-privatized the national pension system and devolved the right to bargain for occupational pensions to the departmental level as opposed to the national level. He also extended compulsory schooling from ten years to 12 years (the first two years had been offered but not mandatory), started a public-private housing program, and began an initiative to reduce smog in Santiago through converting all buses to an electric grid by 2012 (which was achieved ahead of time and below initial budget estimates).
Lagos' most important foreign policy measure was improving relations with Argentina, which had been non-existent for decades up until the mid-1990's and strained since then. He and Argentinean Presidents Carlos Menem and Eduardo Duhalde settled on 23 separate border disputes between 1998 and 2001.
In another move that dismayed many on the Chilean left, Lagos pushed for stronger relationships with the United States, including the first bilateral trade agreement ever signed by the two parties. While Robert Redford had been the first President to visit Chile since the fall of Communism during his 1991 tour of South America, American President Stephen G. Martin visited Santiago on three occasions during Lagos' term, including one trip specifically to sign the trade agreement at the Palacio de La Moneda in 1999, and said in a speech to the University of Santiago in December of 2001 that "the interests of the Americas are the same regardless of what language we speak or on which continent we reside." Lagos was awarded the Stephen Martin Humanitarian Award in 2007 in a ceremony in California. Politically, Lagos was seen as the man who helped reconcile the left with the United States. The 1999 trade agreement is seen as leading to the 2007 Chile-United States Free Trade Agreement, signed in Washington, D.C. by President Lavín and President Jay Leno of the United States.
|The Lagos Cabinet|
|President||Ricardo Lagos||PSDP||April 10, 1998–April 10, 2002|
|Interior||Camilo Escalona||PSDP||April 10, 1998–January 7, 2001|
|Juan Pablo Letelier||PSDP||January 7, 2001–April 10, 2002|
|Defense||José Goñi Carrasco||PSDP||April 10, 1998–April 10, 2002|
|Finance||Álvaro García Hurtado||PDS||April 10, 1998–January 7, 2001|
|José Miguel Insulza||PSDP||January 7, 2001–April 10, 2002|
|Justice||José Miguel Insulza||PSDP||April 10, 1998–January 7, 2001|
|Martita Warner Tapia||PDS||January 7, 2001–April 10, 2002|