Chile's new President seeks Pinochet's trial at his inauguration

 

Thousands of Chileans waved flags and tossed confetti in the air in Santiago on Saturday evening as Chile's new socialist President, Dr Ricardo Lagos, entered the presidential palace, refurbished to hide the marks of the brutal military assault which ousted his predecessor, Salvador Allende, 27 years ago.

President Lagos (62), a lawyer and economist, described the 1973 coup against Allende as "the greatest political tragedy of the century", as crowds shouted "Allende Presidente, Lagos Presidente", and demanded the trial of the former dictator, Gen Augusto Pinochet, who stayed away from the ceremony.

"The future begins here", said Dr Lagos, addressing the crowds from a balcony in the presidential building, while a vast street carnival occupied a dozen city blocks.

The new President broke with tradition by holding three inauguration events in three cities, as a symbol of his commitment to decentralise state power.

"Santiago is not Chile, it is only the seat of government", said Dr Lagos, a former public works minister who has promised to build bridges, roads and trust throughout the country. The tough task begins this week, when he will start a series of negotiations with leaders of indigenous Mapuche communities, who are in a virtual state of war with forestry companies which have occupied their ancestral lands.

"It is time to resolve the historic debt with Chile's original inhabitants," said Dr Lagos.

The new President, described as a "decaffeinated" socialist, is a moderate social democrat in the mould of the former Spanish prime minister, Mr Felipe Gonzalez. Dr Lagos is the third president elected under the Concertacion por la Democracia, a coalition dominated by Christian Democrats and Socialists, which has governed Chile since Gen Pinochet handed over power in 1990.

One of Dr Lagos's goals is to dismantle the "iron cage", a series of locks and chains left by Gen Pinochet to ensure military control over Chile's democratic institutions.

The balance of power in Chile's senate remains in the hands of specially-designated senators loyal to the former dictator, while the vague State Security Law allows the judicial system to imprison anyone suspected of "offending" members of the armed forces, the Catholic Church or the nation's Supreme Court.

On the economic front, Dr Lagos has pledged to maintain the open-market economy which has seen spectacular economic growth but also increased disparity between rich and poor, a gap President Lagos described as "obscene".

He has promised to create 100,000 new jobs within six months, secure a benefit payment for unemployed workers and press for congressional approval of a labour reform bill which would prohibit the use of replacement workers during strikes.

Beyond Chile the new President has expressed his commitment to secure membership of Mercosur, South America's common market.