University News

Former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos shares experiences, advice

Lagos reflects on Watson residency, talks economic growth and education challenges in Chile

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Former President of Chile Ricardo Lagos will end his eight-year residency as professor-at-large at the Watson Institute for International Studies at the end of this semester. As president from 2000 to 2006, he ended his term with record-high approval ratings after significantly improving Chile’s economy. Lagos spoke with The Herald about his time at the Watson Institute, his experiences as president and future changes he hopes to see in government.

The Herald: Why did you decide to come to Brown and join the Watson Institute to serve as a professor-at-large?

Lagos: I got an offer that was very difficult to resist. (The University) told me, “Look, why don’t you come here as professor-at-large.” What does that mean? Well, that means you have to be in residence one month during the academic year. What you do with that time is up to you. Then, they told me you can give some conferences, participate in seminars ­­— to do whatever you want, but you have to be in residence.

I used to be a professor in my own country many, many years ago, so I thought that was a good excuse to have a chance to think a little bit of what I have done and to discuss with members of academia. I discovered that being a professor at Brown, I am much more an intellectual than a practitioner. But nevertheless, being the president of Chile, I used to be much more a practitioner than an intellectual. I thought that even if you are a very pragmatic person at the very end, you have some ideas that are coming from the intellectual world. As (John Maynard) Keynes, the famous economist, used to say, “Practical ideas are usually the slaves of very intellectual ideas.”

Since I came here in October 2007, it was interesting. A year later, you have the economic crises. Several years later, even though people knew about Al-Qaeda, you discover ISIS. In other words, you discover the question of war and peace is not only among nationalist states, as it used to be in the past, but of this other non-governmental organization that turns from the world. When I had a talk here with Romano Prodi, the former prime minister of Italy, he presented the view from Europe, and I presented the view from Latin America. For me, that was a very interesting dialogue from different perspectives, and to have that discussion in the U.S. was much more interesting.

What have you been doing with the Watson Institute?

Normally, what I do is give two or three conferences. The first time I came here there was a seminar on income inequality in Latin America. That conference finished with a presidential dialogue between myself and former President of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso. It’s a good story because next week there is going to be (a seminar on) income distribution in Latin America. What happened within the last eight years in Latin America with regard to income distribution? Well, that’s very interesting, because change has been very big, very huge.

Besides working at the Watson, what else have you been busy with?

Oh, you wanted to know if there was life after being president? Yes, there is life. I was in pro bono as the special envoy of Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the U.N., on negotiations for climate change.

In addition, I have published a few things. I have published “The Southern Tiger,” written in English and for the American people, about what our fight against the dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile was and, later on, what we needed in government. I have also been involved in politics, but not too much, because now I’m a former president.

At this time, Lagos pulled out his cellphone and displayed an online platform that he created called “El Quinto Poder,” which translates to “The Fifth Power.” The website features various articles on major events written by Chilean citizens.

I do believe that the web will change political institutions that you and me know today. It is going to be quite different in the future because of that. For instance, normally people used to say there were three different “powers of Montesquieu” ­— the Secretary, the Parliament and the Judiciary. People also used to say there was a fourth power, which is the press. Now I say there is a fifth power, which is the web. Where do people who are very young get the news of what’s going in the world? On the web. The web is the fifth power, so I created El Quinto Poder, where all the citizens can write whatever they want.

Do you think there are any other means that governments can use, such as the web, to become more efficient?

More efficient, more accountable, more democratic? Yes. I think that because of the web, new political institutions will emerge.

For instance, in today’s world, the Finnish parliament, when they are discussing a law and a number of members say, “I would like to listen to the people. Can we put the discussion that we are having in regards to this legislation online?” They can publish that online, and say to the people, “You have sixty days to discuss.” That’s new political inclusion. Democracy, by definition, is representative because you have to elect representatives. The question of the issues is yes, of course it has to be representative, but web allows you to give some voice to the people, so how about that?

As president, what was your goal for Chile, and do you think you accomplished those goals?

First, I was part of a generation that had to fight against a dictatorship. And while that dictatorship was defeated, it was up to us on how we would like to run the country. That means, for instance, to have a bigger growth rate and to live in a country with more equity and more opportunity for everybody. And we are rather proud of the fact that in 20 years, we were able to reduce poverty from 40 percent of Chileans living under the poverty line to only 11 percent. The question of how we are going to have economic growth with increasing degrees of equity — that’s a big challenge. It’s easy to talk here at Brown, but what are the practical measures to take?

What issues does Chile currently face, and what do you think can be done to solve them?

The most important issue for Chile is to understand that economic growth is important. In Chile, because of our growth, we’ve changed agenda because the major demands are from those that left poverty behind them. There is an emerging middle class, and that middle class is more demanding, particularly in the area of education. The major issue in Chile is education. The question is not to let students enroll, but the question is to give them a quality education, and to improve quality is much more difficult.

What do you think makes an effective leader?

The most important and most difficult (quality) is that a leader has to believe in what he says he believes. He has to be sure.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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