Compromiser With a Democratic Vision Takes Over Sunday in Chile : South America: Patricio Aylwin’s personality and outlook contrast sharply with those of dictator Pinochet, whom he replaces.


When Patricio Aylwin assumes the Chilean presidency from Gen. Augusto Pinochet on Sunday, the contrasting personalities of Chile’s old and new leaders will mirror the transition from military rule to democracy.

With Pinochet’s departure, Chile will trade a gruff, bellicose army general for an eternally smiling compromiser who abhors conflict and who wrote his law school thesis on “the arbitration judgment.”

The presidency will pass from a man who has never disguised his distaste for politicians to a man who has been steeped in politics since his youth and who became the symbol for many Chileans of the campaign to defeat the dictatorship with votes rather than bullets.


Yet Aylwin and Pinochet share some attributes, too. Both are in their 70s; both are dedicated family men and silver-haired grandfathers; both have uncharismatic speaking voices.

And though Aylwin’s style may be less strident, he is no less relentless than Pinochet in his determination to make a reality of his different vision of Chile’s future.

Pinochet relied on a four-man legislature--his military junta--during his 16 1/2 years in power. Aylwin repeatedly insists on the need for broad participation, from congress to neighborhood councils, and what he calls a national “re-encounter,” or reconciliation, after two decades of conflict.

But those who feared--or hoped--that Aylwin would be no more than a figurehead and symbolic statesman are realizing that beneath his gentle demeanor lies a deft and seasoned leader, aware of his growing personal authority and willing to use it.

“He has been steeling himself for the job,” said Edgardo Boeninger, Aylwin’s longtime colleague in the Christian Democratic Party and the party’s new secretary general. “(Aylwin) is aware that he must listen to people, and he is a good listener--he wants to give a sense of participation. But he also knows that authority is vital.”

When Pinochet seized power from Marxist President Salvador Allende in a bloody coup on Sept. 11, 1973, Aylwin already was among Chile’s most senior political figures, both as president of Congress and leader of the Christian Democrats. His role before and after the coup has been debated since then.

A day after the armed forces and police toppled Allende’s Communist-backed government after three years of strikes, inflation and conflict, the Christian Democrats said that Allende had brought the coup on himself. They added that “the armed forces didn’t seek this, but rather acted out of patriotism, with a sense of responsibility in the face of the historic destiny of Chile.”

That embittered Allende’s Socialists and others in Allende’s ruling Popular Unity coalition. Aylwin would later acknowledge that while the majority of Chileans agreed at the time, “in a variety of our evaluations, we were mistaken.”

Aylwin’s closest allies also insist that in the months leading up to the coup, he “did his best until the last moment to prevent a breakdown of democracy in this country,” as Boeninger put it. Aylwin negotiated frequently with Allende in search of compromises that would stave off a coup, always without success because of the intransigence of the Marxist-Leninists who dominated the old Socialist Party.

“Aylwin’s role in the (Allende era) has not been well-understood,” said Alejandro Hales, a lifelong friend of Aylwin’s and a prominent independent politician. Hales, a last-minute rival for the presidential nomination, said that Aylwin “believed it was possible to find a solution with Allende. The accusations that he took part in the coup are not correct.”

When Aylwin became aware of the harshness of the military regime and of its determination to cling to power, he became disillusioned and exhausted and returned to private law practice, leaving the then-irrelevant party presidency in 1976.

A year later, however, he joined Boeninger and others in an attempt to draft constitutional alternatives. That “Group of 24” was the first of several failed efforts to seek a peaceful path back to democratic rule.

By 1987, Aylwin and others acknowledged that the often-violent protests of the mid-1980s were not going to dislodge Pinochet. So Aylwin, reelected Christian Democratic Party president in August, 1987, resolved to use Pinochet’s own rules, set out in a disputed 1980 constitution, to beat him.

An unprecedented “No” coalition of 16 opposition parties, ranging from all but the farthest left to right-of-center, resolved to defeat Pinochet in an October, 1988, plebiscite in which Pinochet was the lone candidate for eight more years as president.

In that campaign, Aylwin served as “spokesman,” but the title understated his importance in melding together the disparate parties and working out a consensus on social and economic platforms. The campaign “generated personal confidence within him and recognition by others of his ability to lead,” Boeninger said.

When the “No” coalition prevailed by a margin of 55% to 43%, Aylwin immediately emerged as the front-runner to be the coalition’s candidate in the open presidential election of last December.

First, he outmaneuvered three rivals within his own party and then swept past three more potential candidates from other sides of the coalition to get the nomination. The Socialist Party leader, Jorge Arrate, said at the time that it was a tribute to Aylwin, given the lingering rancor over the past, that he had won complete acceptance even from former Allende supporters.

Aylwin then oversaw delicate negotiations within the coalition to draft lists of candidates for the congressional elections that took place at the same time.

Aylwin, who turned 71 in November, went on to defeat Pinochet’s former finance minister by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. His 20-member Cabinet-designate includes five Socialists as well as members of several other parties in the coalition.

Descended from Welsh immigrants and the son of a former supreme court justice, Aylwin first won election to the Senate in 1965. He had been president of the Christian Democrats as early as 1958, at the age of 40.

He maintains good relations with the right-of-center parties, which will play a pivotal role in Congress. The constitution allowed Pinochet’s outgoing government to appoint nine senators, denying the coalition a majority in the upper chamber despite its healthy popular victory at the polls.

A devotee of hiking and happiest at home with his wife, Eleanor, and their five children, Aylwin has never been on the cocktail circuit. He often works in his study in the family’s mock-Tudor house in an upper-middle-class Santiago neighborhood.

Juan Sepulveda, a local Christian Democratic organizer who served as Aylwin’s driver until the election, worries that “at times (Aylwin’s) generosity, his innate kindness, makes him too soft.” The far tighter security measures necessary as president--including an expert driver trained in fast evasion tactics--will prove frustrating for a man who likes to stroll and chat with people, Sepulveda said.

But Silvia Rivera, Aylwin’s press secretary, said that after three years of working closely with Aylwin, “I still don’t know him thoroughly. He is an inspired person, and amiable. . . . But also in certain decisions he can be quite cold--in the choices of Cabinet ministers and other officials, for example, it didn’t matter if they were from his party; what mattered was that they were the best people for the job. That quality will help him manage with Pinochet.”

After Pinochet leaves the presidency, he will stay on as commander in chief of the army, the post he held at the time of the coup in 1973. The new government’s relations with the military are considered extremely important, especially given the expected investigations of human rights abuses during Pinochet’s rule.

Aylwin, Rivera said, “does not take a single step without planning it beforehand.” He can get angry, but does not hold grudges, Rivera said, adding, “It passes very fast. In five minutes, it’s over.”

Hugo Trivelli, Aylwin’s brother-in-law, next-door neighbor and hiking companion, said that Aylwin’s decisions and actions are always based on many opinions.

“He’s never precipitous,” added Trivelli, a former Cabinet minister. “His relations with people are neither confrontational nor bellicose, but a matter of seeking harmony. He looks for the things that unite, not those that separate. He looks for ways in which people can find common ground.”

“If he has any ‘enemy front,’ it is the logic of war, which is what has maintained Pinochet since the day of the coup,” Trivelli said. “He will confront Pinochet in the next few years, not with the logic of war, but the logic of peace. And that is what the Chilean people voted for. He is not alone--the people are behind him, and also a good part of world public opinion--whereas Pinochet was isolated. That is very positive.”

For Alejandro Hales, who was at law school with Aylwin, the new president’s trust in and commitment to the rule of law was symbolic of the opposition movement’s peaceful campaign against Pinochet’s autocratic rule.

“The majority of the country saw in him a symbol of the struggle against Pinochet. The campaign wasn’t a fight of personalities, but of democracy versus dictatorship,” Hales said. “Aylwin took on this role with dignity, with modesty. He has constantly shown himself to be open and balanced. The people have a lot of faith and hope in him.”