A leader of the Chilean Christian Democratic Party for over 40 years, Patricio Aylwin Azócar (born 1918) was elected president of Chile in 1989. Strongly committed to social and economic justice, he strove to attain those goals in an environment of freedom and economic growth.
Patricio Aylwin Azócar was born in Viña del Mar, Chile, on November 26, 1918. Eldest son of Miguel Aylwin Gajardo, an eminent lawyer who served as president of Chile's supreme court, and Laura Azócar, Patricio Aylwin was raised in a family which participated intensely in Chilean social and political life. His brother, Andrés Aylwin, became a prominent human rights advocate and congressman; Arturo, another brother, also a skilled lawyer, served in the comptroller general's office in 1990.
Tuberculosis forced Aylwin's father to move the family to the Valley of Elqui in northern Chile when Patricio was less than a year old; the family returned to Valparaiso with his father's recovery. A stint in the judiciary in Valdivia and then a move to Santiago brought the family back to the nation's capital. They settled in a pleasant San Bernardo neighborhood. Patricio attended public school, distinguished himself in studies and such extracurricular activities as student politics, and meditated the lessons of an uncle, Guillermo Azócar, a socialist senator in the Chilean congress. Aylwin credited his uncle with stimulating his concern for "social justice," a theme which would dominate his public career and his presidency.
Aylwin finished his secondary studies at the Internado Nacional Barros Arana and entered law school at the University of Chile in 1936. Classmate of a group of students who would become prominent Socialist and Radical Party politicians in the years to come—Eugenio Velasco, Clodomiro Almedya, Raul Ampuero, Felipe Herrera, Enrique Silva Cimma—Aylwin found himself also influenced by members of the Juventud de Acción Católica, under the spiritual guidance of Father Alberto Hurtado. This influence would push Aylwin into association with Eduardo Frei, Radomiro Tomic, Bernardo Leighton, and other founders of the Falange Nacional—the origins of the Chilean Christian Democratic Party to which Aylwin would dedicate much of his life. In law school Aylwin served on student-faculty committees considering university reforms, stimulated student forums, and emerged as one of the leaders of his student generation.
In 1943 Aylwin received his law degree and in 1946 he was appointed professor of administrative law at the University of Chile. By this time he had developed his writing and rhetorical skills, publishing in student and politico-religious magazines. In 1945 he joined the Falange Nacional, a group dominated by ex-members of the Conservative Party concerned with issues of social justice and the search for a Christian alternative to capitalism and Marxism. An article published in the magazine Política Y Espiritu called "The Truth about the Coal," in which he defended workers against repressive measures taken by the government, drew the attention of Leonor Oyarzún Ivanovic, who met Aylwin in 1947. They were married less than a year later, in October 1948, and raised a family of five children, all of whom shared in Aylwin's political career to some degree.
Early Political Career
Aylwin is counted among the founding generation of Chilean Christian Democracy. He served as the party vice president from 1948 to 1950 and had already lost two elections by 1951—one for city council and another for congress. In 1951 Aylwin was elected president of the Christian Democratic Party, a post he would hold repeatedly in the years to come, including the years 1965-1967 and 1987-1989, the latter during the tense transition from authoritarian to elected government in Chile.
In 1964 Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei was elected president of Chile and proclaimed his intention to carry out a "peaceful revolution." This included agrarian reform, tax reform, and encouragement of labor unionization and community organization among the urban poor. Patricio Aylwin, as senator for the provinces of Curicó, Talca, Linares, and Maule, became President Frei's staunchest ally against both the opposition from the political right and the impatience of the political left. Within the Christian Democratic Party, Aylwin also supported Frei against critics who desired a faster, more intense process of change.
Aylwin reiterated his support for Frei and the government's program frequently, coming always back to a basic theme which would reappear in the first year of his own presidency (1990): "We are carrying out an experiment, perhaps unique in this world, of pursuing at the same time social justice and economic development within the context of freedom and constrained by the fight to control inflation." Aylwin's efforts could not prevent the eventual splintering of the Christian Democratic Party nor its loss in the 1970 elections; he remained nonetheless a loyal party leader and supporter of President Frei, committed to peaceful social reform and democratic politics.
In Opposition to the Left and then the Right
When a leftist coalition, the Popular Unity Government, headed by President Salvador Allende, succeeded the Frei government, Aylwin became a vocal and effective leader of the opposition. The radical political and social reforms introduced by the Allende administration polarized Chilean politics and resulted in economic destabilization. As the political crisis came to a head, Aylwin engaged in negotiations with President Allende on behalf of the Christian Democratic Party, but was unable to arrive at a satisfactory resolution. Aylwin criticized the Allende government for not respecting the basic norms of democratic politics and noted that compromise was impossible "when official spokespersons characterize the opposition as 'enemies of the people' who must be 'crushed and destroyed."' By July-August 1973 Aylwin emphasized that the "institutional stability of the republic was! gravely threatened."
On September 11, 1973, a military coup ended the Allende government. Aylwin initially called upon the Chilean people and his party to collaborate with the military government, believing it to be temporary, but soon became a vocal opponent of the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that would endure almost 17 years.
Aylwin, as president of the Christian Democratic Party until 1976, gradually moved the party to open opposition against the military regime. In 1978 he formed part of the "Group for Constitutional Studies," which attempted to develop a political system to replace the dictatorship. He campaigned actively against the 1980 constitution imposed in a plebiscite orchestrated by Pinochet, continuing this opposition until the late 1980s.
In 1984 Aylwin delivered a speech in which he declared: "The Constitution [of 1980] did not have in its origins the basic requisites for legitimacy and seeks to institutionalize an antidemocratic system." However, with the Chilean opposition unable to overthrow the Pinochet government, Aylwin would eventually be forced to abide by the rules set down by General Pinochet. In 1988, though, a plebiscite surprisingly prevented Pinochet from ruling eight more years. As a result, an election was set up in 1989 under the terms of the 1980 constitution, and Aylwin was elected president of Chile.
Aylwin had taken a key leadership role in constructing a broad coalition of parties and movements to defeat the Pinochet regime in the October 1988 plebiscite. As principal spokesperson for the "Concertation For No" he won praise and enhanced his prestige as a skilled, dedicated, sincere, and moderate politician. This made him the obvious compromise candidate of the "Concertation of Parties for Democracy" in the December 1989 elections—which he won by a 55 percent majority.
Aylwin took office on March 11, 1990, presiding over a coalition of 17 parties ranging from his own Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Radicals to small esoteric parties such as the Humanists. President Aylwin faced the practically impossible task of meeting the pent-up demand for social and economic improvements of the poorest of Chileans while sustaining economic growth. In addition, he inherited the legacy of human rights abuses, mass graves, and other aberrations of the military regime in a system in which the military still exercised considerable legal and physical force. Aylwin and his supporters declared that he would be "President of all Chileans," that he sought "truth and reconciliation," and that economic policy would seek gradually to improve the plight of the poor and maintain investment incentives to guarantee growth. In his first two months in the presidency Aylwin sent 28 proposed laws to the newly-opened congress, and others followed.
In 1991, the Organization of American States (OAS) held its annual meeting in Santiago in recognition of Chile's return to democracy. At that meeting, the OAS passed a resolution to defend democracy if it was threatened in any member county. Political instability and the crises in Haiti and Peru were discussed in White House meetings between the U.S. President George Bush and Aylwin. They agreed that restoring constitutional processes in Haiti and Peru was important for the democratic consolidation throughout the hemisphere.
President Aylwin was the first Chilean leader to make a state visit to the United States in 30 years. During his 1992 visit, President Bush cited Chile's transition to democracy and welcomed closer relations between the two countries. President Aylwin said, "We are not asking for help but for understanding and cooperation."
In 1993, the Chilean judicial system convicted the last two fugitives from justice in the case of Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister who was assassinated in Washington, D.C. in 1976. Letelier and his American aide, Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a bomb planted in their car as they drove through Washington. In November of 1980, a U.S. court determined that the government of General Pinochet was responsible for the murders. When Aylwin took office, he agreed to reopen the case. Retired General Manuel Contreras and Brigadier General Pedro Espinoza were indicted for ordering the assassination. General Contreras headed the Chilean secret police during the 16 years of Pinochet's military dictatorship and Espinoza was his deputy. The man who identified them was Michael Townley, the American who confessed to planting the bomb. Townley and five other defendants were sentenced to prison for their role in the assassination.
As Aylwin approached the end of his term, many social and economic reforms had been implemented. The government had dramatically reduced unnecessary regulation of business and had opened Chile's economy, which was growing at a rate of 7.5 percent a year, to the rest of the world. Ten percent or 1.3 million Chileans had risen out of poverty, in part due to a 40 percent increase in social spending.
Aylwin was limited to a four-year term by a temporary constitutional provision. Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, son of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, was elected to a six-year term in December of 1993, under an agreement reached on the eve of the election. Frei, also a member of the Christian Democratic Party, received the highest percentage of votes ever received by a presidential candidate. He was sworn in as president on March 11, 1994, in Chile's first transition from one democratically elected government to another in 23 years.
Further Reading on Patricio Aylwin Azócar
Reference material and published studies on Patricio Aylwin's career are scarce. Occasional articles and editorials in English can be found in the Journal of Interamerican Studies & World Affairs. With his election in 1989 a number of studies in Spanish appeared, but no serious, critical biographies. For basic information and excerpts from his speeches and writing the following may be consulted: Julio Retamal Avila, Aylwin: La Palabra de un Demócrata (Santiago: 1990) and Amanecer en Chile, Patricio Aylwin Presidente (Santiago: 1990); Patricio Aylwin, Un Desafio Colectivo (Santiago: 1988) and La Alternativa Democrática (Santiago: 1984); and Ricardo Yocelevzky, La Demócracia Cristiana Chilena Y el Gobierno de Eduardo Frei (1964-1970), (Mexico:1987).