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The Financial Times, 28.5.00

Editorial: Chile's example

The court decision to strip General Augusto Pinochet of his congressional immunity against legal action demonstrates the growing independence of Chile's judiciary, and bodes well for the health of its democracy.

The Chilean appeals court ruling will not be the last word in the Pinochet affair. The judgment could well be reversed by the supreme court. General Pinochet's advanced age and failing health must make it unlikely that a fully fledged trial - in connection with human rights abuses committed during his 17-year dictatorship between 1973 and 1990 - will ever take place.

Despite this, it is now vital for Chile to move on from the passions aroused by the cases against its former dictator. President Ricardo Lagos should press ahead without delay with plans to modernise his country's constitution and - most importantly - to rein in the power of its armed forces.

Plans announced earlier this month to make the armed forces more accountable need to be followed up by firm action. The defence ministry still has too little say in the day-to-day affairs of the armed forces. The armed forces control their own budget and their representatives control four senate seats. Unless it rids itself of these and other vestiges of military dictatorship, Chile will not build the kind of institutions needed to ensure long-term political stability, nor consolidate its economic progress.

Mr Lagos also has a broader responsibility to provide leadership for other Latin American countries. In the past, military forces throughout the continent have been too willing to ride roughshod over the democratic rights of citizens. In a number of states, they are still prepared to do so. In the last five months, Ecuador and Paraguay have both seen unsuccessful coups. Elsewhere, the armed forces are increasing their power through more subtle means.

This weekend's elections in Peru, which President Alberto Fujimori was expected to win following international criticism of the fairness of the contest and the withdrawal of the opposition candidate, are the most worrying sign of this authoritarian trend. If Mr Lagos succeeds in establishing a new and more balanced relationship between his elected civilian government and his own armed forces, he will have set an important example to neighbouring countries.

This would reinforce a broader trend in parts of Latin America. Constitutional rule has deepened in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, all countries that suffered military rule during the 1970s and 1980s. If Mr Lagos acts resolutely in Chile, he could help to set the tone for the continent.

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