Patricio Aylwin, the first democratic president of Chile (1990-1994) after the military dictatorship of 1973-1990 passed away

José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett

Head of the Project at MOOC Chile
Lawyer, Universidad de Chile. Doctor Honoris Causa, by the Universities of Notre Dame and City University of New York.
José Zalaquett

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It has been said, rightly, that Patricio Aylwin will be remembered, on many accounts, as a great President of Chile, but that his human rights legacy was perhaps his foremost contribution.

At the time of his inauguration, in March of 1990, there were not many precedents of what is today called transitional justice and at the time was known as transition to democracy and human rights. Indeed, only two South American countries, Argentina and Uruguay, had faced the moral, legal and political dilemmas of a transition that left behind a dictatorship during which unspeakable atrocities had been committed. President Alfosín of Argentina created the first modern Truth Commission, which issued a poignant report titled “Never Again”. Yet, he probably overestimated his political resources and ended up, under military pressure, giving in through the Final Point and Due Obedience laws. Uruguay, on its part, had a negotiated transition and there was no official Truth Commission. The “Uruguay Never Again” report was prepared by non-governmental organizations.

Today, more than three decades later, there have been nearly 40 truth commissions throughout the world, most of them failed or merely cosmetic. The Chilean experience about truth disclosure, instead , through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, years later, the Political Prison and Torture Commission, is universally deemed as an example of serious and thorough work.

Regarding the moral stature of Patricio Aylwin two main traits stand out: first, he was a man for all seasons, not just for summer, spring and fall. Second, his life and his policies epitomized the ethics of responsibility characterized by Max Weber. The politician who acts according to such criterion assumes responsibility for the consequences of his actions and always takes into account the possibilities of real life before acting. Instead, whenever the politician who follows his own conscience, disregarding reality, fails, he does not take responsibility but blames fate or the people for not seeing the light and following his lead.

I happen to know that Patricio Aylwin thought that the moral standard regarding human rights was to do everything humanly possible in order to fulfill the duties those norms impose. He publicly expressed through a sentence that has been most criticized: “justice to the extent possible”. Perhaps this phrase is unfortunate from a communicational standpoint. But, besides the contrary notion of “justice to the extent impossible” being absurd, I am sure that he never meant to convey the idea of a half-hearted or reluctant justice, but instead doing everything humanly possible.

Patricio Aylwin understood very well that it was necessary to reveal the truth about what happened and figured that a serious report would open way – as it did – to new breakthroughs in matters of transitional justice. Bearing this in mind, he appointed a well balanced Truth and Reconciliation Commission, comprising eight members. He felt these people would come to an agreement. Indeed, the Commission’s report was unanimous, which endowed it with great credibility. Later on, on March 4, 1991, he appeared on TV summarizing this report to the nation and, assuming the representation of the State, touchingly apologized to the families of the victims.

His main conviction regarding human rights was that this notion had to become a part of the country’s moral conscience, as it is today the case, say, with the prohibition of slavery.

At his funeral everybody eulogized him, from the Communist Party to the right wing political parties that supported the military coup.

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