SANTIAGO, Chile — Patricio Aylwin, a lanky law professor who played a decisive role in restoring Chile’s democracy after 17 years of brutal dictatorship and was later elected president, died on Tuesday. He was 97.
Interior Minister Jorge Burgos said the former president’s health had deteriorated in recent days but did not give a cause of death.
Aylwin was at the center stage of Chilean politics for over half a century, and despite being president, senator and seven times head of his centrist Christian Democratic Party he often insisted he didn’t see himself as a leader.
Chileans, however, viewed him as a key figure in efforts to prevent the bloody military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power and they later elected him as the first president to follow the 1973-90 dictatorship.
President Michelle Bachelet declared three days of national mourning and said Aylwin will receive a state funeral.
“Chile has lost a man who always knew how to place the unity of democrats above their differences, which helped him build a democratic country once he assumed the presidency and in this sense we owe a lot to don Patricio,” Bachelet said.
The legacy of his 1990-94 government includes strong economic growth and the continuation of Pinochet’s free-market policies, but with more government control “because the market is cruel,” as well as his efforts to learn the truth about the human rights violations that bloodied Chile.
Aylwin appointed the independent commission that found that 3,197 people were killed for political reasons under Pinochet. The report opened the way for the first trials of military men for abuses, which years later would reach Pinochet himself.
“I hereby ask for forgiveness from the victims and their relatives in the name of the Chilean state,” Aylwin said in a broken voice, with tears in his eyes, as a presented the findings on national television.
Still, when Aylwin stepped down, he said one of his main frustrations was that he had not made greater progress in the human rights field.
Born Nov. 26, 1918, Aylwin trained as a lawyer. An avowed democrat, he was an opposition leader during 1970-73 government of Salvador Allende, the Western Hemisphere’s first freely elected Marxist president.
Despite opposing Allende, he took part in intense, last-minute negotiations for an agreement that sought to prevent the Marxist’s overthrow and death on Sept. 11, 1973, in Pinochet’s military coup.
Aylwin later became a leading figure in opposing the dictatorship and when Pinochet was forced in a referendum to call an open election, a wide coalition of parties from the right to left chose him as their candidate. He won the election.
Most Chileans felt Aylwin, a centrist, was probably the right choice to rule the country immediately after Pinochet, when the military retained strong power.
Aylwin, however, angered many of his supporters and victims’ relatives when he said that justice would almost certainly only be achieved in a limited manner. Some limitations were imposed by the hard negotiations that convinced Pinochet to accept leaving power.
The son of a Chilean Supreme Court president, Aylwin was drawn to politics as a young law student and approached Chile’s budding socialist movement. A devout Catholic, however, he rejected the Marxism embraced by Chilean socialists and joined a group of young people who were organizing the more-centrist Christian Democratic Party.
As president of that party in the early 1970s, Aylwin led the opposition to Allende and briefly justified the Pinochet coup.
The military, he said, had been forced into action because Allende was allowing the organization of armed leftist militias and Chile was about to become a communist dictatorship.
But when it became obvious that Pinochet intended to remain in power indefinitely, and especially when the human rights violations by the military became known, Aylwin became a leading figure in the fight to restore democracy.
When Pinochet called a referendum to extend his rule until the end of the century, Aylwin led the successful campaign that defeated the dictator at the polls and forced him to call the election that Aylwin won.
Aylwin’s presidency was made difficult by Pinochet remaining as chief of the army. The general flexed his military muscles at least twice as a warning to Chile’s new civilian leaders. Once he put the army on alert to protest the government’s probe of rights abuses during the military regime. The second time, angered by an investigation of his son’s financial dealings, he deployed commandos in full combat gear across from the presidential palace.
Aylwin’s strong reaction surprised even some of his closest associates. He summoned Pinochet to his office and made clear he had reprimanded him, although the constitution drafted by the Pinochet regime prevented him from firing the general.
Aylwin and his wife, Leonor Oyarzun, had three sons and two daughters. One daughter, Mariana, was a congresswoman and a Cabinet minister.