In one of his first moves upon taking office last weekend, Chile’s new president, Mr. Ricardo Lagos, reopened the presidential palace to the Chilean people. It is a symbolic gesture by the country’s first socialist president since former Gen. Augusto Pinochet launched a coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. Upon seizing power, the general closed the palace to the public for security reasons. Mr. Lagos’ decision symbolizes the openness of his administration and its regard for ordinary people. While restoring the tradition is a nice touch, symbolism is one thing, genuine reform another. Still, the country is changing. The Chilean people seem ready to face their past. They now have the opportunity.

Mr. Lagos’ first task is to get the economy back on track. It should not be difficult. Chile’s embrace of open markets made it the pacesetter for the developing world, and yielded 7.3 percent growth annually from 1990 to 1998. But in the first nine months of 1999, a combination of rising oil prices and slumping copper-export revenues produced the country’s first recession in two decades. Gross domestic product shrank 2.6 percent. The number of poor is half of what it was in 1987, but one in five Chileans — 21.7 percent of Chile’s 14.5 million citizens — still lives in poverty.

While discontent with the economy’s performance helped push Mr. Lagos into the presidency, prospects were looking up before he took office. Unemployment has fallen from its peak of 11.5 percent and growth is projected to reach 6 percent this year. But the challenge is not just returning to growth, but transforming Chile into an industrialized economy. The country’s impressive performance has been based on robust exports, but the quality of those exports must improve. To achieve that, Chile must develop its infrastructure and cut its dependence on primary industries such as agriculture and mining.

During the campaign, Mr. Lagos promised to help the poor. His socialist credentials earned him credibility with Chile’s poorest citizens, but they also worried many business professionals. To overcome that distrust, he has brought in a team of economists with impeccable conservative credentials. The president’s vow to stick with market-oriented policies has also helped reassured the business community.

Mr. Lagos will find it harder to implement the political reforms that he also promised. This week, he proposed constitutional revisions that would eliminate the “authoritarian enclaves” established by Mr. Pinochet 20 years ago, and would restore rights that existed before the general seized power. The first promises a clash with conservatives, but the real battle may be fought before the country even takes up the constitutional amendments.

Currently, there are 72 suits pending against Mr. Pinochet that allege his responsibility for murder and torture committed during his rule. More than 3,000 people died or disappeared in the 17 years that Mr. Pinochet was the supreme leader of Chile. Many more, including Mr. Lagos, were forced into exile. As a senator for life — a position and privilege awarded him in the constitution he had written before relinquishing power — the former president has immunity from prosecution, however. Undaunted by complaints from the former strongman’s supporters, a Chilean judge has petitioned to lift Mr. Pinochet’s immunity so that he can face justice. Mr. Lagos supports those efforts and has promised that political pressure will not prevent the general from being brought to trial.

Although the country is divided — a fact made plain by Mr. Lagos’ razor-thin 2.6 percent margin of victory in the election — there seems to be widespread support for a trial. After Mr. Pinochet was arrested in London in October 1998, the Chilean government argued that it, and not a Spanish magistrate, should try the general. Mr. Pinochet’s return to Chile last week after 17 months under house arrest in England will now test the country’s resolve: Is it willing to face the past?

Some claim that healing requires forgetting. That carries little weight with the survivors and the families of the general’s victims who, along with many other Chileans, were offended by the hero’s welcome Mr. Pinochet received when he returned home. They can point to the ruling by Britain’s law lords as support for their cause. And well they should, for not only Chile has a stake in this case. The outcome will help shape the future of international law and the human rights of all citizens. Those countries that see Mr. Pinochet’s authoritarianism as the solution for their own national ills will be put on notice on well.

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