Chilean leader visits UK

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The Independent Online
AN annual growth rate of 9 per cent, unemployment at only 4 per cent, inflation under control at around 12 per cent and enough foreign reserves to pay for a whole year of imports: Chile's prospects have rarely been brighter. But the man who stands to inherit all this was suitably diffident when he visited London this week.

'A few good years don't mean that all our problems are behind us,' said Eduardo Frei, the Christian Democrat senator who is expected to win the nomination of the ruling coalition later this month and go on to victory in December's presidential polls.

Since the return to democratic rule in 1990, when General Augusto Pinochet led the troops somewhat reluctantly back to barracks, Chile under President Patricio Aylwin has succeeded in balancing the free-market policies of the generals while reining in the demands of the electorate that swept him to power.

Mr Frei, whose father was president during an earlier spell of high expectations in the 1960s, is cautious. 'Poverty is our main concern,' he said. 'There were about 5 million Chileans living in absolute degradation when the military handed over. We have got that down to about 3.5 million, but there's still a long way to go and the shantytowns around the cities are growing bigger all the time.'

Many of Chile's problems are associated with success. Migration from the countryside has been accelerated by the rapid mechanisation of Chilean agriculture. Fruit exports boomed and now outstrip those of South Africa and New Zealand.

The victor in December will have to contend with the brooding presence of Gen Pinochet, still commander of the armed forces who, under the 1980 constitution, cannot be removed by a civilian president. Mr Frei intends to take that bull by the horns: 'If we win the necessary majority in Congress we will amend the constitution to bring the armed forces under democratic control,' he said.