- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

SANTIAGO, Chile — Until two months ago, polls showed Santiago Mayor Joaquin Lavin was the clear favorite to win the next presidential election and to bring Chile’s conservative coalition to power for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1990.

But that was before the eruption of a major pedophile scandal with high-level political implications that has riveted the public’s attention for seven weeks and has deepened an already-existing rift between the two parties of Mr. Lavin’s center-right coalition, the Alliance for Chile.

Now, polls show Mr. Lavin, 50, who lost the 2000 presidential runoff by less than one percentage point to President Ricardo Lagos of the ruling center-left Concertacion coalition, being eclipsed by two members of Mr. Lagos’ Cabinet, Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear of the center-left Christian Democratic Party and Michelle Bachilet of the Socialist Party. The next election is in December 2005.

The bizarre story, which has been highly sensationalized by the Chilean media, broke in October when police arrested a wealthy and influential businessman, Claudio Spiniak, and charged him with operating a pedophile ring.

Mr. Spiniak, who made a fortune from a chain of gyms, admitted that he had hosted parties at his mansion at which children of both sexes were sexually exploited.

The Spiniak arrest proved a mere tremor compared with the political earthquake that jolted the country a few days later when Pia Guzman, a member of the lower house of Congress from the center-right opposition National Renewal (RN) party, publicly said that unnamed sources had confided to her that among those who had frequented Mr. Spiniak’s parties were three senators, one from the Concertacion and two from the RN’s coalition partner, the ultraconservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI).

Mrs. Guzman did not name the senators, but her accusation fueled a media frenzy and worsened the already-tense personal relationship between the presidents of the two conservative parties, Sebastian Piniera of RN and Pablo Longueira of the UDI.

Mrs. Guzman later said it was an “error of judgment” for her to have gone public with the accusations, but she offered no apology and stood by her information.

The scandal grew even larger in late November when Channel 13, the station owned by Catholic University, interviewed a 21-year-old woman, shown in shadow and identified only as “G,” who stated that she had lived in Mr. Spiniak’s house when she was a minor and that she had had an ongoing sexual relationship with a senator from the UDI, whom she declined to name.

She said she could corroborate her claim by identifying birthmarks and freckles “that only his wife and I would know about.”

The print media soon identified the woman as Gemma Bueno, and the bimonthly tabloid Plan B reported that the unnamed UDI senator was Jovino Noboa.

Mr. Lavin quickly proclaimed his confidence in Mr. Noboa, but when reporters arrived at UDI headquarters to get Mr. Longueira’s reaction, he had them expelled and publicly lashed out at the media.

That reaction drew criticism from Mr. Piniera, and the ensuing political fight between the two party presidents alarmed Mr. Lavin.

Two weeks ago, in a stunning political maneuver, Mr. Lavin said, “I am not the nursemaid of RN and the UDI,” and said he planned to follow his “own road” in his presidential candidacy, independent of the two parties.

Mr. Lagos, meanwhile, surprised the political establishment by publicly commenting on the opposition’s woes, accusing Mr. Lavin of “a lack of leadership” for his failure to keep the two parties in line.

Mr. Lavin held his silence for two days before granting a TV interview, in which he said Mr. Lagos should “leave us in peace.”

As if Mr. Spiniak’s arrest and the accusations regarding Mr. Noboa were not enough public titillation, the case took an even more bizarre twist two weeks ago when Channel 11 illegally filmed the investigating judge in the case, Daniel Calvo, admitting to the operator of a sauna catering to homosexuals that he regularly frequented the establishment.

Confronted by the television station with his admission, Judge Calvo admitted that he visited the sauna to “see videos,” insisted that he is not homosexual and withdrew from the Spiniak investigation. He was replaced by Judge Sergio Munoz. Both serve on the Santiago Court of Appeals.

The National Television Council, similar to the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, sanctioned Channel 11 for illegally filming Judge Calvo, and a judge has charged the news director, two other journalists and the sauna operator with extortion.

Political pundits have been quick to assess the political fallout from the scandal.

Ascanio Cavallo, a respected political columnist for the daily La Tercera, said in an interview that the Spiniak case threatens the two parties more than it does Mr. Lavin’s candidacy.

“For Lavin, it’s pretty early, but the right … the Alliance — has been badly weakened,” he said. “The damage exists.”

He called Mr. Lavin’s declaration of independence from RN and the UDI “an act of desperation.”

“It’s not the best time to have done it. It shows he is incapable of handling the situation.”

Mr. Cavallo said that even if Concertacion figures are eventually implicated in the Spiniak scandal, the UDI will still be the primary loser.

“The UDI’s conservative Catholicism makes it more vulnerable because it [the sex scandal] represents a double standard,” he said.

Alejandra Matus, editor of Plan B, agreed. “The UDI is what we call a confessional political party,” she said. “Their political program is also conservative Catholic. They oppose abortion and divorce. For one of their senators to be unfaithful to his wife, to be involved with a guy who is a pedophile, is completely at the opposite pole from their principles.”

Mr. Lavin himself is affiliated with Opus Dei, the ultraconservative Catholic secret society. An economist schooled at the University of Chicago, he was one of former military strongman Augusto Pinochet’s so-called “Chicago Boys,” a kitchen Cabinet of advisers who embraced the free-market theories of economist Milton Friedman.

Mrs. Matus said Mr. Lavin’s effort to distance himself from the UDI and from the Alliance was “a smart step, a popular move.”

“But can he govern?” she said. “I don’t think he can govern without congressmen supporting him. But it’s too early to know.”

As for Mr. Lavin’s likely opponent, Mr. Cavallo explained that the Concertacion would probably choose its candidate in an open primary, as it did in 1999.

But he called the candidacies of Mrs. Bachilet and Mrs. Alvear “media creations.” A more probable candidate, he said, is former President Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat who governed from 1994 to 2000.

“He hasn’t said so, but it’s clear,” he said. “All of us [political analysts] know he wants to.”

The Concertacion, which has won all three elections since Gen. Pinochet relinquished power, has recently been buffeted by scandals of its own, including reputed influence peddling by its congressmen. Political corruption is not as commonplace, or as tolerated, in Chile as in most Latin American countries.

Chile’s political landscape has been altered significantly since Mr. Lagos narrowly defeated Mr. Lavin in 2000.

In October 2000, Mr. Lavin was elected mayor of Santiago by a landslide, defeating Mr. Frei’s wife, Marta, and he has compiled a fairly solid record of administrative improvements.

In the 2001 congressional elections, Mr. Lagos’ moderate socialist party, the Party for Democracy, eclipsed the Christian Democrats as the largest party in the Concertacion, just as the UDI displaced RN as the larger of the two opposition-coalition partners. The two major forces remain virtually tied in the Senate, and the Concertacion’s majority in the Chamber of Deputies was reduced to three seats.

The consensus among the political observers seems to be that the Spiniak scandal has hurt Mr. Lavin, but with two full years to go before the election, and with Chile’s economic outlook brightening, almost anything can happen in Chile’s rapidly changing politics.

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