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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Patricio Aylwin, who oversaw Chile's peaceful transition to democracy with a pragmatic but cautious hand as the first elected president after a bloody 17-year military dictatorship, died on Tuesday. He was 97.
Aylwin, who died surrounded by his family, won widespread praise for combining booming economic growth with the establishment of democracy during his 1990-1994 rule of what became one of Latin America's most stable countries. The center-left coalition that he helped launch then ruled uninterrupted until conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera became president in 2010.
"Chile has lost a great statesman, a man who put unity before our differences, a man who made possible a democratic country once he assumed the presidency of the Republic, and in that sense we owe Patricio a lot," said President Michelle Bachelet.
Some accused Aylwin of favoring stability over deeper political reforms. He was criticized for not taking a strong enough stand against the human rights abuses committed under his predecessor, General Augusto Pinochet, who had ousted socialist president Salvador Allende in a Sept. 11, 1973 military coup.Aylwin, a lawyer by profession, defended his record, saying he did the best he could during a difficult time.
"Criticism of the transition makes pretty sound bites, but demonstrates ignorance of what really happened," Aylwin said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2012.
An estimated 3,000 people were killed during the rule of strongman Pinochet, who built a bulwark of anti-communism in the South American country and cast a long shadow over Aylwin's rule.
Aylwin set up a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and document the political executions and forced disappearances of suspected leftists by Pinochet's security forces.
But fears of another coup lingered, with tensions peaking in 1993 when the army staged a protest while the president was away in Europe.
And not only did Pinochet stay on as head of the army for several years after he stepped down as ruler, but the constitution he had enacted remains in effect. As a result, it took many years after the transition to democracy for alleged perpetrators of crimes committed during the dictatorship to face the justice system.
Groups of Chilean exiles protested Aylwin's official visits. In 1993, protesters even hurled eggs at him in Sweden.
"I have the feeling that these people have somehow got caught in a time warp around 1973," Aylwin said afterwards.
Aylwin, originally from the beach town of Vina del Mar in central Chile, was married to Leonor Oyarzun and had five children. His daughter Mariana was education minister during the government of socialist Ricardo Lagos.
Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Rosalba O'Brien; Edited by Frances Kerry