Chile, before its biggest challenge

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From Gabriel Boric to Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle: Five Chilean presidents on the country’s greatest challenges

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, the president and his predecessors talk to EL PAÍS about the divisions in the country. In the face of tensions and disenchantment, they call for national unity

El País

The president of Chile — Gabriel Boric — and his four predecessors — the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, the socialists Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet and the country’s only right-wing president since the return to democracy in 1990, Sebastián Piñera — have answered an identical questionnaire in writing, at the request of EL PAÍS.

The current and former heads of state filled in their responses as Chile prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1973 military coup against Salvador Allende, on Monday, September 11. This date still divides the South American country, causing intense polarization among both the population and the political class.

Despite the “electric” climate — as President Boric himself described it a few days ago — he and his four predecessors all signed a letter this past Thursday, in which they ratified their commitment “to democracy, always.” It’s a show of unity that Boric hasn’t managed to achieve with the opposition parties, who don’t trust his government.

In their respective responses, Boric and his four living predecessors also refer to Chile’s strengths and weaknesses, its main challenges and more intimate matters, such as how they would like to be remembered in half-a-century.

These were their responses:

Gabriel Boric


The president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, is a member of the Social Convergence party in the relatively new Frente Amplio (Broad Front) political coalition. The 37-year-old — who was born in the city of Punta Arenas, in the southernmost region of Chile — came to power in March of 2022. He was elected to lead the country for four years, until March of 2026.

Like 70% of the population, Boric was born after the coup. In fact, he’s the first president since the return to democracy in 1990 who didn’t experience the democratic breakdown.

Last week, the incumbent president met separately with his four living predecessors to sign the document — For democracy, always — on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état. “While there are differences and nuances between the various political blocs and parties in our country, since the end of the dictatorship onwards, democratic stability has been established — one that allows for dialogue and coexistence between all actors. For my part — beyond legitimate differences — I respect the institutions and especially the Presidency of the Republic and, therefore, those who have held the office. Of course, one may have more or less political and personal affinity with one [former leader] than another, but the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of one of the saddest moments in our republican history should unite us in the search for common agreements regarding democracy, memory and justice.”

Boric says he values the gesture of the commitment to democracy, but clarifies that he doesn’t “undertake it personally.” “As the president in office, I [sign it] on behalf of all Chileans. who must always be able to trust their democracy. This is what our compatriots expect: justice for those who haven’t had it, memory to build a fair, supportive and empathetic country, as well as guarantees of no repetition [of dictatorship] for new generations.”

Question. In what shape is Chile in, on the 50th anniversary of the coup?

Answer. Chile is strengthened from an institutional and democratic point of view, with the lesson of having gone through difficult times. But, in each government [since the return to democracy in 1990], we have made an effort — at different levels — to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

We have lived through intense months, with political tension, but I’m sure that [all political parties] will end up putting the interests of Chileans first. The vast majority of our compatriots want social peace and constructive politics. And, while there are sectors that have gone backwards seeking to justify the coup d’état, I believe that [these politicians] are only responding to irresponsible and short-term political strategies. I’m convinced that, in the future, those who have tried to vindicate the coup d’état will realize the mistake they made, as has happened before in our recent history.

Q. What do you like about Chile today?

A. I’m from the region of Magallanes, in the extreme south of Chile. Therefore, my opinion is neither centralist nor complacent: I say with emotion that [we Chileans] are strong and brave; that, in the face of adversity, we always rise. Those who have gone through the most difficult times are, without a doubt, the most admirable.

I believe that this resilience is one of the most important attributes of our country and its people. Likewise, the general respect for democracy and institutions is expressed in the constant search for agreements, even in tense moments. We saw this during the previous government [of Sebastián Piñera] during the outbreak of social protests. And we’ve also seen it during our moments of political strife today. In Chile, the problems of democracy are solved with more democracy — that’s a source of pride.

Q. And what do you not like about Chile?

A. I think we have a problem with inequality. [We’re attempting to implement] a pension reform that dignifies and recognizes the efforts of older people, [while constructing] a welfare state that provides quality healthcare and education. However, I feel that, while we’ve been progressing in these matters in each legislative session, we’ve moved with less speed than one would wish. This is what keeps me up at night: the urgencies of the people of our country are the urgencies of my government.

Q. What are the country’s main challenges for the future?

A. Chile has the task of becoming — gradually and responsibly — a welfare state that guarantees citizens’ access to quality basic services, regardless of the size of someone’s wallet. I think that’s the main challenge. We need to establish — once and for all — a decent pension system for those who have spent a lifetime working for the homeland; a health system that guarantees that, when faced with illness, everyone will have the opportunity to get treatment. That they will have the necessary medicines and that they will be cared for with respect. [We need] an educational system that guarantees equal opportunities for all children and young people in our country. Added to this is also guaranteeing citizen security, through the fight against drug trafficking, organized crime and violence. Everyone must be allowed to live and progress safely in their neighborhoods.

Q. How would you like to be remembered 50 years down the road?

A. I don’t want to be remembered. I only want it to be recognized that I led a government that pushed for transformations that allowed inequality to be reduced; a government that worked so that Chileans could be happier.

Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle


After the first democratic government led by the now-deceased president Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle led the country between 1994 and 2000. Born in the capital of Santiago — where he still lives — Frei is now 81-years-old.

The son of another president of the Chilean Republic — Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970) — his government dealt with the situation that unfolded when former dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998. After being president, Frei Ruiz-Tagle served as a senator.

Question. What don’t you like about Chile today?

Answer. The most negative thing about Chile today is — without a doubt — the state of tension that prevails in the political debate. When living through difficult times — in which there are a series of challenges to be addressed — citizens expect a high-level, serene and rational debate about different proposals that help us resolve the difficulties that afflict us. However, what we have seen in recent times is that aggressive language is what dominates. This polarizes public debate, preventing us from moving forward. It affects the entire society and seriously erodes the quality and effectiveness of our democratic system.

The most serious thing about this climate of confrontation — which has been caused by [the tone] of national politics — is that it makes it impossible to achieve broad-based agreements to face the multiple challenges that the country has and that have been pending for several years.

We urgently need to change course. Chile deserves a quality democracy, with efficient and respected institutions, with a serious and rigorous debate, along with public policies that return us to the path of development.

Q. And what do you like about Chile today?

A. I would like to point out that — despite our difficulties — our country retains its enormous potential intact. Firstly, this is thanks to the richness of our nature. For example, we have enormous advantages to generate clean energy, such as solar energy and green hydrogen. We have the cleanest skies on Earth, which allows us to receive the most important astronomers in the world, so that — together with Chilean scientists — they can carry out their research. We’re a country rich in minerals and we have an agricultural sector — these are pillars of our development and our export sector. Lastly, we have beautiful landscapes throughout our territory that have turned us into a growing global tourist attraction.

Secondly, we have the spirit of our people, who have always shown great resilience to overcome adverse moments. Chileans have great strength to undertake and face multiple challenges. That’s why they despair about what we’re experiencing. People just want to live in peace, have more and better opportunities, give their children a good education and be happy. Unfortunately, we’ve strayed from this path.

Another important issue is that, unfortunately, South America — and particularly Chile — face a problem of disorderly immigration, fundamentally caused by the Maduro dictatorship. More than seven million Venezuelans have had to leave their country, hundreds of thousands of whom have arrived in Chile. Haitians, Colombians, Peruvians and people from other countries on our continent have joined them. More than two million people who need work, health, education, housing, among other needs [have settled in Chile] — and back. And insecurity has increased alarmingly. Today, it’s the population’s main concern.

This is a problem that we — along with all the countries in Latin America — need to face. But we haven’t addressed this issue. I’m very concerned about the inaction of our governments.

Q. In what shape is Chile in, on the 50th anniversary of the coup?

A. Our country is deeply divided. We have lost the ability to listen to each other, have dialogue and reach agreements. We have a stagnant country, with an economy that hasn’t grown for years, with high inflation and weak investment. Today, the political debate is being led by the extremes and — as I previously noted — in an atmosphere of great belligerence.

At the moment, the discussion is inevitably about the past. I believe that it’s good to reflect on what happened, so that we don’t forget. This is especially the case when it comes to human rights violations [that occurred during and following the coup]. However, we also have to think about the Chile of the next 30 years, because, clearly, the last 10 haven’t been good. It’s time for us to reconnect with the path to progress. Otherwise, we will once again be a case of frustrated development.

Q. What are the country’s main challenges for the future?

A. Chile urgently needs to grow again. The economy has to recover its capacity to create jobs. To do this, we have to go back to doing what we did so successfully in the 1990s, while adjusting to current circumstances. For example, reactivating the public-private partnership model through investments in infrastructure, which is currently under-utilized. We have long-delayed investments in ports and roads, in infrastructure for the development of lithium [mining] and green hydrogen, in the construction of prisons and reservoirs, etc. Likewise — and considering that 75% of our economy depends on exports — we must give new life to our foreign trade by doubling our exports, diversifying the products we send to other markets and updating our trade agreements, many of which already exist. They are more than 20-years-old.

We also have internal challenges that have been around for a long time. Basically, we need a country with equity, so that everyone has access to fair and quality education, health, housing and pensions. We need to confront the phenomenon of delinquency and organized crime, so that the country can have social peace again.

Citizens have been demanding changes to the pension system for years. We must restore the principle of integrity in public service and continue reducing poverty. Education always requires new public policies. We also have an explosive situation in the field of private health insurance, along with other issues.

Q. What do you most miss about your time as president? And what do you not miss at all?

A. When I assumed the presidency, I was very clear that this work had a start-date and an end-date, so there’s nothing that I miss greatly. What I would like is to see the country functioning today as it did [during my administration], with a growing economy, low unemployment, with a lot of investment in infrastructure, construction everywhere, with the country accessing new markets, etc. I don’t see that momentum and dynamism today. We have to recover it. There’s a lack of leaders who make decisions for the good of the country, even if those decisions are complex or unpopular.

Q. How would you like to be remembered 50 years down the road?

A. I would like to be remembered as a man who loved Chile immensely and who — beyond my successes and mistakes — always, throughout my entire public career, tried to give the best of myself for Chile and my compatriots, without any personal interest, always acting with dignity. I [served as president] with a vision of the future, thinking about what was best for the development of the country and all Chileans. I acted with transparency and honesty — I never put personal interest before that of the country.

Ricardo Lagos


He was the first socialist to arrive at La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, after Salvador Allende. Ricardo Lagos, 85, governed Chile between 2000 and 2006. As president, he commemorated the 30th anniversary of the coup d’état. And, during his administration, he supported the work of the Valech Commission, which collected testimonies about political imprisonment and torture during the dictatorship.

Question. What do you like — and what do you not like — about Chile today?

Answer. Maybe, as the years go by, you become more rigorous in defining what you like about your country. But I think that, today, I like how the younger generations relate to new technologies and handle the challenges that come with them. This defines the attitude of those who launch startups, combining enthusiasm, innovation and a vision of the future. And, in some ways, this also has something to do with what I don’t like: the inequality that makes it much more difficult for a talented girl or boy [from a modest background] to gain the knowledge and access necessary to make their dreams come true. This inequality — made more evident by the digital divide — limits people, it limits social bonds. If we want to get anywhere in the 21st century, we must overcome this.

Q. In what shape is Chile in, on the 50th anniversary of the coup?

A. Chile reaches the 50th anniversary with the open wounds of a deep tragedy — marks that cannot be erased from history. But you have to ask yourself: why have the wounds not been able to heal? It’s because we have a deficit of truth, of unanswered questions. The Chilean Civil War of 1891 left thousands dead and a president who chose suicide after being overthrown, but when 50 years had passed, there were no major disputes or extreme polarizations [in the country]. The Chile of 1941 — after suffering from a great earthquake — looked to the future and CORFO [the Production Development Corporation] promoted a powerful productive shift in the country. Why was that? Because, after that fratricidal confrontation [of 1891], everyone knew where their dead were buried and they knew the convictions [that drove each soldier] to die in battle. On the other hand, September 11 of 1973 left the marks of extreme military action against unarmed civilians, torture and more than a thousand disappeared detainees, whose fate — to this day — is unknown. That biblical phrase of “the truth will set you free” weighs very strongly at this time.

Q. What are the country’s main challenges for the future?

A. The main challenge is to get citizens to trust the country’s institutions again. A society that progresses without confidence in the setting where its daily life takes place will break down. The constitution and the laws must belong to everyone, they must help [citizens] confront differences and resolve disputes. And, within that framework, [we must] have institutions that give solidity to the future of the country, as well as institutions that are respected in their work and in their ethical and moral quality. Chile needs this structure because, in our dealings with the world, we will be respected not only for having certain products and certain ideas, but also for being a country that has solid institutions and serious decision-making processes.

[We also need to] understand the evolution of geopolitics and place ourselves strategically in it. The tensions between the United States and China aren’t a matter of a couple of years: they will mark the coming decades. Institutional stability will allow us to reinforce our autonomy amidst the new complexities of global politics.

Q. What do you most miss about your time as president? And what do you not miss at all?

A. Beyond what I may miss, what’s important is what the people of Chile made me learn from that responsibility. I learned that you govern for democracy. Every day — in each decision that’s made [in the presidency] — you add another brick to the country’s democratic heritage. Nothing is easy, especially when you don’t have a majority in parliament. We had to find ways to ensure that the vulnerable could have a better life; to ensure that the roads and metro routes improved families’ well-being, that education became more equal, that health programs had stronger guarantees. These were important steps that — at the time — reflected a country that had entered the new century and the new millennium with greater confidence in its possibilities. What each of these steps sought was, precisely, to make our democracy a little more solid.

Q. How would you like to be remembered 50 years down the road?

A. The question calls for an exercise in immodesty that I prefer to leave aside. Rather, I would mention how certain obsessions marked my time [in political office]. One: I always sought to expand equity, because Chile will never become a developed country if it maintains the levels of inequality that have marked its transition from the 20th century to the 21st century. Two: I constantly looked to the future, at the possibilities that awaited us. That’s why I talked about the internet in my first presidential address, that surprised those linked to classical politics.

For this reason — as we reach the end of the first quarter of this century — I always repeat that we’re leaving the industrial revolution behind and advancing rapidly through the digital age. And, in this era of growing innovation, we must ask ourselves essential questions: what will be our merits, so that Chile continues to be a respected country in the new international order? [How will we be respected in an era] where digital technologies will create interactions that were unimaginable until very recently? Perhaps I would like to be remembered for having these obsessions.

Michelle Bachelet


Michelle Bachelet — a socialist — was the first woman to become president of Chile. The pediatrician achieved it twice: she served two terms, between 2006 and 2010 and between 2014 and 2018. Her first term was the last of the center-left Concertación (the coalition of center and left-wing parties that governed Chile uninterruptedly from 1990-2010). In her second term, she governed with a broad alliance that ranged from the Christian Democrats to the Communist Party. The daughter of a soldier who died after being tortured by his own comrades-in-arms after the 1973 coup d’état, both Bachelet and her mother were politically detained.

Question. What do you like — and what do you not like — about Chile today?

Answer. I like the people of our country. The people who, every day, put their lives on the line for their families, to help them get ahead. In that sense, we’ve made progress as a country in terms of inequality, although we still have a long way to go to end the tremendous structural inequality that has characterized Chile.

What I don’t like is that — 50 years after the coup — there are people willing to question facts that are unquestionable [about the dictatorship]. We’ve seen a lack of unity, a sense of polarization in recent times. In addition to the brutal legacy of the dictatorship, we haven’t managed to change the neoliberal model that it left behind, where individualism is exacerbated to the maximum.

Q. In what shape is Chile in, on the 50th anniversary of the coup?

A. Chile reaches the 50th anniversary of the coup with several challenges. Around 70% of Chileans weren’t born 50 years ago. Those of us who witnessed those brutal events are now a minority. We’re responsible for preserving memory. I’m concerned that, [on September 11, 2023], there are people who are willing to justify the unjustifiable. You can never justify a coup d’état, nor the breakdown of democracy, nor the violation of human rights, nor crimes against humanity. We must have basic clarity [of past events] and a minimal level of civil cohesion, so to speak.

We reach [the 50th anniversary of the coup] with Chileans who are willing to question democracy. Although it’s not a perfect system, it’s the best we have — it allows us to find ways to resolve our conflicts peacefully. It’s very worrying that there are people who declare that Pinochet was the best ruler in our history.

Q. What are the country’s main challenges for the future?

A. Chile faces multiple challenges going forward. Structural inequality remains a persistent reality and combating it is essential to guarantee a fairer country for all. The reform of the pension system is another crucial aspect… I hope that the [political] parties can reach significant compromises in the short-term.

Gender equality must be a priority — it’s essential to guarantee that there are no setbacks in sexual and reproductive rights, despite [anti-choice] voices. It’s essential to strengthen our democracy, especially in the context of discussions about an eventual new Constitution, which has the potential to redefine the essence of our social pact.

Security remains a concern — we must find solutions to the challenges in the south. Finally, it’s imperative to address the migration phenomenon in a humane and comprehensive manner, recognizing that migration is a human right and that people seek opportunities and security for themselves and their families. And, of course, we must continue to strengthen democracy and promote and protect human rights.

One of the fundamental pillars for the future of Chile is sustainable economic growth. It’s not just about macroeconomic figures, but about development that has — at its core — the well-being of people and the protection of our natural heritage. In this sense, investment in innovation is vital. We must throw pur support behind a knowledge economy, where research, technological development and training are central. Innovation will allow us to diversify our economy, reduce our dependence on raw materials and find solutions that respond to the global challenges we face.

Q. What do you most miss about your time as president? And what do you not miss at all?

A. From my time as president, what I miss most — with affection and nostalgia — is the direct and daily contact with the people. I had the opportunity to hear and understand firsthand the needs and dreams of our citizens. I also deeply value the unique position I had to implement and carry out public policies, measures that not only sought to address immediate problems, but also to lay the foundations for a more prosperous and fair future for all families in our nation.

On the other hand, one of the aspects that I really don’t miss is the sometimes charged and conflictive environment in the political sphere. The absence of authentic civic friendship and the presence of a polarized political climate — which sometimes lacked a strategic and collective vision for the well-being of Chile — were constant challenges in daily administration.

Q. How would you like to be remembered 50 years down the road?

A. When people look back half-a-century from now, my hope is that they’ll see me as a passionate leader committed to equity and justice, both in Chile and around the world. I hope that future generations will recognize the efforts we made to build a more inclusive nation, where every individual — regardless of their origin, gender, religion or socioeconomic status — could have the same opportunities to prosper. I would like to be remembered not only for my political decisions, but also for the moments when [my administration] listened to the voices of those who were ignored, working tirelessly to reduce inequality.

Beyond tangible achievements, my greatest aspiration is to be remembered as a figure who — in difficult times — never lost faith in the transformative power of public service. [I would like to be remembered as someone] who inspired future generations to work with the same fervor and conviction in favor of a world where justice, solidarity and empathy reign.

Sebastian Piñera


He was Chile’s first right-wing president after the return to democracy in 1990. Sebastián Piñera, 73, was president of Chile during the 40th anniversary of the coup d’état, in 2013. During the September 11 commemoration that year, he spoke of the “passive accomplices” of the dictatorship. This was in reference to certain civilians — a charge that jolted the political sphere. He governed between 2010 and 2014 and then between 2018 and 2022. He faced the outbreak of social protests and riots in 2019 and, following that, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Q. What do you like — and what do you not like — about Chile today?

A. I like the character of our people and the temperament of our souls. We’re a country forged by adversity. In Chile, we have achieved everything with effort, work and pain. Also with faith, will and hope. That’s how we got our democracy back in the late 1980s. That’s how we rebuilt our country after the devastating earthquake of February 2010. That’s how we rescued our 33 miners, trapped in the deep bowels of a mountain in the Atacama Desert. And, with this same determination, we faced the coronavirus pandemic. Chile was one of the leaders in vaccinations and in protecting the health and lives of its population.

I don’t like the drift that we’re experiencing towards demagoguery, populism and irresponsibility in public debate, something that’s more typical of elites than of ordinary citizens. Nor do I like the weakening of the desire, will and capacity to transform Chile into a truly developed country. [We require] an inclusive model of development that includes all inhabitants, [a model of] sustainable development, which is respectful of nature, the environment and future generations.

Q. In what shape is Chile in, on the 50th anniversary of the coup?

A. Chile marks this date with a wound that still hasn’t healed. Fifty years ago — with the coup d’état — our democracy died. But it wasn’t a sudden and surprising death. Our democracy had been sick for a long time; sick from the violence and hatred promoted by leftist sectors in the late-1960s and early-1970s. Sick from the lack of respect for our democracy and rule of law. And sick from the serious political, economic and social crisis caused by the Popular Unity government [led by Salvador Allende, from 1970-1973].

The coup d’état of September 11, 1973 was predictable, but it wasn’t inevitable. It was the outcome of a deeply divided country. After all, a house divided cannot prevail. With the coup d’état, a long and non-democratic military government emerged, which — although it made important and valuable modernizations — incurred serious, repeated and unacceptable violations of human rights and restrictions on freedoms, which aren’t justifiable in any time, place, or circumstances.

In 1988, through the plebiscite [a referendum — won by the “NO” side — that offered Chilean citizens the option to continue with the military regime or transition to democracy], Chile began an exemplary process that allowed us to recover our democracy, which has been the natural way of life of the Chilean people since the beginning of the Republic. This also allowed us to recover our freedoms, respect for human rights and begin a period of great progress and achievements in all areas of national life.

Q. What are the country’s main challenges for the future?

A. Chile faces great problems and opportunities, which undoubtedly represent profound challenges for our country. Among the main problems are: addressing the serious public security crisis, pushing back against crime, organized crime, drug-trafficking and terrorism, which, in recent years, have grown and have caused enormous damage to Chilean society. Giving our compatriots more peace of mind and security is the main challenge we have as a country today.

Improving the quality of politics and strengthening democratic institutions [is another challenge]. As is improving the quality of education and making family life more compatible with work life. We must fully incorporate ourselves into the new technological revolution of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics… the knowledge and information society. This new society is very generous with the countries that want to embrace it and join, but indifferent — and even cruel — to the countries that turn their backs on it.

Chile has to grow again and create good jobs, based on a strategy led by elect, such as energy from the sun, wind and green hydrogen. We need to develop sustainable mining — we have abundant lithium, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements —, our gigantic astronomical potential, our natural laboratories, our capacity to be an agri-food power and, above all, unleash the forces of freedom that enhance our ability to imagine, create, innovate and undertake. This will allow us to defeat poverty and move towards a fairer society with greater equal opportunities.

To achieve all of this, nothing unites and motivates a people more than a sense of shared mission, a noble, ambitious and viable project, in which everyone has a place to contribute to development and a place to participate in the benefits of progress.

Q. What do you most miss about your time as president? And what do you not miss at all?

A. Leaving the presidency has given me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have a feeling of freedom. I’m able to do so many things that I couldn’t do for so long. Family, friends, culture, sports, travel, reading, experiences. And, on the other hand, I have a feeling of nostalgia for the nobility of public service and for not having been able to continue implementing my ideas and projects for Chile.

Today, I’m working to be a good former president who contributes to greater unity in the country and a better quality of public debate. I’ve also gotten involved again with family projects — such as Fundación Futuro, Fundación Tantauco, Fundación Piñera Morel and Fundación Avanza Chile — which are dedicated to the world of culture, conservation, education, vulnerable children and public policies. Finally, I’ve helped organize the Freedom and Democracy Group, whose founding members are presidents and former presidents of [Spain and Latin America]. Our mission is to defend and promote freedom and democracy.

Q. How would you like to be remembered 50 years down the road?

A. I would like to be remembered as a good person, a family man, who believed in God and loved his country and his people. A president, who — beyond his many defects — never gave up in the face of difficulties and adversity. Who fought with passion for his ideals and what he believed was fair and good for Chile. A person who, in politics, always privileged dialogue and collaboration. A president who sought to make Chile a freer, more prosperous and fair country. And that, in the darkest moments of adversity, he always knew how to stand up, wipe away the tears, roll up his sleeves and keep fighting.

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