Ian Williams: Pinochet’s Echoes Today

By Ian Williams

September 11 is a day that will live in infamy: a terrorist attack on a landmark building whose aftermath left more than 3,000 dead. Yes, Chileans will always remember the coup of September 11, 1973, when their military commanders—with tacit, and indeed active, support from Washington—bombed their own presidential palace, setting up a repressive regime that imprisoned, tortured, and executed supporters of the deposed government while driving untold more into exile.

But while Osama bin Laden is being hounded around the North West Frontier, one of the architects of the Chilean coup, Henry Kissinger, is a revered advisor to governments; the other, Augusto Pinochet, died without facing trial for his involvement.

“He had taken full advantage of the rights guaranteed to him by due process—rights that his victims were denied—and postponed his day of reckoning indefinitely.” On the day he died, “My feelings of hate toward Pinochet and what he represented had waned through the years; instead I felt a serene contempt for the man,” concludes Heraldo Muñoz in The Dictator’s Shadow, a highly readable, fascinating, and revelatory account of the General’s career.

Muñoz, now Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations and one of those who had to flee his country in 1973, has written a remarkably restrained memoir assessing just how big a shadow Pinochet cast, both globally and historically.

In fact, Pinochet comes across almost as a Zelig-like figure crossed with his earlier Spanish counterpart, Francisco Franco. Muñoz points out that as with many other aspects credited to him, Pinochet only adopted Chicago School economics under pressure from Admiral José Toribio Merino. Indeed, it wasn’t only economics the General bought ready-made off the shelf. A gray military bureaucrat who prospered by hanging on, Pinochet joined the coup against the president (who had appointed him commander-in-chief, mind you) mostly because his subordinates told him they were going ahead anyway. He adopted the anticommunist ideology and rhetoric almost retrospectively.

Muñoz stresses that the dictator stood out from other Latin America caudillos largely because he broke a uniquely long tradition (for Latin America) of democracy in Chile, but also because of his economic policies. Furthering this point, Muñoz writes: “In contrast to the disastrous record of most Latin American dictators, Pinochet would have had far fewer defenders if it had not been for his regime’s economic reforms.”

Could Chile have reached its present level of prosperity without the dictatorship? There is credit given in The Dictator’s Shadow for some of the economic reforms but Muñoz dismisses totally the idea that the dictatorship, the killings, and the repression were necessary—or even helpful—for the implementation of fiscal policies.

To cope with the initial recession that the Chilean shock treatment induced (and with ironic parallels to the current Bush administration policy), “Pinochet had to nationalize banks and industries on a scale unimagined by the Allende government.” The irony continues: it was the alleged socialistic trends of the Allende government that were the excuse for the coup in the first place.

Muñoz is emphatic that while some of the reforms had positive effects in weaning the country off its overdependence on copper and in encouraging a more entrepreneurial spirit, most economic growth has been made since democracy’s return, which has provided Chile a growth rate and prosperity that is in stark contrast, for example, with neighboring Argentina.

One of the reasons for this, Muñoz explains, is that Pinochet united the previously dispersed factions of Chilean politics in a renewed appreciation of both democracy and rule of law. While on the day of the coup Muñoz was picking up the pathetic armory of his Socialist Party unit, he eventually helped form the Socialist Party faction that tried to work within the realities of the situation rather than indulge in revolutionary gestures. They reached out to the Christian Democrats, among others, and campaigned against the referendum which would cement Pinochet’s rule.

Even though he correctly ascribes much of the blame for the coup’s chaos to Washington and its agents who worked to destabilize the country, Muñoz also accepts some of the responsibility for the growing schism in Chilean society—due in large part to the radical elements of the Socialist Party. Muñoz’s story of his involvement in the small jeans-making workshop (whose laborers were urged into reappropriating it for themselves) is emblematic. After the coup it was returned to its owner—only to close completely under the pressure of Friedmanite “reforms.”

While the tale of Pinochet, the coup, and the involvement of the United States may seem like ancient history to many younger readers, what makes The Dictator’s Shadow an engaging read is the discovery by Muñoz and his compatriots of the seductions of democracy that paved the way for what is now a prosperous Northern European-style socially democratic state at the Southern tip of the Antipodes.

Modern Chile is a much more successful model for the world than Pinochet’s military regime and its muddled laissez-faire economics (the same financial thinking that is widely blamed for the current global crisis). Insofar as there are lessons to be learned regarding prosecuting former heads of state for crimes against humanity, for Pinochet himself, they come sadly too late.

****

****

Related posts