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Sunday, March 12, 2006
On Pinochet
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 1:52 pm

(Speaking of Chilean politics):

Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money asks: Why Pinochet?

Why is it that Augusto Pinochet gets lefties into such a lather?

I mean this question in all seriousness, and I’m looking for serious answers. Pinochet has always struck me as a kind of middling dictator, not worthy of the hatred that the left holds for him. From what I understand, Chile under Pinochet was somewhat less bloody than the Philippines under Marcos and Argentina under its military junta. He certainly didn’t approach the level of brutality found in Guatemala, El Salvador, or the Dominican Republic under Trujillo. Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, and the various leaders of China make him look like a rank amateur in the tyranny game. Yet, the invocation of Pinochet lets loose the rage. I don’t understand.

Speaking as someone who would be considered as coming from “The Right” (as crude a dichotomy as that is) let me attempt to provide something of an answer. And I will preface my comments by stating that I am appalled by the degree to which some on the right ignore the brutality of the regime. I recall, for example, Bob Novak on The Capitol Gang one night lauding Pincohet for his economic reforms and utterly ignoring the nature of his government.

I will state that in general I view the overall neoliberal policies of the Pinochet regime in a positive light, but cannot accept the method by which that regime was installed and the way it conducted itself in power.

There is something haunting and chilling about the idea of the presidential guard removing itself from the protection of a democratically elected president, and then having the presidential palace bombed by the air force and assaulted by the army. That is something that should be wholly inconceivable in a a democracy, yet it happened. No amount of positive economic policy can erase those events.

I will confess to never having done a quantitative comparison of the death tolls in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. However, my generic understanding is that the basic attacks on the left were similar in all three states. Further, in Chile, unlike Brazil, political society was essentially shut down during the Pinochet era (in Brazil one could say that political society was controlled, but it was not shut down during the military era). We are talking here not just about assaulting the armed left, but the rounding up of professors, poets, musicians and intellectuals who were considered sympathetic to communism (which echoes what happened in Brazil and Argentina). We are also talking about the attempt by the state to utterly quell political organization and activity (which echoes Argentina).

In a review of literature on Pinochet, Todd Landman writes:

In the early years of the Pinochet regime, dissidents and suspected subversives were routinely detained, tortured, exiled or killed. Such a pattern of repression continued into the early 1980s, when it was replaced by a strategy of forceful intimidation of civil society through the use of arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture (Foweraker and Landman 1997: 246-247). The main perpetrator of the violations was generally seen to be the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), which was replaced by the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) in 1977. In response to increasing social mobilization in the early 1980s, the regime declared a state of siege and used emergency powers under the 1980 constitution to suspend guarantees of civil and political rights. Violations of human rights have been variously documented by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad (a human rights NGO) and the Chilean Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. While the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation confirmed a limited number of extra-judicial killings (3,428), estimates by other groups of these and other violations are much larger (Reiter, Zunzunequi, and Quiroga 1992: 116-124).

Now, why might it be the case that left-leaners in the US go apoplectic over Pinochet, and not over the Brazilian military regime (which ruled for a longer period of time) or the Argentine, whose Dirty War may have been worse than that in Chile? There may be a simplistic explanation, which is actually pretty compelling: there was no single military leader in either of those cases.

The Brazilian military regime had regular, institutionalized rotation of the presidency amongst various generals. Here’s the list–and I suspect none of them leap out at anyone save a Brazilianist, or perhaps someone who regularly teaches Latin American Politics:

-Alencar Castelo Branco (1964-1967)
Artur da Costa e Silva (1967-1969 (died in office))
Emílio Garrastazú Médici (1969-1974)
Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979)
João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo (1979-1985)

Similarly, the Argentine case did not have a single dictator during the 1973-1983 period: first a junta, than Videla, Viola, Lacoste, Galtiere, Saint John and Bignone. All but Videla and Bignone served for less than a year. Videla as in office the longest–roughly five years.

As such, of the big three authoritarian regimes in South America, only Chile had a long-term “face”–the sixteen-year rule of Pinochet, which was followed, even after the transition to democracy, with his continuance as Commander-in-Chief of the military until 1998 when he then assumed a seat, under the constitution he had penned, as a Senator. This may add to the reaction–there is no sense that Pinochet received even a modicum of justice–he wasn’t even forced to resign in disgrace and hide from the public. Quite the contrary, he maintained himself as a political force even after the first presidential elections. It wasn’t until his arrest in London in 1998 that it even looked as if he might face justice in some capacity. As such he was in the public eye for a quarter of a century as either dictator, or the ex-dictator who got away with it legally.

So another reason that Pinochet may raise the hackles of many is that he didn’t go away, even after democracy returned to Chile. Indeed, one could argue that full democracy was not restored until the constitutional reforms of 2005 removed the military’s political powers.

Take the personal identification issue, the fact that he never “went away” and add it to the following list, and I think Robert’s question is pretty much answered:

  • Pinochet’s neoliberal program (viewed as anti-social justice by many on the left).
  • The fact that Allende was an elected leftist.
  • There was US CIA involvement in trying to destabilize the Allende regime. However, I think that calling the coup a “CIA-led” one is an overstatement–I think it was lead by the Chilean military. I do not think that the evidence suggests that it was a CIA coordinated event, like, for example, the removal of Arbenz in Guatemala or the installation of the Shah in Iran.
  • The Nixon administration was the one that was supporting the regime destabilization of Allende.

I would note that all three cases illustrate the folly of promoting dictatorship over democracy during the Cold War, and is one of the reasons I applaud the notion that our foreign policy in the Middle East (and globally) should be to promote democracy over dictatorship in the fight against terrorism (i.e., that the stability promised by authoritarians isn’t everything). Much harm came out of the US’s devotion to stamping out communism at all costs during the Cold War and I would not want to see similar mistakes made in the war on terrorism. However, I will further note that some of our policies in place like Guantanamo, or our usage of rendition, do put me in the mind of the national security attitudes of many Latin American governments during the Cold War: the need to be “getting the bad people” even if it violates our basic views of human rights and proper application of governmental power.

As such, we Americans need to be cautious about the way in which fear can drive policy, but in the way we treat foreign nationals, but how we seek to protect ourselves from our own citizens. The zeal of the administration and law enforcement to catch terrorists (such as the NSA wiretap program or the mistake in the Madrid bombing case noted in WaPo today) illustrate the degree to which lives can be severely damaged even when the intentions are good.

Update: Matthew Shugart makes some excellent points in the comments section. First, just as Pinochet is the most well-known of the dictators, so too is Allende the most well-known of those who were overthrown. Second, and more significantly, of the three cases, Chile was the most democratic–making the coup all the more dramatic and shocking.


  1. Agreed that Pinochet gave the militarized right a face lacking in Argentina or Brazil, but the obverse of that is also true. Who remembers or cares about Joao Goulart or Maria Estela Peron (as president, not as wife of Juan)? In fact, neither Goulart nor Mrs. Peron had been elected president (both had been VP). Nor did either have much ideology or commitment to either socialism or democracy, and no one would ever confuse either with an intellectual.

    Allende, on the other hand, was a long-time senator and leader of an ideological leftist party in a democratic country. (Neither Argentina nor Brazil had as impressive a democratic experience as Chile, even acknowledging the restricted suffrage at the time in Chile). Allende was a genuine intellectual, as well as a very sober man who believed as passionately in democracy as he did in socialism, and loathed the violence of the “ultras” in the ranks of the Chilean left.

    Above all, the passion felt even today on the left stems from the sense that the world changed on September 11.

    And, of course, I am referring to September 11, 1973. It was the last day on which it was possible be both a socialist–in the revolutionary sense of seeking the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism–and a democrat–in the liberal sense of protecting free expression and the rights of opposition. After that day, “revolutionary democratic socialism” became an oxymoron. If you were a socialist after Septemer 11, 1973, you believed either that the path to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was through violence, or you became a social democrat and ceased being a revolutionary.

    Comment by Matthew Shugart/Fruits & Votes — Sunday, March 12, 2006 @ 5:36 pm

  2. All quite fair and accurate–Chile was truly democratic when the coup came, which one could not say of Argentina at all, and even in Brazil’s democracy was hardly impressive, shall we say.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Sunday, March 12, 2006 @ 5:53 pm

  3. Well done, Dr, Taylor. I really enjoyed reading this piece.

    I think this subject matter is relevant, not only because of the searing in of the new Chilean president; but now the left has itself in a snit over the fact that Milosevic died before he was brought to justice.

    Comment by LASunsett — Sunday, March 12, 2006 @ 9:24 pm

  4. Make that SWEARING in of Chile’s president. (I doubt she was on a grill somewhere)

    Comment by LASunsett — Sunday, March 12, 2006 @ 9:27 pm

  5. Thanks.

    And thankfully there are not major cannibal groups (to my knowledge) in Chile. And if there are, I am sure that they wouldn’t be invited to the inauguration! :)

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Sunday, March 12, 2006 @ 9:30 pm

  6. With the amount of cold medicine I have had to take over the last few days, it’s amazing I didn’t have more typos. :(

    Comment by LASunsett — Monday, March 13, 2006 @ 6:38 am

  7. Actually, Bachelet was not sworn in. She is agnostic, and she “promised” to uphold the constitution.

    One small clarification to my comment above: Chile’s “restricted” suffrage refers to the period before 1969 (i.e. before the election of Allende). Chile was continuously democratic from the 1930s until 1973, but before 1969, illiterates could not vote.

    In Brazil, democracy was in effect only from 1945 till the coup of 1964, and illiterates were not enfranchised until after military rule, in the 1980s.

    Comment by Matthew Shugart — Monday, March 13, 2006 @ 10:36 am

  8. And in Brazil you had substantial (albeit electoral) involvement of the military in politics prior to the coup.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Monday, March 13, 2006 @ 11:04 am

  9. Part of the reason is also the fact that people on the political and academic left in the US and Europe took an interest in Allende’s government at the time, read about it, had conferences and met Chileans. It was a model with attractions, unlike the previous regimes in Brazil and Argentina. And then Pinochet stages his coup and a lot of the Chilean experts, poets, politicians etc were murdered or persecuted. It was, I understand from people of that generation, very personal.

    There was also Pinochet’s personal treachery to Allende, having sworn to uphold the constitution, and the murder of his predecessor. Pinochet also organised terrorism abroad, with the assassination of Letelier in Washington DC.

    There was, in Europe anyway, a rather chilling implied threat from some on the right that the same could happen here if the left got ideas above its station. Some on the right make excuses for him even now, as a kind of Margaret Thatcher figure who played a bit rougher because Chile was a rougher sort of place.

    In Britain there is a bit of a difference, in that we know about (and demonise) General Galtieri of Argentina because of the Falklands war of 1982. Because of the war, the background of the disappeared and the dirty war was aired more thoroughly in Britain than elsewhere.

    Comment by Lewis Baston — Wednesday, March 15, 2006 @ 1:22 pm

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