December 12, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Augusto Pinochet fades away*

Retired Chilean dictator** Augusto Pinochet passed away a few days after suffering a heart attack. He spent his last months under house arrest, awaiting a trial that probably was never going to happen in any case. Like many historic figures, he was deeply divisive, which is why almost equal numbers of Chilean people mourned his passing as those who danced for joy in the streets. The Washington Post provided a fairly balanced biography, going into detail about the 1976 car bombing on Embassy Row in Washington, when Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffitt were killed. Two years later, about the same time that I moved to Washington, a former CIA employee named Michael Townley was convicted of the crime. There were many other dastardly deeds carried out in Pinochet's behest, but we may never know the extent to which he was complicit in them.

Among the most predictable leftist bloggers, Randy Paul views Pinochet as a vampire, calling for wooden stakes and garlic. [On the conservative side, Andrew Sullivan says the reaction by some to Pinochet's death helps him understand the "American right's toleration of torture as an instrument of statecraft." He also muses, wryly, "One day, Rumsfeld will be as leery of taking vacations in England as Pinochet was."]

Clearly Pinochet was a brute, and almost certainly countenanced murder and torture of political opponents, but disgust for him should be tempered by an understanding of the situation in Chile in 1973, and what Chile is like today. I am not trying to either join the crowd denouncing him or make excuses for him, but simply take an open-minded look at his life. Few people are aware that Pinochet showed no sign of interest in politics before he launched the bloody coup that toppled President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The Chilean armed forces had a high reputation for professionalism, though there were some intrigues in response to Allende's purchase of weapons from East Bloc countries for use by workers' militias. That move was regarded, understandably, as a subversive affront to the established security forces, a big step toward a proletarian revolution or even a civil war.

A frequent misperception is that the coup was orchestrated by the U.S. government, or at least was coordinated with Washington. There is no question that the Nixon administration used the CIA to undermine the Allende government, perhaps even to the point of economic sabotage, but there is as of yet no "smoking gun" pointing to U.S. involvement in planning for Pinochet's coup. On several occasions, he flagrantly defied the U.S. government, unlike the many Cold War lackeys of Washington in Latin America.

Although Pinochet eventually came to be linked closely to free-market economic policy, this change did not come about until the second or third year of his rule. Lacking a background in economics, he improvised at first, and eventually acceded to the advice of a group of monetarist economists schooled at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, who recently passed away. Chile pioneered in the privatization of retirement pension accounts, and one of the architects of that program, Jose Piñera, was an adviser to the Bush administration, which fumbled a similar initiative. (I saw him speak at U.Va. a few years ago.) Leftist critics dispute the economic success attributed to Pinochet, and as I've noted, his economic policies were not always consistent. The big exception to the rule of privatization and integration into global capital markets was in the copper mining sector. Pinochet never reversed the nationalization of Chilean copper mines that Allende had undertaken. Much like Mexico, where oil is considered a sacrosanct patrimony of the nation, copper in Chile is not for sale to foreigners.

Nevertheless, if you look across Latin America, Chile has by far the most stable, dynamic, and productive economic system, and is the envy of all neighboring countries. Indeed, Chile has been so successful economically that its government can afford European-style social democratic safety nets. Like Spain and Portugal, even with Socialist governments since the end of the authoritarian era, economic policy in Chile has been rational and market-oriented, resisting the temptation to indulge in populist "bonanza" spending sprees. It certainly does not belong in the "Third World" category. On balance, Chile is one of the most pleasant places to live in all of Latin America, and it would be hard to explain that fact without making reference to the policies enacted by Pinochet. For a believer in free market capitalism, however, Pinochet's undeniable economic success is not necessarily cause for cheer. Indeed, it raises the troubling question of whether it is even possible to implement a market-oriented development program in a Third World country using democratic means.

* As General Douglas MacArthur said about old generals, ...

** The phrase "retired dictator" is deliberately ironic. How many true "dictators" voluntarily step down? Pinochet was clearly an iron-fisted ruler, but as the recently-deceased Jeane Kirkpatrick always emphasized, he was an authoritarian leader, not a totalitarian seeking permanent, absolute power, as Fidel Castro did. Speaking of which, Castro may not live much longer, either.