Sunday, December 10, 2006

The end of Pinochet

I promised my thoughts on Pinochet, and so here they are.

Pinochet and his supporters were adamant that he was different, that he did not take power for power’s sake, but rather to save the country from civil war and a Soviet/Cuban-backed takeover of the country. As a graduate student interviewing Chilean military officers in the 1990s I learned the importance of language. It was a “pronunciamiento,” not a “golpe.” It was a “regimen militar,” not a “dictadura.” This was true not only of the army, but the navy and air force as well.

Then and later I always got the clear impression that they respected Pinochet, not in a messianic sense, but rather from a respect for leadership and leading by example. Unlike the Somozas, Stroessners, and myriad others, Pinochet worked for the nation, not for his own selfish interests. Chile had faced a dire situation, and Pinochet had been forthright in addressing it. Plus, he had respected the results of the 1988 plebiscite and stepped down.

The Riggs Bank scandal punctured the image of selflessness, as we now know he stole over $20 million and funneled it into personal bank accounts. Continued work on Operation Condor (I am almost finished with an excellent book by Patrice McSherry on that topic, which is definitive, and I will review it on the blog in due time) shows he led an international effort not only to murder, but also to institutionalize murder. This makes it difficult to keep up the simple “he saved the country” argument, because no matter what you thought of Chilean politics on September 10, 1973, the next day he got a system going to terrorize the population, and even to kill many innocent people. It was done consciously, bureaucratically, and efficiently.

Therefore, his only “accomplishment” would be the restructuring of the Chilean economy, which began several years after the coup. This is the trickiest of his legacies. Chile now has the most dynamic and successful economy in Latin America. A reminder—we are talking in comparative terms. This does not mean Chile has solved the problems of poverty and inequality, or that it is a model that can be followed within the rules of democracy. But it did happen under his rule.

It also happened on the backs of workers, who were mercilessly crushed. It happened on the backs of the poor, as low income neighborhoods were commonly targeted for security sweeps. It created deep wounds that are not healed, and won’t ever be healed. No one can deny the economic stability, but neither can you deny the heavy costs associated with it.

Chileans pride themselves on being exceptions to Latin American rules. Chilean political history has Portales, Balmaceda, Arturo Alessandri (and Jorge, also a president but far less notable), Grove, Allende, Aylwin, among many more, and even Bachelet will fill those ranks of key political figures. They all had their weaknesses (some more extreme than others) but none were an embarrassment to the country. Pinochet is different. For all the rhetoric, he was not much different from other Latin American dictators who died in ignominy. He ruled by fiat (here I will note Robert Barros’ well-researched book on the ways in which the junta blocked him from time to time) he ordered people to be killed only because he did not like their politics, he enriched himself at the expense of the country, and put simply, he was a brute (while putting other brutes in positions of authority) and did considerable damage to Chile.

He will always be prominent in Chilean history, but I think almost entirely in a negative light. There isn’t much to mourn.

For LASA 2007, I am writing a paper on Chilean civil-military relations as part of a Chile panel I helped organize, so in particular I’ll be following the army to see how his death affects its relationship with the government and with society (which I think will improve, though not without complication). It’s a topic worthy of its own discussion.


Anonymous,  8:08 AM  

Today is a fascinating day to be in Chile. I feel as if I am witnessing history. In the spirit of telling both sides of the story, today I see a lot of long faces and I hear a lot of sadness in people's voices. While it is true that the majority in Chile are happy that he is dead, Pinochet's support runs very deep in this country among his former supporters. I don't know if that means that his supporters forgive him for his crimes (which were crimes committed against the other half of society and not his supporters) or if simply choose to overlook the negatives and only focus on the favorable aspects of the Pinochet years. But I can assure you that almost everyone I have talked to since yesterday credits Pinochet with creating the Chile that exists today. The debate centers on whether his tactics were too extreme or justified. But Pinochet is a hero to his supporters; that much is very, very clear this morning.

Greg Weeks 8:36 AM  

In the business community, yes. Outside that bubble, much less so. Polls in recent years show how small the group of supporters has been getting.

Anonymous,  11:32 AM  

I am looking out my office window to the Escuela Militar. There is a line of THOUSANDS of people waiting to see the body, which is lying in state today.

Greg Weeks 11:54 AM  

Again, I'm not saying that no one supports him, just that the number is dwindling, and has diminished significantly in the past several years. The fact that a lot of people in Las Condes are waiting to see his body doesn't change that. You'd have to show me poll data to convince me otherwise.

Anonymous,  3:59 PM  

Well, a search in English on Lexis-Nexis turned up one poll this year that asked about Chileans' views on Pinochet. Quoting Marta Lagos, described as "a pollster who oversaw a public opinion survey last week indicating that Bachelet would finish with 53 percent of the vote to Piñera's 47 percent," the report says:

"In our poll, 19 percent of those [who responded] said they believe Pinochet was a good government for Chile, and those are the people who will be staying at home this election."

Nineteen percent.

(The source here was Washington Post, January 15, 2006.)

Greg Weeks 2:38 PM  

As more details come out in the corruption case, and as Pinochet's role in ordering killings becomes more clear (as it very likely will as people talk and documents are unearthed) that number will shrink.

Nonetheless, nineteen percent is still a lot of people.

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