Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Heraldo Munoz's The Dictator's Shadow

I just read Heraldo Muñoz's The Dictator's Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet. I wasn't sure what to expect from a political memoir, and before starting wondered if I would get bogged down and keep it mostly for reference. After reading, however, I concluded that I would recommend this book to any non-specialist interested in understanding the Pinochet era. Meanwhile, those who already study Chile will appreciate his insider view and engaging writing. He has held numerous high level political positions and is currently the Chilean Ambassador to the UN.

What I appreciated most about the book was how well it explained very complex issues. Several stand out. The relative stance of the Socialist (of which Muñoz was an active and militant member) and Communist Parties during and then after the Allende years is definitely important, and he has a lot of personal anecdotes. He details the schisms in the former and the radicalization of the latter, and the challenges of coalition building.

Pinochet's arrest is also no simple thing. The people involved, the laws being applied, and the labyrinth of British law are summed up in a really accessible way that incorporates the conflicting political pressures that were in play: the Chilean government, human rights groups, the British opposition (especially Margaret Thatcher), the Spanish judiciary, vociferous Pinochet supporters, etc.

Pinochet is an easy person to caricature, but Muñoz captures his different sides well--the disciplinarian, the diplomat, the Cold War dogmatist, the liar, the family man, the Chilean nationalist, even the old man. I love the quote he has from Pinochet, who claims Chile under his rule is a democracy: "We do not oppose ideas. Ideas are respected. What we oppose is that ideas be spread or that some may attempt to apply them here in the country" (p. 195). Or, much later, when asked about how enormous sums of money were placed in banks around the world: "I forgot. My glycemia was very high in those days" (p. 290).

Muñoz is also nuanced when discussing the role of the United States. The Nixon/Kissinger years are beyond defense, but the Reagan years are not so clear. He credits the National Endowment for Democracy, often vilified in Latin America, for helping to register voters for the 1988 plebiscite that defeated Pinochet. The Letelier murder in DC continued to confound relations and so after an initial honeymoon even the Reagan administration eventually wanted to see at least some human rights progress, though he also discusses the strong support Pinochet had from many members of the administration. Later, the Clinton administration played an important role in declassifying documents and even during the George W. Bush years, Pinochet's corrupt association with Riggs Bank became public as a result of U.S. investigations in terrorism and money laundering. (He does take a poke at John Bolton for failing to understand the Chilean government's position on Pinochet's arrest in Great Britain).

My only quibble: the book seeks to frame Pinochet as completely in the past, so that when Bachelet took office, "Nobody was thinking about General Pinochet anymore. He was the past" (p. 298). Clearly this isn't true, as Muñoz himself was obviously thinking very hard about Pinochet and his legacy. Pinochet the person is dead, but his influences will linger for quite some time.


boz 8:09 AM  

FYI, the Dialogue and the Wilson Center held a book launch back in September with Insulza also commenting. It was one of the more interesting public events I've attended.

Anonymous,  4:07 PM  

Excellent review. Thanks for the recommendation.

Anonymous,  10:23 PM  

I've had my eye on it. Thanks for the recommendation, Greg.

Anonymous,  2:18 AM  

Nice review indeed. I just finished the book and assigned it to my LA Politics class. The majority felt the book was "biased." I didn't think so and was very disturbed by their reactions--but then I teach in Florida.

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