“Para-politics” and the security forces Fumigation, seen from Ecuador
Dec 142006

On September 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror began in Santiago, as warplanes strafed the presidential palace and troops rounded up suspected leftists. 3,200 people would die, an incredible 29,000 (something like 1 out of every 500 Chileans) would be tortured, and as many as 200,000 would be forced into exile.

Since September 11, 1973 was only my third birthday, there is nothing I can say about Pinochet’s death that isn’t being said much better elsewhere. Though some very dumb things are being said, too, along the lines of “he wasn’t such a bad thug because he believed in the free market.”

Some of the best writing that I’ve seen:

  • Marc Cooper worked as a press aide for Salvador Allende, the elected president whom Pinochet deposed. He has posted thoughts to his blog, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation. Of all the pieces he has published this week, though, my favorite appears on Salon.com.
  • A great first-hand account from Santiago is on the blog of journalist Tomás Dinges.
  • “Free-marketeers presumably do not believe that you need torture and murder and dictatorship to implement their policies,” writes Christopher Hitchens in Slate.
  • The Independent (UK) publishes an excerpt from an earlier reflection by Isabel Allende.
  • Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recalls covering the plebiscite that brought the dictator’s reign to an end.

On the other side, the Washington Post editorial page, in a remarkably lame and lazy piece, contends that Chile wouldn’t be eating an omelet today had Pinochet not broken the eggs.

[T]he evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. … Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success. To the dismay of every economic minister in Latin America, he introduced the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle — and that not even Allende’s socialist successors have dared reverse.

An eloquent rejoinder to that argument comes from none other than The Economist:

With Chileans cowed, the Chicago Boys [the foreign free-market economists who advised Pinochet] could work as if in a laboratory, with no regard for social costs. They made mistakes: a fixed exchange rate and unregulated bank privatisations triggered a massive recession and financial collapse in 1982-83. More pragmatic policies and a renewal of growth followed. But it took the return of democracy in 1990, with its ability to bestow legitimacy, to create an investment-led boom and a large fall in poverty.

For his part, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg uses National Review’s blog to take a swipe at “leftists” for how he imagines they will react when Fidel Castro dies:

Fidel Castro is going to die sooner rather than later. And when that happens, you’re going to hear crickets chirping in certain quarters of the left … I think in the grand debate we can characterize as Pinochet V. Castro, Pinochet wins in a cake walk, as the late Jeane Kirkpatrick would surely agree.

Hold on. Who in the world would want to participate in a “grand debate” about whether Pinochet or Castro was the worse dictator? What a waste of time that would be. Both are dictators who’ve killed lots of their own citizens. Isn’t that enough? Why is it necessary to pick and choose between them?

Arguments about which dictator is “better” should be buried along with Jeane Kirkpatrick and her discredited ideas about “good” authoritarians and “bad” totalitarians. The above-mentioned Washington Post editorial, though, sees it differently:

In “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.

Huh? Didn’t totalitarian-communist regimes in eastern Europe make smooth transitions to liberal democracy after the Berlin Wall fell? And what of the dozen other Latin American countries that had right-wing dictators at the same time that Pinochet ruled Chile? (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico (PRI), Nicaragua (Somoza), Panama, Paraguay Uruguay – that’s 14.) Most of these have a long way to go to consolidate democracy – and control over their militaries – while some are actually moving backward. And why didn’t right-wing repression translate into economic magic everywhere else in the region?

5 Responses to “Bury Pinochet, don’t praise him”

  1. Randy Paul Says:


  2. richtiger Says:

    Well, unlike Adam, I was in my late 20’s when Pinochet overthrew the Allende government and began his “limpieza” of real and imagined leftists in Chile.

    I genuinely regret Pinochet’s death. I wish that he had lived long enough to receive some small measure of punishment for the crimes he committed.

  3. Randy Paul Says:

    I just saw your age, by the way, Adam. Christ do I feel old. I was 16 when the coup took place.

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    Hate to say it, Randy, but being thirty-six doesn’t exactly make me a youngster anymore either. (Most people, though, just notice the birthdate. Since my 31st birthday, it’s been easier to get a table in a restaurant, since most people in DC don’t really feel like celebrating…)

  5. Randy Paul Says:

    Adam, it’s just the way when I pass into another demographic group . . .

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