The Magazine

Don't Cry for Pinochet

Chile succeeded despite him.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By JOHN LONDREGAN
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The death of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte marks the definitive end of his efforts to associate himself with conservatism. It also marks the ultimate success of his efforts to avoid accountability for his murderous behavior as a leader of the Chilean military junta that took power in 1973.

In September 1973, Chile was in the midst of a social crisis as the elected Socialist president Salvador Allende lost control over his own Popular Unity (UP) coalition, and violence erupted in the streets. There were certainly members of the UP who would have delighted in transforming Chile into a Marxist state along the lines of Castro's Cuba, but they were not at the point of being able to do so, and the elected political opposition to Allende had by no means exhausted its options in dealing with him. This did not prevent Pinochet from joining the unfolding coup plot. The violent succession of events on September 11, 1973, was highly one-sided; the military themselves were surprised by how little armed opposition they encountered as they seized power.

Despite Pinochet's initial declaration that he was the temporary leader of a temporary government, he managed to push aside the other heads of the armed forces, and to remain in power for the next 16 and a half years, longer than any other ruler, elected or otherwise, in the post-independence history of Chile. During the long years of military rule, Pinochet remorselessly sought control. He outlawed political parties and had opponents murdered. The butcher's bill for his time in power included the lives of over 3,000 of his fellow citizens (in a country of 15 million), not counting the many thousands more who were tortured by the government, and the thousands driven into exile. Pinochet sought to transform Chilean society, and he incorporated a series of free-market economic reforms as a part of his recipe for success.

His embrace of economic reform seems unlikely to have sprung from a commitment to freedom, given the overarching contempt for liberty that characterized the rest of his government. Rather, in order to insulate himself from the consequences of his murderous seizure of power, Pinochet sought out political allies, and his free market reforms helped him to garner support domestically on the right, and also among members of the international community. One must be careful not to fall into Pinochet's trap--accepting his brutal seizure of power and tyrannical rule as a natural accompaniment of free market reforms. Propagandists on the left lost no time in seeking to discredit economic freedom by associating it with Pinochet. To this day, we hear from Moscow that it takes a Pinochet to implement economic reforms successfully; Vladimir Putin seems all too willing to have Pinochet's uniform taken in a few sizes so he can try it on.

Pinochet and his apologists argue thus: "Castro and the far left are worse than Pinochet, they kill more people and deliver fewer benefits than did the military government of Chile." Are we to admire Pinochet because his murderous regime was more efficient than tyrants on the left at producing higher GDP? Without the torture, rape, and killing, would economic and political freedom have been impossible in Chile? Hardly! But this is the argument insinuated by Pinochet. He successfully appropriated the utilitarian fallacy to which many on the left fall prey: that murder and torture are acceptable if they hasten the advent of the utopia implied by one's ideological model. That fallacy probably killed more people during the 20th century than typhus, and it stands to do so again in this century if we do not inoculate ourselves against it.

Pinochet tied his advocacy of free markets about people's eyes like a blindfold, to keep them from seeing his firing squads. Nothing that was achieved during his years of tyranny justifies the crimes he committed. Nor is there any meaningful sense in which the policies adopted by the Pinochet government should be viewed as paradigmatic for economic freedom. The military government long pursued a badly misguided policy of overvaluing the local currency; during the debt crisis of the 1980s it took the outrageous step of converting private debts to foreigners into public debt. And then there was its corruption, details of which continue to gradually leak into public view. Indeed, there continues to be a need for economic reform and openness in Chile, where a "good old boy network" acts as a powerful check on economic and social mobility.