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The Pinochet regime: an accounting

Alan Angell
12 December 2006

Few coups in Latin America have received so much international attention as that of Chile in September 1973. Condemnation of Augusto Pinochet and his regime was almost universal (the United States of America of Richard M Nixon and Henry Kissinger was an exception); not just because of the illegality of the action and the brutality that accompanied it, but because Pinochet's coup took place in a democracy, in a country with a long experience of constitutionalism, and because it brought to an end an unusual attempt to create socialism through parliamentary and constitutional means.

Yet Pinochet had his supporters. Indeed, a surprisingly large number of Chileans remained loyal to him to the end of his regime in 1990. He did, after all, gain 43% of the vote in the October 1988 plebiscite to prolong his rule for eight more years.

Even if we can discount some of those votes because of fear and intimidation, it is nonetheless clear that Pinochet had substantial support from a variety of groups: business, right-wing Catholics, those who feared a return to the chaos of the Salvador Allende years, some sectors of the poor who benefited from the targeted social policies of the regime, and those who welcomed the tranquillity of the Pinochet years, even if it was the tranquillity of a well-ordered prison. (This domestic support, by the way, was far more important than the support of the US - which in any case did not support him during the Jimmy Carter presidency or in the later years of the Ronald Reagan period).

Alan Angell is university lecturer in Latin American politics, and a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford. Among his books are Politics and the Labour Movement in Chile (1972); En Busca de la Utopia: La Politica Chilena entre Alessandri y Pinochet (1994); and (co-edited with Benny Pollack) The Legacy of Dictatorship: Political, Economic and Social Change in Pinochet's Chile (1993). His next book is Democracy after Pinochet: Politics, Parties and Elections in Chile (Institute for the Study of the Americas, early 2007)

Supporters will give three reasons for arguing that the legacy of Pinochet was positive and that Chile should be grateful to him. The first is that human-rights violations, regrettable as they were, were necessary to combat the evils of Marxism. The second is that he was the architect of an economic miracle. And the third is that he laid the foundations of a stable political order. I think there is little substance to the first and last claim, and the second one is far less accurate than is often asserted.

Human rights

The record of human-rights violations in Chile under Pinochet was appalling - at least 3,000 people were killed, many thousands tortured and many thousands more were forced into exile. There is never any justification of such brutality by any regime, but the normal excuse offered by military plotters is that a coup is necessary to deal with terrorism and guerrilla violence.

This excuse does not work for Chile. The ease with which the military regime dealt with the very limited and scattered opposition to the coup shows how unprepared the government and its supporters were for effective armed opposition to the plotters on the right. Even those small groups that had access to arms were in no position to challenge a powerful and effective military.

Pinochet and his supporters chose to exercise terror and repression because it served to justify their claim that the Marxist threat was real and could only be countered by such measures. This claim could then be used to justify (in their eyes) the creation of a severely authoritarian regime with strict controls over any political activity, and drastic punishment for anyone perceived as an opponent of the regime.

The economy

The second justification is that Pinochet created a model free-market economy. It is certainly true that there was massive privatisation and effective reduction of inflation. But the negative features are huge. The overall growth rate of the seventeen years of his rule was dismal - a little over 2% per annum. He engineered two massive recessions - that of 1975 (which could partly be blamed on the situation he inherited), and one of 1982-83 (which was due entirely to the regime's economic policies).

There was enormous social suffering - unemployment at its peak was over 30%, and over 40% of the population were in poverty at the end of his regime. His government reduced social spending, with dire consequences for the quality of public health and education. Moreover, despite the commitment to neo-liberalism, the largest state asset, the state copper corporation Codelco, was not privatised, and Pinochet's regime received colossal financial support from a state company nationalised by the Salvador Allende regime.

I could go on: the much-vaunted pension privatisation is now under attack, the central bank only achieved real independence under democracy. In truth, only after the recession of 1982-83 did the regime adopt sensible macro-economic policies.

It must also be stressed that these economic measures were accompanied by corruption which benefited Pinochet's supporters - and also, we know now, the man and his family himself. The privatisations were used to reward supporters, and there was little transparency or effective regulation. The rich benefited enormously in Pinochet's government leaving Chile with the legacy of one of the most unequal income distributions in the world.

The claim that Pinochet ruled for the benefit of the country can no longer be sustained. Undeniably, Chile has seen great economic progress since 1990 but this, I would argue, is the product of the policies of the democratic governments and not the legacy of Pinochet.

Also on Chilean politics and the Pinochet legacy in openDemocracy:

Geoffrey Bindman, Juan Garces, Isabel Hilton, "Justice in the world's light" (15 June 2001)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era"
(16 January 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold"
(11 December 2006)

Jorge Larraín, "Pinochet's death"
(12 December 2006)

The political order

What of the claim that Pinochet created a stable and transformed political order? It is true that the constitution of 1980 he designed is still in place, but that is against the will of the democratic governments, who have lacked the legislative majority to replace it, though there have been fundamental modifications to make it less authoritarian and more democratic - the direct election of local authorities, greater powers of congress,  and greater presidential control over military appointments, amongst other measures.

Pinochet's regime was characterised by order and stability after 1973 but as virtually all the opposition leaders had been exiled or killed, as all political activity was banned, and as Pinochet's apparatus of repression was extensive and effective, that is hardly surprising. The Catholic church was a lone and courageous voice opposing the human-rights violations of the regime.

Yet despite the level of repression, when the crisis of 1982-83 increased the suffering of the population, mass protests broke out and continued to break out monthly for several years. Pinochet never broke the power of the parties, even though this was his stated aim, and after his exit from office , the same or similar parties, and in many cases the same politicians emerged to take office. If Chile has been a stable and successful democracy since 1990 that, once more, is to be attributed to the politicians of democracy not the legacy of authoritarianism.

A question of justice

The last question to be raised is a natural one in light of Pinochet's death: why was he not brought to justice, why was there no trial? This demands a considered reply.

First, dictators are rarely - if ever - brought to justice unless there is foreign intervention. Second, Pinochet was not the only violator of human rights in Chile and progress in this area is impressive. The number of former military officers arrested, on trial or being investigated for human-rights abuses is way above those of any other country of Latin America; in 2005, ninety-four former members of the military were convicted of human-rights violations, with an additional 405 cases on trial, and 600 cases are under investigation, representing a total of 1,240 victims.

There have been official reports condemning the violations, reparations have been made, trials continue, new interpretations challenge the Amnesty Law of 1978, and the army has admitted culpability and has apologised. The attempt to bring Pinochet to justice was, though unsuccessful in his lifetime, never-ending,

If Pinochet never faced the final humiliation of a trial, he faced many other humiliations. Almost all his supporters deserted him. The National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture Report (the Valech report) of November 2004 produced such undeniable evidence of horrific brutality on such a massive scale than only the hardline Pinochetistas could ignore it. Juan Emilio Cheyre, the commander-in-chief of the army, undertook a series of initiatives to express genuine repentance for the abuses that took place under Pinochet. Pinochet's reputation, already fairly low, became even lower with mounting evidence of fraud and illicit enrichment. These developments were unimaginable ten years ago and led to his abandonment by the political right.

There have been demonstrations for and against Pinochet following his death, but they are on a small scale. Most Chileans will be glad that a page has been turned and they can concentrate on the issues which most concern governments and its citizens - education, health, employment and security. Democracy is now stable in Chile and Pinochet, like Francisco Franco, will increasingly become a figure of interest to historians, but less and less relevant to daily political concerns.

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