Pinochet's regime: the verdict of history

Carlos Huneeus
13 December 2006

General Augusto Pinochet died on 10 December 2006, the United Nations-designated Human Rights Day. This fact alone will reinforce historical memory about the repressive character of the dictatorship he imposed on Chile from 1973 to 1990.

Pinochet may have been the last of the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces to join the conspiracy to overthrow the government of President Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973, but he was the strongman of the military regime almost from the beginning of its seizure of power.

The death of Pinochet is a moment not just to remember what he did, but also to recall the sources of his longevity in power, including the groups and institutions that supported him.

Carlos Huneeus is executive director of Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea (Cerc), and associate profesor at the Instituto de Estudios Internacionales, Universidad de Chile . Among his books are El régimen de Pinochet (Santiago: Editorial Sudamericana, 2000), which will be published as The Pinochet Regime (Lynne Rienner, January 2007), and Chile, un país dividido: La actualidad del pasado (Santiago: Catalonia, 2003).

Pinochet was simultaneously head of state, of government and (a position he retained for eight more years after the transfer of power to Patricio Aylwin in 1990) commander-in-chief of the army. A source of his great power throughout his seventeen years in charge was that he could rely on support from the three important organised civilian groups of the right:

  • the neo-liberal technocrats, known as "the Chicago boys", who directed the economic ministries and formulated the economic programme of the military regime
  • the Gremialistas under the leadership of Jaime Guzmán, the most powerful civilian advisor of Pinochet and the military junta; this group was the functional equivalent of the ruling party of the dictatorship
  • politicians belonging to the National Party, the rightwing party at the time of the coup in 1973.

But Pinochet needed, and received, support from other sectors too. The business community was grateful to him because the overthrow of Salvador Allende had made possible the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies, including privatisation, the weakening of trade unions, and a decrease in the minimum wage. Businessmen, and politicians from the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) and Renovación Nacional (RN) parties, were among the prominent civilians of the right who visited Pinochet during his 503-day detention (October 1998 - March 2000) at Virginia Water near London.

Pinochet also had the backing of a significant number of Chileans, even citizens on average or low incomes. In the 1988 referendum won by the democratic opposition, which made possible the transition to democracy, he received 43% of the votes.

A poll conducted by the Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea (Cerc) found that between a quarter and a third of Chileans considered that Pinochet was the best Chilean president of the 20th century; a similar percentage rejected the view that he was a dictator, and credited him as being responsible for Chile's economic progress. These positive views were based on the assumption that Pinochet was a statesman, a unique figure in Chile (and in Latin America), someone who had saved Chile from communism.

The breaking-point for many of the people expressing these sentiments was the disclosure by the United States senate of Pinochet's secret bank account at the Riggs Bank in Washington DC. The effect of this information was a collapse in Chileans' regard for their ex-leader; nowadays, barely 10% of Chileans express respect for Pinochet, and no party leader of the UDI or RN defends him against accusations of profiteering. A dramatic change in opinion has occurred, but it is triggered by economic factors not by evidence of the deaths, torture, and exile inflicted on thousands of people.

What happened between 1973 and 1990 must be remembered in order to understand why the restoration of democracy has been so difficult. Pinochet sought to divide Chilean society, and succeeded (as president, he repeatedly stated: "we are in a war, gentlemen"). He also presented himself as the saviour of the country from chaos. But the mistakes of Salvador Allende, and they were considerable, can never justify the horrors of the dictatorship that followed.

Intellectuals who were in opposition to Pinochet (such as myself) have the professional and ethical duty to help keep alive the memory of the past. That was the aim of my book on Pinochet's regime, and my effort to analyse through polling data the development of public opinion about Pinochet and political repression since 1986. The results of this accumulated research are clear: a decisive majority of Chileans are convinced that Pinochet was a dictator and have negative views on him. This majority will not decrease in the future.

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)

Alan Angell, "The Pinochet regime: an accounting"
(12 December 2006)

Beyond good and bad

In comparative perspective, Chile attained democracy after an era of repressive authoritarian rule, like Spain under General Franco. During these regimes, there were institutional changes that modernised society and the economy, and facilitated the inauguration of democracy. But this does not mean that Pinochet and Franco are the founding fathers of democracy (as is argued by rightwing politicians in Pinochet's defence and, at the same time, as a way of diminishing the successful performance of three democratic governments of the Concertación alliance).

Non-democratic regimes produce modernising effects in society, as the German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf argued in regard to the Hitler regime. This regime destroyed social barriers, opened the highest power positions of the Nazi party and the state to individuals belonging to the lower strata (see Ralf Dahrendorf, Society and Democracy in Germany [reprint, Greenwood Press, 1980]). But this does not make Hitler a founder of German democracy.

Dahrendorf's thesis is important and relevant because conservative groups in Chile and abroad have argued that Pinochet will secure a place in history as the founder of Chile's economic progress, which in turn made democracy possible. This is another attempt to defend Pinochet by giving an implacable dictator a human face. But the sufferings of thousands of families, which belong to Chilean history, are a reminder that dictatorships are not a mixture of "good" and "bad" parts. Augusto Pinochet will take his place in history alongside other notorious dictators of the 20th century.

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