Saturday, December 16, 2006

Augusto Pinochet Set Chile on Road to Democracy

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal ran an enlightening editorial on Augusto Pinochet's legacy:

Augusto Pinochet died on Sunday at the age of 91, more than 18 years after he agreed to a 1988 plebiscite that turned him out of power. The standard Pinochet narrative is to emphasize the loss of liberty during the 17 years he ruled the country as a military dictator. The real story is more complicated.

Though General Pinochet became a devil symbol of the international left, he was a far more complex figure and cannot be understood apart from the global Cold War conflict of which he and his country were a part. Pinochet's legacy is a paradox--a long string of them.

He took power in a coup in 1973, but ultimately he created an environment where democratic institutions would prevail. He is responsible for the death and torture that occurred on his watch, but had Salvador Allende succeeded in turning Chile into another Cuba, many more might have died.

Late in life it emerged that he had probably stashed millions in personal bank accounts. But he also supported the free-market reforms that have made Chile prosperous and the envy of its neighbors. Finally, his legacy includes a Chile that is democratic, that truly belongs to the Chilean people; it exists in stark contrast to the nearly five decades of personal (and soon to be fraternal) dictatorship that Fidel Castro is leaving in Cuba.

Pinochet proved the truth of Jeane Kirkpatrick's Cold War distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, with the former far more likely to evolve into freer places. That the international left still gives Castro higher marks is something for democrats everywhere to ponder. The popular notion that the U.S. sanctioned the coup or condoned Pinochet's torture also hasn't held up under historical scrutiny. In particular, his behavior can't be understood without considering the behavior of the Allende government he deposed.

Contrary to mythology, Allende was never a popular figure in Chile. He garnered only 36% of the vote in the 1970 election. His path to the presidency had to run through Chile's congress. Reluctantly, the Christian Democrats agreed to let him go forward only after he promised to accept a "Statute of Guarantees" supporting the rule of law. In office, he moved fast and hard to the left.

Government threats to jail journalists in 1972 brought condemnation from the Inter-American Press Association and the International Press Institute. That same year, shortages and spiraling inflation sent Chilean housewives to the streets banging pots and pans. In the first days of 1973, Allende proclaimed government rationing.

In March, he tried to further accelerate the state's unlawful assault on private property through expropriation. In May the 14 members of the Supreme Court denounced "an open and willful contempt of judicial decisions [by the executive]" that threatened an "imminent breakdown of legality." Throughout 1973 street violence escalated. The coup came in September.

The official death toll of the Pinochet dictatorship is some 3,197. An estimated 2,796 of those died in the first two weeks of fighting between the army and the Allende-armed militias. The balance died in the next 17 years. The Pinochet dictatorship was fraught with illegality. Civil liberties were lost and opponents tortured. But over time, with the return of private property, the rule of law and a freer economy, democratic institutions also returned. An economic crisis in 1982 led to even more economic liberalization.

Let no one doubt that, for the peoples of many nations, the Cold War years were dark times. Like Spain's Franco, Pinochet was an authoritarian who resisted the Communists and created the foundation of what would become a democratic transition. What remains is a Chile that has the healthiest economy in Latin America, a free press and a competitive political system that has allowed Socialists to come to power.
One rarely gets the full story about Chile's flirtation with Marxism in the early-1970s, especially from radical leftists obsessed with the CIA's role in toppling the Allende regime. Unfortunately, level-headed retrospectives such as this won't persuade the numerous America-bashers who are convinced of an evil American imperialist crusade to dominate the world.

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