David and Marc have already weighed in on yesterday’s Washington Post editorial on the life and legacy of Pinochet, but I wanted to provide in some detail an argument for why it is a mistake to credit the former dictator with Chile’s relative economic success.
The first two paragraphs of the editorial address Pinochet’s tyranny. Sort of. While acknowledging that “[m]ore than 3,000 people were killed by his government and tens of thousands tortured,” that “[t]housands of others spent years in exile,” and that a criminal trial in Chile was “richly deserved,” the editors point prominently to Salvador Allende’s “responsibility for creating the conditions for the 1973 coup”. The editors thankfully do not go so far as to blame Allende entirely, nor to equate him morally with Pinochet, but the overall purpose of their piece is to excuse Pinochet, to be his posthumous apologists.
And this becomes clear over the next four paragraphs of the editorial. The editors note that “the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America,” “a vibrant democracy”:
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. He also accepted a transition to democracy, stepping down peacefully in 1990 after losing a referendum.
All this, the editors claim, proves Jeane Kirkpatrick (and Ronald Reagan) right: “[R]ight-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.”
To be fair, Allende was a Marxist whose economic policies were not entirely successful — and certainly not popular with some segments of the Chilean population, nor with the U.S. and its business interests in the country, such as ITT, which was tied in with the CIA and which supported Pinochet’s coup. And it may be that the Friedmanite reforms of Pinochet’s Chicago Boys — deregulation, privatization, deficit reduction, export expansion, etc. — contributed to Chile’s economic success. Under Pinochet, GDP grew, inflation fell, and the economy solidified.
But what were the costs of this “miracle”? The Chicago Boys’ reforms also included severe cuts to social services, notably health care, as usual disproportionately burdening the poor. Unemployment skyrocketed from 3 percent in 1972 to 25 percent in 1977. During the debt-fueled economic crisis of 1982-83, unemployment hit 33 percent. Wages declined throughout Pinochet’s rule. Monopolies drove out competition. Poverty and homelessness worsened. And the gap between rich and poor widened significantly. Indeed, the beneficiaries of Chile’s “miracle” — the beneficiaries of neoliberalism generally — were the rich.
And it could not last. Pinochet’s rule — as well as the economic “miracle” it allegedly spawned — relied on extensive military spending, social and political oppression, anti-communist fearmongering, and foreign loans. Pinochet stepped down in 1990 after losing the 1988 referendum, but long before that resistance and opposition to his dictatorial rule had taken hold of the country. And he had no intention of stepping down without a fight. For him, the referendum was about securing an eight-year term, not about establishing democracy. And he stepped down only because the Chilean people voted him out of office — 55 to 45. He remained commander-in-chief of the army. And he avoided justice, and any and all accountability for what he had done, through his position as senator-for-life.
Regardless of the relative success or failure of Pinochet’s economic reforms, however, the fact remains that he killed thousands and imprisoned and tortured many thousands more. Many just disappeared. Say what you will about Allende, he wasn’t a mass murderer. And the problem with the view espoused by Kirkpatrick, put into practice by Reagan, and endorsed here by the Post is that it excuses all manner of brutality in the name of economic neoliberalism. No matter the social consequences, no matter the negative impact on all others but the rich. Whether it’s Pinochet or Marcos or Noriega or any other rightist dictator, it’s all about anti-communism and extremist free-market reforms. Those reforms and their dubious successes justify whatever brutality enabled them.
Chile is doing relatively well today, but Pinochet’s true legacy is his tyranny. The ends do not justify the means, particularly when the ends are in question, and dubious reforms hardly justify mass murder.