In 1971, Fidel Castro visited Chile, where the left-wing government of Salvador Allende was under pressure from the second most powerful Marxist movement in the Western Hemisphere to speed up the revolutionary process. The president provided the Cuban visitor with a military escort. His name was Augusto Pinochet Ugartethe same man who in 1973 overthrew Allende to prevent what he called a second Cuba.
Thirty five years later, the two aging men who embodied the competing strands of Latin American authoritarianism saw their health deteriorate irreversibly. Pinochet seemed to be escorting Castro once again, this time on the way to the afterlife. In the last few months, Latin Americans had been asking themselves: Who will go first? Last Sunday, the escort decided to go first. They sometimes do.
The difference between the two men is that Castro, who has been in power almost three times longer than Pinochet and has committed even more crimes, continues to have some supporters around the world while Pinochet was one of the most reviled men on Earth. Why was Pinochet more hated than every other dictator?
Probably because he gave a bad conscience to almost everybody across the political spectrum. For the left, he symbolized the tragic consequences of the Third Worlds socialist utopia. For the right, he embodied the diabolical temptation to dispose with the rule of law when the political institutions of democracy are tested to the limit. For Latin American democrats of the left and of the right, he was a walking reminder of their own failure to bring about economic prosperity. For free marketers, he was that ugly example of economic success and political repression that used to make it so hard to defend free markets without appearing to condone torture and mass murder. And for human-rights groups, he was, until the discovery of his hidden fortune in 2004, the ethical dictator who could be accused of many things but not corruption.
The Pinochet saga did not start with the bloody coup in 1973. It started with the class struggle unleashed by the Marxist left when it tried to push Allende toward all-out revolution. Allende had only won a third of the popular vote and, according to Chiles constitution, Congress was able to declare him president over his center-right opponent after making a commitment to respect the rule of law. The lefts responsibility in the erosion of the rule of law and the establishment of a 17-year military government that brought about human-rights atrocities and the interruption of a democratic tradition in that country is a matter of historical truth. Today, Chiles Socialist government is the antithesis of the Allende government precisely because of that truth. The left feels very uncomfortable with the humiliating lesson of history.
But the center-right, represented by the Christian Democrats in Chile, also had reasons to feel guilty. They voted for Allende in Congress after he failed to win victory outright and they openly called for a coup détat when his government turned into chaos. They soon realized that Pinochet did not intend to restore democratic rule and was determined to establish a permanent autocracy that he eventually sought to institutionalize through a custom-made constitution in 1980. Christian Democrats in Chile and around the world never quite got over that feeling of guilt. That is probably one of the reasons why they continue to be allied with the Socialists in the governing coalition known as the Concertación, even though they have much in common with Chiles conservative parties.
Democrats in the developing world were also uneasy knowing that a soldier with very limited intellectual acumen was able to preside over an economic transformation. The Pinochet reforms came about almost fortuitously when, given the devastation of the countrys economy, the general hired a coterie of young economists familiar with the ideas of one Milton Friedman, whom Pinochet had never heard of. Because free markets tend to bring about prosperity regardless of the moral nature of the regime that opens a countrys economy, Chile prospered. We also know that dictatorships dont last very long once they open the economy because the middle class tends to expand and develop a desire for political and civic participation. That is why Pinochet lost the referendum in 1988 and why Fidel Castro, who toyed with limited markets in the 1990s, quickly reversed course.
Some free marketers argued that free-market reforms opened the way to democracy to justify his regime. But the reforms could easily have been implemented without killing 3,197 people, torturing some 29,000, and sending thousands more into exilethe horrendous human rights violations exposed by the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in 1991. In fact, Pinochet probably contributed to postponing the cause of free markets in Latin America because most governments feared being associated with his regime. The fact that the Chilean conservative opposition distanced itself publicly from Pinochet in the 1999 and the 2005 electionsand that its former presidential candidates stayed away from the military hospital where the general died on Sundaysuggests the wish to break the awkward connection once and for all.
Finally, human rights groups were frustrated for years with the image of Pinochet as the austere dictator who never stole one peso. That image provided the Chilean courts with a cover for not acting against the general until his detention in London in 1998 made it impossible to avoid prosecuting him at home. If Chileans had known that he had stashed millions in foreign bank accounts, it would have been almost impossible not to try him for embezzlement; that, in turn, would have led to human-rights prosecutions. In the absence of that information, the argument against prosecuting him was always that Chiles transition might be imperiled. Pinochets image changed when in 2004 a U.S. Senate investigation stumbled upon the evidence that the general had stored millions of dollars in the former Riggs Bank and other financial entities using a dozen false identities. After that, an endless stream of revelations did away with the idea that there can be such a thing as a dictatorship without corruption. By then it was too late. Although he could not avoid having his immunity lifted a total of 14 times and suffering house arrest, Pinochet managed to escape being sentenced or physically taken to prison by alleging old age and mental incapacity.
When he learned of Pinochets death last Sunday, a well-known left-wing Uruguayan writer said: Death beat Justice. Actually, it was the other way around: The old dictator died knowing that he had given enough people a bad conscience to make him one of the worlds most reviled figures. There is some poetic justice in that.