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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Lessons from Pinochet


WASHINGTON—The Augusto Pinochet saga is probably far from over—Latin American politics is one big room filled with ghosts from the past—but the death of the Chilean dictator at least gives us a chance to recapitulate the most important lessons from his country’s recent history.

The first lesson is that social utopias always end in tears. Chile had a democratic tradition when the Marxist left came to power in 1970, but that tradition was not strong enough to withstand the revolutionary path that President Salvador Allende chose to take. Scorning the institutions that had allowed it to gain power, the left pushed the system beyond its limits, thereby causing a brutal military reaction. Today’s Chilean Socialists have learned from that experience.

The second lesson is that there is no such thing as an “emergency” dictatorship. Those who called for military intervention, among them the center-right Christian Democrats, made a colossal error of judgment in thinking that the armed forces would go back to their barracks as soon as the “emergency” was over. Once the rule of law had been dispensed with, there was nothing to stand in the way of Pinochet consolidating his power—especially since, as is often the case in a continent enamored of caudillos and strongmen, that power rested on considerable popular support. Many Christian Democrats paid a heavy price for their support of Pinochet, and have sought to make up for that miscalculation by being allied with the Socialists since the return of democracy in 1990.

The third lesson is that free markets and dictatorial governments are ultimately incompatible because a free economy requires a dispersion of power that will eventually limit the capacity of those who control the government to perpetuate themselves. Yes, Chile’s economic reforms under Pinochet were very successful. But they generated a middle class that hated being ruled by soldiers. Ironically, Pinochet’s successors proved to be better guarantors of the open economy than the general himself. Since 1973, annual economic growth has been four times bigger, on average, than between 1810 and the day of the military coup. At the same time, Pinochet’s support declined systematically over the last two decades. He obtained 43 percent of the votes in the recall referendum that he lost in 1988 and was a widely repudiated man when he died on Sunday.

The fourth lesson is that human rights are not an invention of human rights groups, however biased many of these groups are (they have not applied even half the pressure on Fidel Castro’s dictatorship that they applied on Pinochet). Nothing justified killing 3,197 people, torturing more than 29,000, and sending thousands into exile, as reported by the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in 1991. That cruel toll was not the price paid for stability—which really came with the end of the military regime—but the inevitable consequence of rule by men in uniform. The Nixon administration failed to see this, and that helped fuel anti-American sentiment in the Western Hemisphere. The rule of law was developed because anyone with too much power is capable of despicable acts. An army with unfettered control of a nation, whether led by a Pinochet or by a Castro, will always murder, kidnap or torture citizens it deems threatening. The consequences of letting that happen continue to haunt a nation long after the regime’s end. The open wounds still visible in Chilean society attest to that reality.

The fifth lesson is that there is no such thing as dictatorship without corruption. For years, Pinochet was considered an “ethical” soldier. His supporters alleged that, unlike many other military rulers, he had never stolen money. But in 2004, a U.S. Senate investigation unearthed evidence that Pinochet had stashed several million dollars in Washington’s Riggs Bank and other institutions using false identities. New revelations followed.

The final lesson is that a transition to the rule of law should aim for at least partial justice if full justice is incompatible with preserving the transition. The Chilean courts moved too late against Pinochet for fear of provoking the military. It was only when British authorities allowed him to return to Santiago after 503 days of detention in London that the justice system acted at home. Yes, Pinochet’s immunity was lifted a total of 14 times and he had to spend his remaining years maneuvering to avoid prison. But he was never sentenced and the Chilean transition to the rule of law was left with a sense of guilt that will make it difficult to fight off the ghost of Pinochet in the foreseeable future.


Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

(c) 2006, The Washington Post Writers Group

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