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Ryan Shorthouse: The legacy of Pinochet

Ryan is a Parliamentary assistant and freelance writer.

It is in fashion among my flatmates to rank dictators. Several hours are spent rating each military leader, based on a series of different criteria: amount killed, type of people killed, methods of torture, and number of wars undertaken.

Hitler is the omnipresent Manchester United, regardless of one’s position on the political spectrum. Heavyweights such as Pol Pot are no surprise.  The list goes on: Milosevic, Hussein, Mao and Amin. Competition for a place in the elite premiership is extremely competitive. Spaces are limited. And so a second tier of dictators, supposedly less cruel and barbaric, has been created.

But this has not been merely banter for a bunch of history boffins. The game has spread into the discourse of Anglo-American political leaders. For the Bush-Blair partnership, recently hung Hussein has been a greater threat to Anglo-American liberal democracy than the Zimbabwean tyrant Mugabe. Yet, cut to twenty years earlier and Hussein was tolerated, Thatcher even permitting the provision of arms to the ruthless tyrant to fight off the current menace to Western politics, Russian ally Iran. Trivial to the student, the ranking of dictators is a serious game played by past prime ministers and presidents.

It achieves a legitimisation of the political model that they preside over. Likewise, it de-legitimises the contemporary antithesis, be it communism pre-1990 or potential-to-terrorise dictatorships post-2001. Indeed, Thatcher’s children fear Marxist dictators as if they were the worst of all mythical characters in fables. Stalin is the big bad wolf, his curvaceous moustache a recurrent image in my nightmares. Today’s generation will be weary of the despots from the Middle East, fearful of their alleged weapons of mass destruction. The government of the day- speaking on TV, writing in newspapers, regulating the national curriculum- ensure we know who the main enemy to the Anglo-American political sphere is. No wonder historians are calling for a change in children’s education. Too much history of a particular region or war, usually Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, is bad for a child’s safety. Aware of the lurking witch in the woods, yet the child is blind to the less known troll.

Western-friendly or economically liberal dictatorships receive less baiting. The closer to the west, the more likely a place in the second division. Hence the low ranking of Franco, an ally of NATO during the Cold War, and Pinochet. Banning the unions and dismantling Allende’s state-owned infrastructure of industries, Pinochet ruled Chile for seventeen years, fashioning a successful neo-liberal economic experiment with his circle of advisers from Chicago University. He achieved the lowest inflation rate in all of Latin America by 1989 and a drop in unemployment to an impressive 14% by 1988. He strangled socialism and reinvigorated the sick economy according to the rules of the Anglo-American game. So the Western political elite tried to moderate his brutal regime, Thatcher publicly thanking him for his support during the Falklands War.

Yet, the very concept of ranking dictators- all of them opponents of freedom and respect for human life- seems sickening. A bad egg is a bad egg, no matter how white its interior. Western leaders should not rank dictators; they ought to judge them as an undifferentiated entity, a tribe of equally barbaric men. This would avoid the inconsistency that often leads to criticism of why X was attacked and Y left to continue crimes against humanity.

Is Thatcher wrong to imply Pinochet was different? The National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation reported that Pinochet’s carabineros killed 3,172 people, using shameful techniques such as the ‘submarino’- the holding of a victim’s head under water almost to the point of suffocation- and ‘la parilla’- the application of electric shocks on the mouth, temples and genitals. Augustus is surely in the same league as the rest. Well, no. I believe Pinochet does not warrant a place in the premiership league of dictators.

Does that logically lead me to a perverted and insensitive assumption that he was benign and democratic for killing all those political leftists? Of course he wasn’t. But it’s not as black and white as that. He has a unique identity as a political leader, neither evil dictator nor flawless democrat.

The human rights abuses he committed can never be justified. But what excludes him from being one of those grotesque witches, wolves and dragons was his intention for Chile. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Nasser. They all wanted their countries to be great, but permanently under their rule and at the expense of neighbouring nations. Pinochet did not want to maintain and expand his dictatorship across South America. He did not want his beloved “narrow land” to be forever repressed under military rule. A democratic, prosperous Chile was his mission.

Salvador Allende was obliterating the stability and democracy of Chile in the early 1970s with what Pinochet deemed the “perils associated with International Marxism”. Aside from a blip between 1927 and 1931, Chile had enjoyed 163 years of democratic rule prior to 1973, the fifth most democratic nation in the world between 1900 and 1950 according to the UN. Allende was engineering an economic and social disaster. Inflation was at the highest in Chilean history- a worrying 180.3%. A culture of violence and segregation was spiralling, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left illegally occupying factories and instigating bombings in the countryside. Chile was on the brink of a civil war, the forces of the left and right ready for radical action. Allende installed Pinochet as Army Commander to restore Chile. Unfortunately, Pinochet thought democracy could only be regained with Allende gone.

He kept to his word. Historians Paul Drake and Ivan Jaksic report on a “protracted transition towards redemocratisation”. In the early eighties, intellectuals and arts blossomed and the proportion of senators who were elected was a high 82% for a dictatorship. Instead of showing allegiance to the club of dictators in 1983, he decided to help democratic Britain fight off the Argentine military junta. By 1988, he gave his people a plebiscite to determine whether he should remain dictator. He had done enough to salvage Chile from communism it seemed, and they voted for his removal as dictator. He willingly stepped down. Thanks to Pinochet’s strangling of Marxism, Chile has enjoyed a democratic system dominated by two centre-left parties since. This restoration of democracy guarantees he does not find a position among the world’s worst tyrants.

Following his death last month, there will be an attempt to finalise his legacy. The route to Chilean stability was ugly. This cannot be denied. Ariel Dorfman writes in his play ‘Widows’ about the torment of women whose politically active husbands were taken and later returned when the nearby river brought their bodies backed. But Western political thought should not led the darkness solely epitomise his rule.  Nor should we conclude with the opposing view, that Pinochet was a democrat who did nothing but good. This would only add to simmering tension in Chile where the writing of his legacy is still an alarmingly bitter contest.

Instead, western discourse should avoid the temptation to pigeonhole Pinochet as a typical dictator or a charismatic saviour of a nation. Rather, we should be prepared to accept that Pinochet’s actual effect on Chile was one that a brought a complicated montage of great ills and enormous benefits.


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