Overthrowing Pinochet

NewsweekPoint of View Jorge G. CastanedaOverthrowing PinochetDespite its achievements, Chile remains strangely reluctant to give advice or act as a model for others.Published Sep 13, 2008 From the magazine issue dated Sep 22, 2008Chileans have a lot on their minds these days. Last week they recalled, regretted or celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Sept. 11 military coup that overthrew their democratically elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende. Later this year, the citizens of Latin America’s most prosperous and successful country will observe the 20th anniversary of the referendum that put an end to the 15 years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, a period marked by the paradox of enormous bloodshed followed by the general’s decision to relinquish power after losing an election—not exactly typical dictatorial behavior, as Heraldo Muñoz reminds us in his insightful and poignant new personal memoir of the Pinochet years, "The Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet."As they gaze at the past, Chileans will find themselves forced to confront a fundamental question: where do we go from here? After 19 years of democratic rule, generally high economic growth, reductions in poverty and inequality (albeit too slowly) and avoidance (up to a point) of many of the banes afflicting other Latin American societies, including drugs, crime and corruption, Chile is poised to become a true miracle in the region. If Chile continues along its present path, it could become in 10 years’ time the first Latin country and, with the exception of South Korea, the first Third World nation to graduate into the realm of developed countries, becoming a Southern Hemisphere Greece, Portugal or Poland.Chileans can count their blessings for another reason as well. Next year there is a presidential election, and few countries have the good fortune to enjoy such a choice of candidates. Although the most likely left-of-center candidate, Ricardo Lagos, has been a constant in the country’s political life for more than a quarter of a century, and some are tired of him, he is one of the most successful and talented presidents Chile or any Latin American nation has had in recent years. The probable right-of-center candidate, Sebastián Piñera, is a new guy on the block, with both a fresh face and a lack of governing experience and political sensitivity, but is a highly regarded and successful businessman. (The current president, Michelle Bachelet, cannot run for a consecutive term.) But while moving ahead, Chileans will have to face up to the inevitable contradictions of what they have achieved. Among them: high rates of investment for the country, with low consumption by the majority of the people; a throat-cutting entrepreneurial spirit that has left many unprotected; deficient education and health networks, and a political coalition that has governed for nearly 20 years and has come to personify perpetuation in power to the extent that it is often compared to Mexico’s PRI.They will also have to confront the dilemma of their country’s role in the world and Latin America. Despite its remarkable achievements, Chile remains strangely reluctant to flaunt its success, let alone give advice or act as a model for others. While many of its neighbors, including failures like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, persistently blow their own horn and attempt to foist their model on friends and neighbors, Chile is not putting up the good ideological fight in Latin America. This is not for lack of talent or a case to make, but rather because of a sort of shyness that discourages leaders who are everything but shy or restrained personally or domestically (Lagos and Bachelet are not known for their modesty) from vaunting their accomplishments abroad.Maybe the Chilean left and left-of-center are wary of touting their merits because they find themselves incapable of dissociating the success they have encountered from the womb from which it sprang. In his memoir, Muñoz, currently Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations, argues that no one has been able to truly separate the terrible human-rights violations committed under the dictator—nearly 30,000 documented cases of torture—from the economic reforms he put in place.Those reforms did not produce any visible results until his final years, and flowered into a boom only after he was gone. Moreover, many of those reforms had to be subsequently fine-tuned or discarded, and conversely, many of them were built on the reforms of the past, in the Allende years, or even before. But the link is there, and it remains an understandably unacceptable one for Pinochet’s victims, even if it means Chile must deny its friends the secrets of its success."The Dictator’s Shadow" asks the right questions: "Was Pinochet necessary? Was the price paid for economic change under Pinochet worth it?" The author’s answer is a categorical "no" on both counts. Muñoz argues that the market reform—trade liberalization, privatizations, deregulation, pension reforms—to which Chile seems to owe its triumphs could have been implemented without repression, murder and torture, and that other countries in the region have done just that. I am a bit less convinced about the first "no" than the author of this splendid account of the past 35 years. Perhaps the reforms were not possible without Pinochet and authoritarian rule, in which case I remain persuaded, as does Muñoz, that his brutality was too high a price to pay. But having paid it, Chile is reaping the benefits and should not be shy about trumpeting them.Castañeda is Mexico’s former foreign minister and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. © 2008

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