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The Dictator and Double-Standards By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 15, 2006

If all one knew about General Augusto Pinochet, who died last Sunday at the age of 91, came from the pages of the New York Times – or any of the likeminded purveyors of congealed left-liberal wisdom – one might be forgiven for thinking him the greatest scourge of human rights to bestride the globe in the 20th century.

It is true that he was, as the editorial arbitrators untiringly remind us, a dictator, and his crimes were real enough. As much has been conclusively confirmed by Chile’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Commissioned after the country’s transition to democracy in 1990, it found that some 3,197 Chileans had been killed, 29,000 tortured, 957 “disappeared,” and untold thousands banished into exile during Pinochet’s 17-year reign.


Appalling as such statistics are, they fail to account for the depth of the international Left’s disdain for Pinochet. After all, were moral outrage a soberly analytic process, one would expect Pinochet’s revilers to linger endlessly over the incomparably more egregious human rights atrocities perpetrated by left-wing dictators. Archives from the former Soviet Union, for instance, assign blame for between 27 and 30 million deaths to Joseph Stalin. (It was Stalin who reputedly said, in a line that encapsulates the historical legacy of Communist regimes: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”) Similarly, if Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, authors of Mao: The Untold Story, are correct, 70 million Chinese perished under Mao’s boot.


Whatever else may be said of Pinochet, he was not in the same league. Thus it does not trivialize their tragedy to point out that 2,796 of the deaths attributed to his rule occurred in the weeks immediately following the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power, when his army forces were clashing with Communist insurgents allied with deposed president Salvador Allende. And one need not accept the Pinochet regime’s self-serving justifications for maintaining martial law to acknowledge that subversive elements did in fact threaten the country. This was particularly true of Communist guerilla squads like the Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez. When the Pinochet regime briefly relaxed its repression in the early 1980s, the Soviet-backed FPMR launched a campaign of terror against anyone it deemed complicit with the government. Moreover, while the uglier details of Pinochet’s rule are fittingly the subject of routine indignation, it is far less appreciated that he not only prevented the country from plunging into anarchy and civil war but saved it from what was, by all the early warning signs, a far more menacing force in the form of Allende’s Marxist regime.


For much of the Left, the latter point is unutterable. Indeed, since his 1973 suicide, Allende has been virtually canonized by his political sympathizers around the world. In their account, he was a popular leader, the “first freely elected Marxist head of state” – a phrase that unwittingly reveals much about the mechanics of Marxism – who sought placidly to steer Chile “down the democratic road to socialism.”


A less delusional reading of history reveals this to be little more than a political folk story. Recall that at the time of his election in 1970, Allende was supported by barely a third of the population: nearly 63 percent had voted against him. And so far from seeking national reconciliation, Allende pledged to “destroy the bourgeois state” and impose “total, scientific Marxist socialism” on the country.


Neither end was achievable without authoritarian methods and Allende proved all too willing to employ them. Foreign companies and domestic farms alike were seized by the government while gangs of leftist marauders, armed by the authorities, stalked the countryside. Even as he alienated the international community and kindled social unrest, Allende embarked on a political courtship of Fidel Castro, who used the occasion of one official visit to announce that Chile and Cuba were heading in the same direction.


It was this germinating tyranny that the 1973 coup uprooted. That fact alone earned Pinochet the Left’s undying scorn. Less forgivable still was that, even as he brutally crushed the Marxist vision, he set Chile on the road to economic prosperity through the free market. No economic light himself, Pinochet had the wisdom to heed the counsel of a young coterie of Chilean economists. Trained by no less than Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, they simplified the tax code, freed the entrepreneurial class from an excessive tax burden, successfully trimmed inflation, and restored property rights undermined by Allende. By the 1980s, the Chilean “economic miracle” was well underway.


It continues today. In recent years Chile has posted rates of economic growth more than double its regional neighbors; just this year the country boasted the highest nominal GDP per capita in all of Latin America. Little wonder that the neo-socialist demagoguery of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales has gained so little traction in post-Pinochet Chile. Popular faith in the justice of the free market, then, is another achievement for which the Left blames Pinochet. In this respect, Pinochet’s greatest crime may be that, as John O’Sullivan has put it, he “first defeated Marxism and then disproved it.”


Not that one would know it from reading the post-mortems. To the extent that Pinochet’s influence on the economy is acknowledged, it is to underscore his undeniable corruption. Central to this charge is the recent discovery that Pinochet had secreted some $28 million in foreign bank accounts. But if this alone is sufficient to discredit his economic accomplishments, one has to wonder why no commensurate censure has been directed at Fidel Castro, whose personal fortune has been estimated by Forbes magazine at $900 million – this even as his impoverished country deteriorates. It is just one instance of many where critics’ contempt for Pinochet was entirely disproportionate to his crimes.


The late Milton Friedman well understood the phenomenon. In Two Lucky People, a memoir he co-authored with his wife Rose, Friedman recalled a 1975 trip he visit he made to Chile to offer economic advice to the Pinochet regime. Upon his return, Friedman found himself hounded by protestors, who accused him of “unspeakable crimes for having been willing to give advice to so evil a regime.” Curiously, after he made a trip to China, where he offered identical advice about liberalizing the economy to a Communist regime that was “more repressive than the Chilean military junta,” Friedman met with silence from the same activists who unsparingly denounced his earlier trip.


This ideological double standard was not lost on Jean Kirkpatrick. But in her famous 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” she gave it a prescient twist. Kirkpatrick drew a distinction between revolutionary Marxist regimes “of the Soviet/Chinese/Cuban variety” and “traditional autocracies.“ Where the former depended on repression for survival, the latter were potentially susceptible to liberal and democratic reform. Using Chile as one of her examples, Kirkpatrick speculated that, in due course and with the right incentives, these autocracies could join the community of democratic nations.


So it proved in Chile’s case. In permitting economic liberty to thrive, Pinochet had empowered the middle class and sown the seeds of his own political demise. After losing a plebiscite in 1988, Pinochet deferred to the will of the voters and relinquished power to a democratic government. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of his concession. While China labors to reconcile communist repression with the free-market and Castro’s inner circle struggles to maintain its hold on the crumbling edifice of the Cuban police state, Pinochet, for all the blood spilled on his watch, went gently into the Chilean night.


In a just world, Pinochet would be remembered as an unjust man who spared his country from an infinitely worse fate. That he will instead go down as a dictator of unrivalled malignity is more of a testament to the petty prejudices of the political Left than an accurate reflection of the historical record.

Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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