When General Augusto Pinochet died last Sunday, at the age of 91, mobs of angry leftists rioted in Santiago, Chile. It was a vivid illustration of a well-documented phenomenon. No one in recent decades has been more hated by the global Left than Pinochet.
The main reason Pinochet is demonized is that he symbolizes the destruction of the progressive Left’s myths and dreams, as manifested in the person Salvador Allende, the Marxist president toppled by a military coup on September 11, 1973. But while leftists choose to remember Allende as a beneficent democrat, history provides little support for this view.
On the contrary, Allende’s regime was so radically Marxist that its most “moderate” element was the Communist Party. Although he never received a popular mandate -- Allende came to power in 1970 with only a third of the electoral vote and a congressional minority, and on the condition that he would respect Chile’s democratic institutions -- Allende rapidly ruined the economy, confiscated foreign property, impoverished the population and consistently violated the Constitution he had promised to uphold.
He also transformed Chile into an appendage of Cuba. During the Allende years Chile became a major refuge for international terrorists, including the Argentine Montoneros and ERP, Brazilians, Uruguayan Tupamaros, Bolivian and Peruvian MIR-istas, Sandinistas, ETArras, and others.
Not surprisingly, in August of 1973, the democratic majority of Chile’s Congress declared Allende’s regime anti-constitutional and asked for its removal. The military intervened, supported by a large majority of the population and political parties. Here one may add that the planning for the coup was mostly done by the Chilean Navy and virtually finished by the time when, less than three weeks before September 11, 1973, Allende had appointed Pinochet army chief.
Once in power, Pinochet did what few military rulers have ever done. Recognizing that he knew little about the economy, he delegated its management to a group of former University of Chicago students of Nobel Prize-winner Milton Friedman, all young civilians. As a result, private property was returned to the rightful owners, most of the state economic sectors ruined by Allende’s Marxist inanities were privatized, and trade-union radicalism was brought under control. This process was, to be sure, painful and lasted more than a decade. But it is unlikely that a querulous and chaotic democracy undermined by violent Marxist Leninist groups would have allowed these reforms to take their course.
Yet the same forces that had brought Chile to ruin by 1973 did not fade quietly. A brief period of civil war followed the military coup, during which nearly 3,000 individuals, mostly guerrillas of the pro-Cuban Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) and later of the Communist Party’s Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR), were killed -- a fraction of the number of those murdered by Castro in the first few years of his regime, in the absence of open warfare. (The New Jersey-based CubaArchive.org has collected the names of some 9,240 such victims so far). None of the political leaders of the Allende coalition was killed.
In 1988, Pinochet organized a plebiscite on his presidency and lost by a margin of 55 percent to 42 percent. After his defeat, and in accordance with the law, he remained commander-in-chief until 1998 but also organized general elections in 1990, which were won by the opposition coalition of Christian Democrats and (now reformed, non-Marxist) Socialists -- the coalition that remains in power today. None of this was the normal behavior of a run-of-the-mill dictator, but this is the point: Pinochet, while no committed democrat, came to respect the rules.
At first glance, the military coup that Pinochet led -- but did not plan or initiate -- against Salvador Allende may appear inseparable from the hundreds of such uprisings that have occurred since Latin America’s independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. But in fact it was a historic event with global implications. For it was the first instance of a communist regime being overthrown from inside, thus making the Brezhnev Doctrine -- with its central insight that states “once communist,” are “communist forever” -- look rather shaky. It was a lesson well remembered in Eastern Europe, where Pinochet was always popular for precisely that reason.
One finds less historical awareness in the coverage of Pinochet’s death, which has largely parroted the claim of his political foes that he cheated justice. By this, of course, it is meant that he escaped the wrath of “progressive” judges who misuse the courts, a revenge-seeking activist lawyer and a fame-seeking judge in Madrid, a British judge who was also a supporter of Amnesty International, and an endless procession of the ignorant.
By contrast, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher struck the appropriate note when, recalling the historic significance of the 1973 coup and the extraordinary success of his government’s free-market economic policy, she said that she was “greatly saddened” by Pinochet’s passing. Chileans, too, know that the late dictator’s legacy was more complex than the imaginations of protestors and editorialists seem able to allow.
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