Misreading Chile: The mythos of Pinochet and the WSJ’s bad advice for Egypt

A couple days ago, the second-worst editorial page in America weighed in on the tumult in Egypt. Of course the results were anodyne at best, and rather maliciously silly at worst: the piece praises the existence of Egypt’s “competing power centers” as though profound state polarization and fragmentation were good news for that country, then chases that pseudo-analysis with a couple paragraphs of mindless Obama-bashing. But it saves the worst for the very end, when the anonymous writer and his/her co-conspirators wish glibly for Egyptian general Abdul Fatah al-Sissi to emulate another general from another hemisphere: “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.”

Oh my aching head! Certainly this profoundly misunderstands the role of Egypt’s generals and other political forces. Ruling is not the word to use, for starters. Perhaps worse, this vulgar editorial repeats the horrid rightist trope of lauding Pinochet, the general and erstwhile Army Chief of Staff who overthrew Chile’s (democratically elected) president Salvador Allende in 1973, ushering in a 17-year reign replete with torture, politicide, various other human rights abuses, a rejiggered authoritarian constitution… and, yes, sure, “free-market reformers.”

On one level, of course, this sort of tripe is unremarkable. It’s precisely the sort of thing that one would expect to be spewed out by the “authoritarian whackadoos on [the Journal’s editorial page,” an odd cabal of folks who, while keenly attuned to pedal-driven threats to American freedom, have an interesting history of publishing unsigned drivel praising Pinochet. (And, for that matter, signed drivel in the same vein, like this deeply odious piece by Bret Stephens.) So, all par for the course. And of this piece has already catalyzed some really excellent essays eviscerating it; of particular note, try this Wonkette piece, or the (hungover?) Esquire rapid-reaction cited above.

Yet beyond that particular, publication-specific, tactically free market-pushing urge from the people behind the Journal there of course lie deeper analytical pathologies. These blind spots and willful unseeings, swaddled in mythos and crowned with a neat bow of hoary prejudice, make much of what passes for rightist commentary, on both Chile and Egypt, unhelpful analytically. Worse, perhaps, they guide would-be policy-makers toward deals with deeply unsavory actors, infernal bargains that stem not, in truth, from realpolitik (all assertions to the contrary), but from acceptance of myth as truth. Pinochet is lionized as a national saint by those who are not of his nation, and we are told that we ought to hope for Sissi’s “wisdom” in emulating the Chilean’s alleged virtues. This reading, though,nis nothing more than self-deception, and it poses a deep moral danger to policymakers and thinkers upon the right, and it threatens further to guide those who have thus deceived themselves in un-salubrious directions in both foreign policy and political philosophy. Finally, to the extent that rightists make or inflect policy in this country, it threatens to enmesh the wider polity in these sorts of grievous errors. So for all of these reasons, it is worth further examining this woeful Journal piece, and the woeful thinking that lies behind it.

Getting Chile, and Pinochet, Wrong

Augusto Pinochet, as is widely known, seized power from the elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. Allende’s preceding 3-year presidency had alarmed many in Chile’s upper and middle classes, who felt threatened both by the rising tide in mobilization among the lower classes and urban poor, and by economic turmoil, occasioned by a variety of factors which included a fall in the price of copper, capital flight initiated by investors leery of the coming transition to socialism, and US sanctions. This was further exacerbated by CIA-assisted hijinks and assorted right-wing terrorism. I am more-than-implying here not only that Pinochet’s coup upset an established democratic order, but that the coup was in response to unrest fomented in part by Pinochet’s very constituency; it was both a result of deep social polarization, and a self-serving response to a state of affairs that Pinochet’s supporters had deliberately engendered.

This was of course lauded by cold warriors at the time as arresting a slide into the abyss of communism. This narrative of Soviet-style horror averted has since been internalized by the right in ways that already put Pinochet on a pedestal, by comparison to a strawman version of Allende (e.g., Stephens’ exceedingly inaccurate characterization of Allende’s government as “proto-Chavista.”) These are absurd slanders, historically inaccurate, which ignore both the constitutional commitments of Allende, which he took seriously, and the pre-existing social conditions, and tensions, of which Allende’s government was an expression. Already, these are not favorable analytic waters for our friends at the Journal and their Pinochetista comrades.

At any rate, after the coup Pinochet proceeded to clamp down on popular demonstrations and the like, regained access to international capital markets, soothed the nerves of international investors (though he did not, significantly, reverse Allende’s nationalization of the copper industry); and then moved to re-write the constitution, overhaul the country’s social security system, and moved to liberalize the economy and shift the country toward export agriculture in significant ways. He also famously consulted Milton Friedman and hired a host of Friedman acolytes to assist in these reforms. These policy shifts all met with approbation from rightists at the time, and as Chile has outpaced its neighbors in wealth and development, the clamor has only grown more fulsome, from the WSJ’s recommendation of Pinochet to protesting Egyptians, to the continuing popularity (on the Right) of the general’s pensions minister.

The complexity of Pinochet’s legacy, what there is of it, is that the economic reforms he rammed through are seen as having allowed the country to grow, develop, and get rich. This is hard to argue with (though it does assume certain counterfactuals that problematize the argument), but the pathologies of this approach, especially the entrenchment of inequality, and its effects on areas like education, are equally hard to refute. It is vital that we not overlook this accomplishment, while also not allowing to stand the narrative of economic development as uncomplicated and unalloyed good.

But let us move on to the Journal’s contention, on behalf of itself and myriad presumed supporters on the right, that Pinochet would be good for democracy in Egypt. The presumption here is that an Egyptian Pinochet (Sissicet? Pinossi?) would be able, in the long run, to see the country through to a consolidated democratic system. But this does not actually square with the historical record. For one thing, there’s the little matter of three thousand dead and ten times that many tortured in Chile under Pinochet. This is not a good precedent for a new democracy, except in the moral sphere in which the Journal moves, (and in which it is representative of plenty who weren’t forthright enough to say it this time around, and which we should never, ever forget).

But let’s set aside in infamy the many murders, not only of political activists, but constitutionalist generals and even folk singers, and even ex-diplomats and US citizens on US soil, the countenance of which terrorism by the fine folks at the Journal strikes me as very nearly treasonous. The odd nostalgia for Pinochet on the part of US right-wing chattering classes stems from his image as an uncorruptible strongman who ultimately “midwifed a transition to democracy.” But every bit of this is utterly wrong. The contention that Pinochet was the architect of a renewed democratic system is flawed for several reasons. One is the absurdity of giving the general any credit at all for returning to Chile democratic order, which had existed for decades before military intervention and was regarded as a model for the continent, 17 years after terminating it. Another is that Pinochet’s 1980 constitution was transparently authoritarian, written to rig the game in favor of conservative strata and the military. And the last, and probably the most significant, is that Pinochet never wanted to leave power at all. Insulated from the many Chileans discontented with his rule, the general thought that he would win the referendum he called in 1988, which would have given him 8 more years in power. When confronted with the results, he initially balked at leaving, and only agreed to honor the referendum when the heads of the military refused to back him in annulling the results. So much for the selfless midwife of democracy.

Lastly, the idea that Pinochet was uncorruptible is entirely mistaken. While his indictment made history because of the human rights charges that were ultimately brought against him, the general was also indicted for tax fraud. While Pinochet loved to harp on his devotion to the nation, both he and his relatives funneled millions out of state coffers into overseas bank accounts. So much for the incorruptible man on horseback! The entire mythos around Pinochet, built up for years by US right-wing commentators who yearn for these United States to more resemble authoritarian Chile, is an idol with feet of clay and a body of gilded filth, phony in every sense. The Wall Street Journal editorial which we’ve been discussing here is only the latest shameful example of this wrong-headedness. Whatever happens in Egypt, that country, and Chile, and the US too, deserve better.

Toward a politics of the real

In the three days that have passed since the Journal penned this dreadful nonsense, the situation in Egypt has shifted and shifted again; El-Baradei is out as PM before ever being in, and now Nour is claiming to be out of the interim government roadmap-drafting process, and the armed forces are ramping up repression even more. The news out of Egypt, from the heartbreaking to the merely worrisome, largely obviates (as though it needed further obviation!) the stupid editorial that I’ve discussed for almost 1600 words above. Yet we should still be mindful of the analytical lenses that we, and our discursive opponents, bring to the study of politics and policy. If our ideas about these fields have consequences, we must consider their moral dimensions as well as their strategic. But even when we privilege cold-blooded considerations of strategy, it is imperative that we get our facts straight, because this is the bare minimum requirement for policymakers. It matters whether Pinochet was, on the one hand, a selfless military man who had power forced upon him for the greater good and brought democracy back to Chile; or on the other, a murderous mediocrity who stole from the nation and had to be pushed out of power himself. In the first case, of course Egyptians would be lucky to have a man like Pinochet in charge. In the latter case, which unfortunately reflects reality, the Chilean example offers little to be emulated.

For too long, certain precedents, the Pinochet regime prominent among them, have been held up as positive examples to be followed, rather than negative examples to be shunned. This is understandable, I guess; realpolitik is hard and unpalatable, a more moral foreign policy is often seen as untenable (not without reason at times!), and the temptation to assert that US interests are also in the moral interest of the world finds embodiment in the apparently seductive person of Augusto Pinochet. This is made possible only by deliberate ignorance of the general’s record, which in turn distorts the import and attractiveness of the Chilean model. An objective analysis of the facts of the matter demonstrate that is time for everyone concerned to dispense with this gauzy mythology, based never so much on an honest appraisal of the achievements of the dictatorial regime as on a pottage of anti-communism and market-worship. This is what it means to think rigorously about comparative politics, foreign affairs, and the events with which we are confronted today, in Egypt and elsewhere.

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2 Responses to Misreading Chile: The mythos of Pinochet and the WSJ’s bad advice for Egypt

  1. Great post, Jacob. I would only say that you cannot blame the economic situation under Allende entirely on exogenous factors. While nothing you say is untrue, you can’t gloss over the fact that, at the very least, the huge wage hikes initiated by his government were responsible for a big chunk of the economic dislocations. Without a concurrent rise in productivity there was no way for that to not create inflation. Additionally, the way he nationalized industries was more provocative than it needed to be since he refused to compensate many of the companies for having previously had illegally high profits. There is little doubt that the US reaction would have still been harsh but Allende played into the narrative in a way that helped provide window dressing to US sanctions.

    I point that out only because I think there is a tendency on the left to argue uncritically a counterfactual that, sans right-wing and US opposition, Allende would have succeeded in developing the Chilean economy when the evidence from other examples is that an economic policy like the one pursued by Allende was likely to fail regardless. None of this is to defend the coup in any way, but like you say, it’s important to have a clear-headed understanding of the facts.

  2. Hey Tim, thanks for the kind words, and for adding an excellent point. I agree with you that the economic model Allende had committed to following led organically to major economic problems; honestly, I find it hard to imagine the “democratic road to socialism” having a happy or prosperous ending even in the longer term, which perhaps heightens even more the complexity of sussing out the economic legacies of Pinochet.

    Additionally I think that the tremendous tumult around the “democratic road to socialism” speaks to one of the classic interpretations of Chilean politics in the 1960s and early 1970s. That is, a highly polarized polity and a political system that allowed an actor without an overwhelming claim to popular legitimacy – Allende and the Socialist party – to come to power with only a little more than a third of the vote, and then pursue a program which ultimately lacked robust support in probably a majority of the electorate, and faced intransigent opposition from a large chunk of the electorate (heck, plenty of people in Santiago still have pictures of Pinochet on their walls). This lack of political consensus certainly made it even more difficult for Allende’s reforms to proceed without some major pain.

    Which leaves us… I’m not sure where, or what. I think that the myth of Allende as thwarted managerial genius will be hard to deflate in an even-handed way – viewed through the scratchy film of Chilean aircraft over La Moneda, he becomes either a thwarted Stalinist or a secular saint, depending on who’s looking. And his canonization is, as you rightly say, quite unhelpful in analyzing the Chilean case.

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