Pinochet Revisited (1)

Reader Norma asked this question of me under one of yesterday’s posts:

Sooo…how do you reconcile your admiration for Pinochet with your revulsion of Guevara/Castro, given that they used a lot of the same means to achieve their respective ends?  Is it all about the ends rather than the means?

I’m not an admirer of Chilean General and President Augusto Pinochet, by any means. What amazed me, back when I visited Chile with The Mrs., was how many Chileans, both ordinary working-class and the prosperous middle class, were admirers of Pinochet. So I attempted to bring some balance to the established trope about him, and looked at commentary and historical observations outside the usual “He was an evil dictator!” howls from the Left, both academia and most especially, the Press.

Norma was referring to a long-ago post I wrote called “The Pinochet Conundrum”, and I’d like to beg my Loyal Readers’ indulgence to read what I wrote back then, because it saves me having to rewrite much of it. The piece was actually posited against the problems facing post-war Iraq, where “moderates” in government were facing all kinds of radical Islam terrorist activity, and my point was that perhaps what Iraq needed was a strongman like Pinochet, who might do all sorts of barbarous things to the extremists, in order to turn the country as a whole into a modern, prosperous society (as Pinochet did for Chile). It’s a “conundrum” because you have to make all sorts of uncomfortable choices, some of which might go against the grain of long-held beliefs and, it should be said, decades of Leftist propaganda. Here’s the Conundrum, as I wrote it back then. Please read it.

December 13, 2006
6:00 AM CDT

Like just about everyone, I always thought that Pinochet was a foul rightwing dictator, whose only saving grace was that his coming to power saved Chile from almost certain ruin at the hands of Marxist president Salvador Allende.

To no small degree, my dislike of Pinochet is tempered by the fact that the people who really hate him are avowed Commies and various elements of the left wing commentariat [redundancy alert]. In other words, if the Guardian’s editorial committee loathes him so deeply, could he have been so bad?

As it turns out, that’s not a bad conclusion, if not for quite so flippant a reason.

I was puzzled, when we visited Chile a couple of years ago, why it was that Pinochet was not a reviled figure in Chile itself. In fact, if anything, the reverse was true. His house, a modest pension in Montevideo, was almost a shrine rather than a museum. Passersby would drop bouquets on the sidewalk outside, and people would cross themselves when they walked past his house. And these were ordinary (ie. poor) people who behaved this way—people whom one would think would be more likely supporters of “popular” (ie. Marxist) politicians like Allende.

But that wasn’t the case.

What has emerged is, for anyone who isn’t a socialist, a profoundly complex reaction to Pinochet. While he was in power, he did, or allowed to have done, actions which were reprehensible to any decent government: summary imprisonment, torture and execution of his more outspoken Marxist opposition; assassination of same (eg. the car bombing of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, in Washington D.C.), and so on. In fairness, it should be noted that his Marxist opponents were not all folk singers and poets: most were advocating, and planning, violent revolution.

He also, in the manner of dictators everywhere, amassed a considerable fortune by robbing the public purse.

At the same time, however, Pinochet brought to a halt the ruinous economic policies of Salvador Allende, which were absolutely burying the Chilean economy. Put simply, Allende encouraged hyperinflation in order to nationalize Chilean industry “on the cheap”. In the process, millions of poor Chileans were brought to the edge of starvation, whereupon Allende launched a massive jobs program. Which sounds fine, except that the jobs were government jobs, thus making most Chileans dependent on the State (always a primary aim of Marxist governments everywhere).

At NRO, Otto Reich puts it this way:

Today, thanks to the KGB files smuggled out of Russia by Vasily Mitrokhin, we know that Allende was receiving payments from the KGB. There is no doubt that if he had succeeded in his plans, Chile today would be an impoverished Communist prison like Cuba, instead of a shining example of democracy and prosperity. With some compassion and self-discipline, Pinochet could have been remembered as a liberator and not a despot. He was both.

Pinochet changed all that Marxist nonsense (albeit imperfectly), and the result is that the Chilean economy today is one of the strongest in the entire South American continent. (Heck, their Social Security system, privatized under Pinochet, is more solvent than that of the United States, not being a government Ponzi scheme.)

So here’s where the Pinochet Conundrum resides. To those who espouse the “ends justify the means” argument, there is no dispute: Pinochet rescued Chile from becoming another Cuba — just another impoverished and oppressive Marxist state. To the Commies, of course, Pinochet is the dirtiest of dirty words, in that, to quote Anthony Daniels at NRO:

There is no doubt that there was indeed much brutality and hardship in the wake of his coup, but unlike the much less reviled military dictators of Argentina and Uruguay, he actually achieved something worthwhile, namely the prosperity of his country.

Worse still, he did so by adopting the very reverse of the policies for so long advocated by third worldists and academic development economists, who were certain that the cause of the third world’s poverty was the first world’s wealth, and that everything would have to change before anything could change. His demonstration that a country could draw itself up by its bootstraps, by embracing trade, was most unwelcome. It forced a change of world outlook, never welcome to those who live by ideas.

That a hick general from a humble background should so obviously have done much more for his country than a suave, educated, aristocratic Marxist was a terrible blow to the self-esteem of the Left in every Western country. As for holding a referendum on own his rule and abiding by the result when he lost, that was quite unforgivable, setting as it did a shocking precedent for left-wing dictators.

So the incontrovertible fact is that regardless of his methods, Pinochet saved Chile. It’s those pesky “methods”, of course, which make the whole thing so difficult for us.

It’s also instructive to note that the United States has often been reviled for “supporting right-wing dictators”, as long as said dictators were battling Communism. Well, Pinochet has always been the poster boy for that kind of foreign policy; but to the exasperation of the Left, that policy, at least in the case of Chile, has been thoroughly vindicated — yet another example of where Leftist agitprop has been proved wrong. Supporting Pinochet at the expense of Allende has undoubtedly worked in Chile’s favor (some would say despite Pinochet’s failings). No wonder the Left hates him so much.

Now here’s the interesting thing about Pinochet: his example is seductive.

I have said several times in the past few weeks that Iraq doesn’t need a parliamentary democracy — at least, not yet. What Iraq needs is a Pinochet: a man who could bring the country to heel, subdue the more violent elements of the country with the utmost brutality, and set the economy on a track which would lead to long-term prosperity.

And then he could step down, exactly as Pinochet did.

Now here’s the problem: a lot of eggs would have to be broken to make that omelette. Iraq would go through a period of hell — Shi’a and Sunni “militias” would be brutally suppressed; radical mullahs would be imprisoned and murdered; and in general, the place might resemble more the latter years of Hussein’s reign of that blighted country.

Worse still, there’s no guarantee that Sheik Ali Bin-Pinochetiyah would step down voluntarily, and in fact, the whole thing is probably doomed to failure.

Truthfully, I don’t see much hope in any other possibility in Iraq right now, and that such a ruler might bring about results which would be even close to Chile’s, is a seductive prospect indeed.

I have to tell you, however, that even thinking of such a scenario troubles me deeply. But that’s the Pinochet Conundrum: if the long-term outcome is going to be really favorable for a country, how much should one accept, forgive and tolerate from the person who brings that outcome to fruition?

Unsurprisingly, many of the comments to this post were equally thoughtful (I lost the nicks under which they were made, sorry). Here are a couple:

Comment #1:
Franco, Pinochet, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (although he established a democratic republic) can all be described as “benevolent” dictators.  They certainly left their respective nations in better shape than they found them.  They all fought off the commies and useful idiot socialists.  Ataturk was also very successful in keeping Islamic fundamentalists out of Turkey’s government.
They were certainly better than the alternatives.

Comment #2 ( I think this was Kevin Baker):
Pinochet appeals to that nasty little dream everyone has … to be the benevolent despot, and force people to do the right thing.
No one wants to contemplate the downside … that in order to be a successful despot, you need to sign an awful lot of death warrants … and a lot of those death warrants will be target at people your underlings dislike, rather than people who really do need killin’.

My response:
That’s really my whole point about Pinochet. At some point, every institution needs a Pinochet, whether to end chaos, or whether simply to end a horrible political system (as he did).
The problem is that most “strongmen” tend to the Hitler/Mussolini model, rather than to the benevolent side. What irritates everybody is that Pinochet broke that mold, and showed that a “benevolent” (albeit deeply flawed and vicious) dictator is possible, and whose reign can ultimately result in beneficial results for the country.
Never forget that Pinochet, when voted out of power, quit (eventually). Not quite in the Hitler / Mussolini / Castro model, was he?

And finally, one from The Mrs.:
It was interesting in Chile to see the way the people spoke of and revered Pinochet.
What is also interesting is the way that folks here talk about Marxists.
On the one side, I can agree that torture killing doesn’t have a place in a modern form of government, however, this is exactly the type of killing that is needed to quell a violent revolution of Marxists.  They don’t respond/react to any other method.
The trick is stopping.  Either stopping the killings, in general, or knowing when you’ve quelled the revolutionary types sufficiently to stop.
As Kim articulated in Cry Havoc, you have to take the gloves off if you intend to win.
If winning is not your goal, then don’t bother.
The Japan experience (all the more interesting and relevant to me at the moment because I’m IN Japan) is important.  We didn’t have to engage in Pinochet tactics because we’d already done that.  Bombing the living hell out of them, until they came to accept absolute and complete surrender, was the state in which MacArthur arrived.
Had we done something similar in Iraq, brought them to their knees of surrender, things would be completely different now.  What the Iraqi terrorists knew is that if they surrendered early enough, we’d stop bombing them.  And they would have enough materiel and men to keep fighting.
We tried to negotiate with terrorists (either of the Marxists or general anarchist stripe).  That doesn’t work.  So if being kind is your goal and concerned about the rights of terrorists, then you’ll lose.  Or, as in the case of Iraq, the battle will go on for decades with the same or greater loss of innocent life.  It just takes longer, but the pain is just as great, if not greater because there is no happy ending.
If we prefer to pat ourselves on the back and accept a long war, with winning an uncertainly, then, sure, we can pat ourselves on the back for being better than Pinochet.
You can’t fight against Marxists under Marquis of Queensberry rules.  Failing to accept that is, as Kim would say, “In the face of this unspeakable behavior, I find the oh-so civilized discussion of “rules of engagement” and “conduct of war” to be the silly chatter of old women at a picnic.”
Yeah, worked out so much better this way.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue with this discussion, because I find it fascinating (as did my Readers, back then: it generated well over sixty comments, when a typical post would get maybe a dozen).


  1. Well, when you replace people in power who would have (or actually DID) lead the nation into ruin, you have to find a way to get rid of the old guard. There are basically two methods of doing so, Pinochet’s, and Nuremberg Trials. Either way you end up killing the people who need killing, and you can do so with a veneer of legality or not. After World War II the Allies saw (correctly) that Germany couldn’t prosper if there were still high-level Nazis around, so they set about trying and hanging them (or arranging for them to commit suicide).

    Pinochet had the advantage of being honest,”That person opposes me, kill him.” Nuremberg but just enough of a coating of legality on the proceedings that people who respect the rule of law wouldn’t complain, but it still amounted to “He opposes us, kill him.” And as to the problem your Mrs points out above, it was easier to STOP with a process like Nuremberg.

    1. All true. However, remember that Nuremberg worked because the court was not German: it was run by the victorious Allies, so there was no sympathy for the accused other than legal — and needless to say, the French and Russian judges resented that attitude (and justifiably so, in my opinion — over thirteen million dead and a country devastated in the case of the Russians, and a Nazi-occupied and repressed populace in the case of the French).

      In a modern scenario (even in the recent past in Chile, for example), there would be no “occupying power” to run the courts — and if you consider that the local courts would likely be packed with Commiesymp judges, as was certainly the case in Chile, the “Nuremberg” solution would not work. Yet another facet of the Conundrum.

      1. Oh, most certainly. I don’t know how anyone in Pinochet’s position COULD have done what needed doing while maintaining at least the appearance of legality. A German-run Nuremberg trial would have seen everyone walk, after all they were just following orders. In this way having an outside force handling the regime change is a GOOD thing.

    2. “Well, when you replace people in power who would have (or actually DID) lead the nation into ruin, you have to find a way to get rid of the old guard. ”

      Which is exactly and precisely the position Donald Trump is in right now. The Left hasn’t been physically stomped (yet), so they’d never accept a Nuremburg.

      I suspect that a few more riots and obvious assaults on Trump supporters, and the Left is going to find out just how effective a “Militia of One” setup can be in administering that stomping, while Trump is above the fray. There’s precedent in this country: does anyone think all those Tories, many of whom were middle class or better, simply left voluntarily for Canada and elsewhere after the American Revolution? George Washington didn’t have to say a thing.

  2. This sort of thing makes one realize just how rare and precious our own General Washington was.

  3. Can monarchs be considered benevolent dictators? I’m thinking about Abdullah II of Jordan. I’m sure there are other, better, examples.
    Overload in CO

  4. I fully agree that Pinochet needs some more honest looking at, as well as Franco in Spain and the leader of S Korea (anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee 1875-1965). Rhee was President/dictator from ’48 – ’60, followed by unrest & student protests and then Park Chung-hee, dictator from ’61 until assassinated in ’72.

    Functioning market capitalism is probably a prerequisite for effective democracy — minimal corruption, most wealth in private hands and wealth creation thru business agreement, rather than cronyism. Democracy needs the virtuous habits of a market, buy or not buy, based on free choices of both buyers and sellers, and multiple choices NOT being restricted by gov’t.

    On South Africa and Iraq both, there was another gov’t organization option — follow the Swiss Canton Confederation principle. See “The Solution” by Frances Kendall & Leon Louw.

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