Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Death of a Latin American Dictator

Augusto Pinochet died an old man of 91 last Sunday, December 10. He was being treated in a hospital after suffering a heart attack the week before. He had been improving until Sunday afternoon when he passed away after experiencing a massive stroke. He died at 2:15 in the afternoon. Five seconds later every TV channel and radio station in Chile began broadcasting the breaking news. The information broke everyone’s day.

People began to mourn outside the hospital where he was being treated. A huge crowd of well-wishers, mostly elderly women, had been holding vigil outside the hospital. Upon hearing of Pinochet’s death many broke down crying and sobbing, all with an undertone of bitterness over what “they” had done to him.

Meanwhile, in downtown Santiago… Crowds began to form independently in the Plaza Italia and in front of la Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, popping champagne, throwing ticker tape, and chanting victoriously. In front of la Moneda the scene later turned violent. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the ready-for-anything-decked-out-in-riot-gear police. The violence finally ended only after the police sprayed tear gas, brought out water canons, and made arrests. There was also similar violence and protests in the “poblaciones” Santiago’s poor outlying South side neighborhoods.

Monday morning things had returned to normal. The buses were running and people went to work. There were no big protests. Life went on. But what happened in Chile the day before was now front-page news the world over. “Pinochet Dead.” My favorite headline was Argentine left wing daily Página 12’s What Has Hell Done to Deserve This?"

So who was Pinochet? He was… In order to talk about Pinochet one first has to talk about Salvador Allende. Allende was the Chilean socialist party presidential candidate in 1972. He won the election. Chile, at the time, was an extremely poor country and Allende’s economic policies did not help things. The CIA was also no help, paying workers to go on strike and fomenting unrest. The country as in turmoil then came September 11, 1973. Allende’s chief of staff, Augusto Pinochet, who conversely had a reputation for loyalty, led a coup to oust his commander in chief. He surrounded la Moneda with tanks and demanded Allende relinquish power and flee the country. Allende instead committed suicide in his la Moneda, which was then made rubble by the Chilean air force.

Pinochet then dismissed congress and took full control of the government, first along with a few other generals, then consolidating power for himself. He killed and or tortured many former Allende supporters, left wing activists, union leaders, and assassinated dissidents abroad. He created a secret police, the DINA to clamp down on dissent.

He also firmly aligned himself with the US government and Margaret Thatcher. He embraced neo-liberal economic policies. He called in young Chilean economists, known as the Chicago Boys because they were mentored by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. After some initial pitfalls the Chilean economy boomed, growing at least 4.5% every year after 1984. The Chilean standard of living increased and the foundation was set for today’s Chilean economy- the strongest in the region.

However, by 1988 Chile was being ostracized and isolated internationally for not embracing democracy Pinochet finally succumbed to pressure and called a national plebiscite to determine whether he would remain in power or if elections would be held. He never thought he’d lose the plebiscite… He lost. As a post script, he was later found to have upwards of $25 million in foreign bank accounts.

That’s a basic outline of events, it’s a very interesting story, so if you want to learn more, read a book.

It’s now 2006 and even though Pinochet doesn’t loom like he once did over Chile, he’s still in the back of man minds. He’s a very controversial figure and you never really know what a Chilean is going to say about him. People can’t even agree on what to call him. The left- as does the international community- calls him a dictator, while the right refers to his regime understatedly as “just a military government.” The country is split on his legacy.

One Position:
Coups are not in a general’s job description. Chile had a democratically elected government and a long democratic tradition, all of which were made rubble when la Moneda was bombed to the ground and Pinochet ascended to power n 1973.

After basically assassinating the President, he had death squads roam the country hunting for communists and socialists and anyone deemed “undesirable.” He turned the national soccer stadium into a quasi-concentration camp where many people were tortured and/or killed. There was no freedom of the press or of expression. After he left power he was found to have upwards of 25 million dollars in foreign bank accounts. Ahem, corruption?

Opposing Position:
Pre 1973 Chile was in a very dire situation. The economy was in shambles and many people didn’t have enough to eat. Pinochet came in and, after years of tumult, steadied the ship. No more protests, no more disorder, and the economy drastically improved.

As for the killings and disappearances: for a long time Pinochet followers claimed that the reported torture and killings were propaganda and never actually happened. The disappeared simply packed up and went elsewhere. After it became all too evident that horrible things really did go down, they began to contend that anybody killed was a “terrorist” and that he (Pinochet) should have killed more people- that’s a direct quote from the lady I used to live with. Simultaneously many argued Pinochet wasn’t aware of everything going on.

His millions stashed away? It wasn’t him. It was his wife and kids who were corrupt and pilfered all the money (some seriously argue this).

What do I think?
Allende’s government was no walk in the park. Nevertheless it was a democratically elected government. I’m an opponent of all dictatorships, be they left or right. There’s simply no excuse for a coup and an ensuing repressive 18 year dictatorship. As for Pinochet no knowing about the torture, killing, and corruption; he famously quipped while in power, “not even a leaf moves in Chile without me knowing.” He was a Latin American caudillo dictator who happened to institute sound economic polices.

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