Friday, June 1, 2012

Chile, in Perspective

So, after spending a few weeks reminiscing (starting here) about the time I spent as a student in Pinochet-era Chile, what are the lessons to be drawn from the experience?

I did some moral wrestling before I even went to Chile. It occurred to me that the act of accepting a fellowship to live and study in the country could be construed as a form of support for the Pinochet dictatorship. I asked myself if I should decline the fellowship on that basis alone. But as a candidate for a master’s degree in journalism, who had written for a number of student and community newspapers, I considered myself a journalist. And no self-respecting journalist would refuse to visit a country because he disapproved of its government. In fact, that would be a reason to go.

After I began living in Chile, I came to appreciate that it was not a black and white situation morally. As with other countries under dictatorship (the USSR, Franco’s Spain, Cuba, probably even North Korea), the vast majority of people were just getting on with their lives and loved their country. And there was strong support for the government. There was also fierce opposition, but that necessarily remained in the shadows or abroad.

During those years there was a concerted campaign to make Chile an international pariah. But my experience living there had the effect of making me skeptical about boycotts and sanctions against countries, even ones with clearly immoral governments. The problem is that, to the extent that they have any effect, they mainly inflict hardship on average citizens rather on than the government. Apartheid-era South Africa was treated similarly, and it is worth remembering that, if musician Paul Simon had adhered strictly to the cultural boycott of that country, we would not have gotten the album Graceland a quarter-century ago.

It is relatively simple (and easy) for a North American like myself to criticize the Pinochet regime for the violent means it used to take and maintain power, for the killings, the torture, the lack of democracy and the human rights abuses. But there are a few factors that mitigate judgment of (not excuse) the regime. Clearly, the junta and its many supporters saw the actions of September 11, 1973 not as a coup but as a counter-coup and ultimately a civil war. President Salvador Allende had clearly decided to ignore the country’s constitution with some of his actions. The Supreme Court had unanimously declared that Salvador Allende’s government represented a “disruption of the legality of the nation” for ignoring judicial rulings. The Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution 81-47 to demand that Allende stop ignoring the constitution. When the military made its move, its power was overwhelming, but Allende’s supporters were not exactly hapless victims. Allende had a coterie of personal bodyguards (led by a Cuban-trained commando), of which 46 were killed in battle. The Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) also fought against the military on that day and after. Among the military, there were 34 casualties on September 11 and a further 162 during the following three months. For years the two sides would argue over whether Allende was killed or had taken his own life, but a year ago an exhumation and autopsy finally established once and for all that he had killed himself with an AK-47 that was given to him by Fidel Castro. Official investigations after the return of democracy would put the number of the junta’s victims at (at least) 2,115 dead and (at least) 27,265 tortured.

Frankly, the argument that, if not for the September 11 coup, Chile would have become a Cuban-style dictatorship is not without merit. Does that justify the coup and the human rights abuses? For a lot of Chileans at the time, it clearly did. But as time has passed, succeeding generations have had to come to terms with the violence of the 1970s. You can see this in the country’s popular culture, such as in films like Andrés Wood’s Machuca. In 2006 Michelle Bachelet was elected president of Chile. Significantly, in the 1970s she had been arrested, tortured and subsequently spent a few years in exile, and her election was seen as symbolically healing.

Another major factor that complicates a blanket condemnation of the Pinochet regime is the fact that his government transformed and modernized Chile’s economy. Studiously following the economic policies of Milton Friedman, the government tamed the out-of-control inflation of the Allende years and led the country to prosperity. It is a record that flies in the face of the usual patterns of dictatorships. Usually, a lack of democracy breeds corruption and abuses and a need for the regime to perpetuate its own power. Pinochet’s regime certainly engaged in terrible abuses, but it also led the country to a bright economic future and kept its promise to step down and reinstall democracy at the end of the 1980s.

Morally, we can only condemn the Pinochet’s overall role in Chile’s history. On the other hand, when compared to someone like Fidel Castro in Cuba, in completely relative terms, he doesn’t look all that bad.

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