Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Four Decades On

Forty years ago today the Chilean military forces violently and bloodily overthrew the duly elected government of Chile. The date September 11 became associated with conflict and tragedy in that country well before the atrocity of 2001 in the U.S.

In Sunday’s New York Times the writer Ariel Dorfman, who was an adviser to the doomed president Salvador Allende, has provided a moving account of that day. Dorfman is probably best known for his play Death and the Maiden, which was made into a movie in 1994 by Roman Polanski.

Particularly touching is Dorfman’s palpable sense of survivor guilt. On the night of September 10, he would have been sleeping in the presidential palace, La Moneda, if he had not traded shifts with his friend Claudio Jimeno so that Dorfman could bring his young son to visit La Moneda the previous day. The reason these men were taking turns sleeping in the palace was to provide an early warning in case the military moved against the government.

So it was Jimeno, and not Dorfman, who was in La Moneda to receive the call that warned of the impending coup and to alert the president. For years it was not clear if Allende had been killed by the military or if he had committed suicide, but eventually his family conceded that he did indeed take his own life. Jimeno was taken prisoner and was presumed to have been killed. His body has never been found.

When the coup happened, I was studying in France. One of my majors was in Spanish and so I may have known a bit more about Chile than the average North American because of my studies of Latin American literature. Still, it all seemed very far away, and military coups in South America did not seem that rare. What I did not yet appreciate is that they were indeed rare in Chile, which had a long history of democratic government. The last thing that entered my mind was the fact that, within four years, I would be living and studying there. But this indeed came to pass, as I have written before.

For many people, the story of Chile’s golpe de estado is a simple tale of evil triumphing temporarily over good. As is usually the case in life, though, the story is a bit more complicated. In February, when the Oscar-nominated film No was released in Britain, I heard its star Gael García Bernal interviewed on BBC radio. The movie recounts the 1988 referendum which marked the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime, and it was interesting to hear the Mexican actor’s take on those events. García Bernal, who was born five years after the 1973 coup and who was not yet ten years old when the referendum was held, pretty much offered the standard narrative, i.e. that Pinochet had every intention of remaining in power forever but was driven from office when the people rose up and voted in a referendum that he inexplicably decided to hold.

The fact is that Pinochet had laid out the timetable for a return to democracy very early in his regime. It is true that he tried to prolong his time as president by giving the country the option to retain him in office. And it is also apparently true that, when he saw how things were going, he explored ways to avoid being bound by the referendum. But in the end, he abided by the process he himself had instituted and respected the will of the people.

The other thing that complicates the narrative of Allende’s admirers is the fact that Chile’s economy, which became a basket case under Allende, positively boomed after several years of strict monetarist management by Pinochet. Dorfman asserts that the economy under the junta “led to a scandalous disparity in income distribution.” This is the trope always hauled out by the left. When an economy is bad, the problem is poverty. When an economy is growing and the overall standard of living is rising, then the problem is income or wealth “inequality.” It may be true that, in a thriving economy, the wealthy do better by all measures than the poor. But apparently, the left would prefer to see the poor even poorer so that the wealthy will be somewhat less wealthy.

The left-of-center parties that governed Chile from 2000 to 2010 have done their best to take credit for Chile’s continued economic success, and they do in fact deserve credit to the extent that they were smart enough not to tamper too much with what they inherited. It seems likely that the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet will be returned to the presidency in the November election to succeed the conservative Sebastián Piñera. Countries are always better off when economic competence wins over stubborn ideology.

Something that clearly bothers Dorfman is the idea, expressed in some news organs like Investor’s Business Daily, that Pinochet’s policies should be seen as a model for the military in Egypt. Given how many people were tortured and killed under Pinochet, it is not a happy comparison and certainly not a sensitive one. But IBD was focusing on how Chile’s junta eventually let democracy resume, not on its bloody beginning.

It echoes a piece written around the same time by Spectator magazine editor Fraser Nelson in the London Telegraph arguing that the only way a country is going to have political freedom, especially when it has not had it before, is for that country to give its citizens economic freedom. As Nelson notes, the so-called Arab Spring was set off not by people demanding democracy but by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor who could not make a living because a corrupt government kept taking everything he had.

Nelson is absolutely right. It is no coincidence that the countries that are the most free politically are also the ones that have classically liberal economies. In Chile in 1988, it wasn’t a slick advertising campaign or the power of the mob or the determination of political organizers that sent the generals back to their barracks. It was a thriving and free economy.

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