Not a leaf moves here

Malcolm Coad

  • Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile by Mary Helen Spooner
    California, 316 pp, £23.50, June 1994, ISBN 0 520 08083 1

Unlike events in Eastern Europe, the decline of dictatorship in Latin America has not brought an end to an entire social and economic system nor radically shifted the balance of international power. But the symbolic resonance of Captain General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte’s defeat in Chile’s 1989 elections was enormous. In Latin America, Cold War pressures had combined with local authoritarianism to produce four decades of right-wing dictatorships. Pinochet’s was the most notorious and the last to give way. With his departure, the entire region, with the exception of Cuba and Haiti, came under elected rule for the first time in history. Subsequent events, such as President Alberto Fujimori’s autogolpe in Peru in 1992, have called the quality of this democracy into question, but not democratisation itself – a process in which the end of the Pinochet regime remains a landmark.

Chile in the Seventies was one of those countries, like Vietnam and the former Czechoslovakia, whose dramas aptly expressed the global conflicts of the latter years of the Cold War. The electoral victory of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity Government in 1970, US destabilisation and the military coup three years later had repercussions well beyond Chile – particularly for the international Left in the ebb-tide of the Sixties. The events of 1973 inspired a solidarity movement second only to the mobilisation against the Vietnam War. For many in Europe and the US, Chile became a focus of solidarity, as the Spanish Republic had been for an earlier generation. The images of the coup were, and remain, harrowing: the palace on fire; Allende inside, dapper and bespectacled, facing the onslaught of troops and Hawker Hunters; book-burnings; corpses dragged from rivers; prisoners herded into Santiago’s National Stadium; and Pinochet himself, with the dark glasses and cruelly set mouth – the paradigm of the Latin American dictator. ‘The toughest nut I’ve ever seen,’ Langhorne Motley, US Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, told the New York Times in 1985. ‘He makes Somoza and the rest of those guys look like a bunch of patsies.’

In the 19th century Chile achieved a relatively stable parliamentary polity long before much of Europe. In the 20th, the country’s political parties and system developed in a markedly European mould, with fewer of the exotic nationalisms and populisms, and less of the military adventurism, which made politics elsewhere in the region so incomprehensible in Europe and the US. This European identity, and support for the Chilean parties from their international counterparts – Communists, Socialists, Radicals, Christian Democrats – after the fall of Allende, explained much of the coup’s international impact; it was harder, for example, to mobilise concern over the putsch in neighbouring Argentina three years later.

Chile had its first Popular Front government in 1938: it was the only country outside Europe to have one. In the Sixties, Chile was the star exponent of President Kennedy’s ill-fated programme of social and economic reformism in the region, the Alliance for Progress, intended to head off further Cuban revolutions. The Allende Government was seen as a test case for similar plans in countries such as France and Italy, and its failure had much to do with the scuppering of like notions on the part of the Italian Eurocommunists. Under Pinochet, Chile became a showcase for a draconian model of economic neo-liberalism in the Third World, triggering the trend virtually everywhere else south of the Rio Grande. When the Christian Democrat, Patricio Aylwin, took office in March 1990, the country once again found itself being praised as a model, this time of democratic transition – the smoothest in recent memory and the subject of admiring study in emerging new states from Russia to South Africa.

Unlike other countries in transition – such as neighbouring Argentina, where the end of military rule in 1983 was followed by years of military uprisings, hyperinflation and food riots – Chile has avoided major upheavals. Aylwin – who was succeeded after last year’s elections by his party colleague, Eduardo Frei, the son of the President of the same name who preceded Allende – earned international acclaim for his handling of the transition. But his cautious approach has disappointed the victims of the dictatorship, who had hoped for a measure of justice. The ex-dictator himself is still on the scene, even though he was forced to step down after losing the 1988 plebiscite intended to ratify his Presidency for another eight years.

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