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.

The key to his survival is the Constitution he promulgated in 1980, which plotted a careful course from outright military rule to ‘protected democracy’: the junta was to be replaced in 1990 by a partly elected, partly designated Congress. The 1988 plebiscite – reluctantly accepted by Pinochet for reasons of international legitimacy – was to inaugurate the new system. In 1980, with the economy booming, the opposition still moribund and wild predictions being made to the effect that Chile would outpace Holland’s standard of living by 1990, the planners believed that defeat was impossible, but the opposition, after the failure of its more militant mobilisations of the mid-Eighties, now chose to fight Pinochet on his own ground. Their victory in the plebiscite enabled the Christian Democrats and Socialists to wrest some constitutional reforms from the regime. But key pockets of pinochetismo remained, resulting in what Aylwin has recently called the country’s ‘imperfect’ post-1990 democracy: a Congress with heavily restricted powers to initiate legislation; an electoral system skewed in favour of the General’s former right-wing allies; a sufficient minority of non-elected senators named by Pinochet before he left office to create an artificial right-wing majority in the upper house; a National Security Council that gives the military a potential say in national affairs, while the President’s part in naming or removing the four military and police commanders-in-chief is very limited. In Pinochet’s case, this last proviso means that his post as army chief, held since Allende appointed him six weeks before the 1973 coup (when he was considered virtually the only loyal officer left in the Army High Command), is all but guaranteed until 1997. It would take an NSC vote, and thus an open clash with the military and the Right, to remove him.

Since the Presidential handover in March 1990, there have been sporadic tensions, including two troop alerts in protest against such matters as court citations to serving officers over human rights cases, and a Congressional investigation of the Army’s purchase of a bankrupt arms company from one of Pinochet’s sons. But the sabre-rattling blew over, and the 78-year-old ex-despot shows every sign of revelling in his refurbished role. His unscripted public utterances remain as blusteringly crude as ever, but he has worked up the avuncular, plain-man bluffness that so enchants his admirers. Relations with the Aylwin and Frei Governments have been polite, even cordial. Meanwhile, as their former jefe supremo enjoys an Olympian immunity, ex-Pinochet hitmen parade through the courts. Among those on trial is General Manuel Contreras, founder of Pinochet’s first secret police, the DINA, and the man who ordered the car-bomb murders of Pinochet’s constitutionalist predecessor as army commander, General Carlos Prats, in Buenos Aires in 1974, and Allende’s former foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, in Washington two years later. These killings evoke a host of other horrors: lime-caked corpses dug up from mass graves, prisoners whose stomachs were slit open before they were thrown into the sea from helicopters, rats put in detainees’ vaginas. Relatives of the Disappeared still campaign for justice, with photos of the victims pinned to their clothing, but they attract steadily less attention. Aylwin’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, convened to document deaths and disappearances under Pinochet, has listed 3500 all told, including those authenticated after the Commission reported in 1991, but the total is certainly higher. Aylwin himself defined the Commission’s objective as ‘the truth, and justice as far as possible’. This means, in effect, that the Government will do nothing to repeal the amnesty law imposed by the military junta in 1978 and in consequence that only a handful of cases will come to anything.

Pinochet’s rehabilitation overseas continues. In March, he appeared for an interview on Russian television in white gala uniform, and the presenter began by apologising for ‘stupidities and distortions’ in Communist coverage of his regime. His former economics ministers are much in demand throughout Latin America and Eastern Europe to tell governments how they imposed their fierce free market policies in Chile. Again in March, Pinochet was able to meet his admired Lady Thatcher, at a British Embassy cocktail party, when she was in Santiago to promote her book: she congratulated him on local television for anticipating her own economic reforms. In Italy, Northern League members of Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet recently proposed Pinochet’s privatisation of Chile’s pension system as the ‘obligatory model’ for their own. In May, General Barry McCaffrey, chief of the US Army Southern Command (with which, contrary to legend, Pinochet’s relations were not warm), visited the ex-dictator in Santiago, and described him afterwards as ‘a man of historic vision and stature’. Pinochet has visited Britain three times since March 1991, to inspect work on his army’s joint missile project with Royal Ordnance or simply to sightsee. He was in Germany at the end of May as part of his last arms-buying tour. (While he was there Erich Honecker, whose daughter had married a Chilean exile in the GDR, died in Santiago.)

Mary Helen Spooner does not explain what made it possible for the Pinochet regime to remodel Chile’s economy and society with more success than his regional counterparts ever achieved. The book contains evidence that Pinochet did not participate in the planning of the 1973 coup and only took the lead on the day itself; confirmation that Allende committed suicide rather than give up his mandate, and was not killed by troops as so many of his supporters held for so long; accounts of hostility between Pinochet and the US, despite the latter’s destabilisation of Allende. But these ‘revelations’ are not as new as the publisher claims. They have been reported for years, and Spooner – although a conscientious journalist, who reported from Chile for the Financial Times and Newsweek for nine years until 1989 – often fails to marshal the most interesting evidence. On Allende’s suicide, she cites only the testimony of his doctor, Patricio Guijón – precisely the account that was rejected for so long; since then, several other witnesses have backed him, but these are not mentioned.

Key topics – such as the nature of the military and how Pinochet was able to manipulate it to structure his regime; the ideology and long-term goals of the regime; the role of the Catholic Church; the survival and slow recomposition of the Left; the failure of the union and Left-led protest movement of the mid-Eighties; the re-formation of a shortlived armed opposition (which in 1986 narrowly missed assassinating Pinochet); the slow and inadequate reorganisation of the opposition in general; the evidence that plans may have been afoot to ignore the 1988 plebiscite result – get cursory mention, if any. Two errors stand out among others: Diego Portales, architect of the conservative 19th-century state, was never the country’s President; the Colonel Pedro Espinoza accused of involvement in Letelier’s murder was not the officer who ran the junta’s registry of detainees after the coup.

Usually when explanations for Pinochet’s success are sought, the answer is: the economy. It is a virtue of this book that it does not fall into this trap, partly because Spooner does not pose the question, and partly because her sporadic treatment of the economy is sensibly circumspect. It is true that Pinochet – or, rather, his technocrats, known as the Chicago Boys, after the university where many of them studied – did revolutionise the Chilean economy. By Allende’s accession in 1970, there were two radically different alternatives: to continue down the path of state-sponsored import substitution which had been followed since the Popular Front, but radicalising it to increase wealth distribution, deepen agrarian reform and confront recalcitrant vested interests (the ‘revolutionary’ option); or to opt for structural adjustment and untrammelled, export-led growth. Allende attempted the first, and unleashed demons which he was incapable of confronting; the Chicago Boys implemented the second, with tanks to back them. At the cost of over 30 per cent official unemployment by the early Eighties and a doubling of numbers living in poverty to over 40 per cent of the population, they drastically remoulded the economy, generating the most dynamic young capitalist class in the region and a range of highly successful new export activities (fruit, fish, timber) which have given Chile one of the world’s highest export proportions of GDP. These results have invited comparisons with the Asian ‘tigers’. Until the mid-Eighties, however, the blitzkrieg against local manufacturing, traditional agriculture and state welfare provision produced mediocre results and dreadful suffering; in 1982, because of an exchange rate pegged artificially low and a spate of reckless borrowing during the world petrodollar glut, most of Chile’s banking system collapsed. It was only with the application of a more moderate neo-liberalism from then on, and the post-1990 Government’s emphasis on social spending, that the experiment was rescued. The damage in terms of poverty (despite an official unemployment rate now of around 5 per cent) and disintegrating social services is still very much apparent. The idea of applying such a model to the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe beggars the imagination.

Surprisingly little has been written – at least in English – on the matter of Pinochet’s success and the relative smoothness of the subsequent transition. There are real questions to be raised – for example, about Chile’s much-vaunted democratic traditions. The political order founded in the 19th century was heavily élitist but flexible enough to allow Latin America’s strongest Marxist parties a role when they emerged in the early years of this century. At the same time, vast areas of social backwardness and recalcitrant conservatism remained. Chilean politics thus developed a much-admired ‘civic culture’ – apparent above all in Congress, where Marxists and the oligarchic Right learned a shared practice of arm-bending, brinkmanship and negotiation – masking a deep conservatism. (Today, Chile is one of the few ‘Western’ countries where divorce and abortion are both illegal.) In the Twenties and Forties there had been episodes of military adventurism and authoritarian government, while the ‘constitutionalism’ of the military (an article of faith for Allende’s Left) was in fact a doctrinal aloofness from civilian culture, the product of its rigidly Prussian-derived traditions and resentment of bad wages and conditions; 1973 would show how savagely the Army could turn against civilians, especially when fortified by Cold War doctrines of counterinsurgency and ‘national security’. The authoritarianism that ensued was not surprising, but neither was the relative ease with which, after 1988, politicians, and society at large, resumed the transaction politics of the past.

Other questions might be asked about the resilience of these groupings. Many foreign observers, remembering the strength and militancy of the Chilean Left – Communist (PC), Socialist (PS) and extra-parliamentary – under Allende, have been surprised by its subsequent decline. Extreme repression, surgically applied, was obviously one reason. But equally important was the official Left’s blind faith in the country’s constitutionalism. It simply had no idea of what a coup entailed, and thought that any intervention would mean a more or less bloodless handing back of power to the Christian Democrats. Some, though not Allende himself, continued to believe this even as the rockets rained down on the Presidential palace; it required torture and prison camps to disabuse them. Neither the Communist nor the Socialist Party had any real capacity for organising in clandestinity. The main extra-parliamentary group, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, MIR, had a little, as well as some armed capacity, though it was far from being a ‘guerrilla group’, as Spooner calls it. But the MIR seriously underestimated the scale of the defeat. No one gave convincing leadership to the protest movement of the mid-Eighties. Now, the PC is a shadow of its former self; the PS has moved to the centre-left, ruling with its pre-1973 adversaries, the Christian Democrats; and the MIR is long dead. The Christian Democrats, having backed the coup for about a year, waited until the economic collapse of the early Eighties allowed them to step in and dominate the resurgent opposition.

Finally, there is the nature of the Pinochet regime. The general himself was an unremarkable officer, with a reputation for sycophancy towards politicians, who was pushed into the coup by an ultimatum a few days earlier from the Navy and Air Force (there is no evidence to support his later claims to have been plotting separately). But once in place, at the head of the most powerful of the services, he relied for his success on highly competent advisers and his own cunning – a previously invisible quality which now enabled him to divide, rule and arbitrate between competing groups. Of these, four were significant: the Army strategists who began working to ensure that the other Armed Services were subordinated; the Chicago Boys, who offered the most coherent economic package, sweetened with promises of spectacular future success; a coterie of civilian ideologues – Catholic fundamentalists (Opus Dei), soft corporatists and free marketeers – who wrote the junta’s doctrinal statements and much of the 1980 constitution; and the DINA, the secret police which answered directly and exclusively to Pinochet until the international repercussions of Letelier’s murder put Contreras beyond the pale. (The DINA was replaced by the only marginally less fearsome CNI.)

These groups, often mutually antagonistic, produced the most skilfully managed military regime in modern Latin American history. It was the only one (with the possible qualified exception of some of those in Brazil) to develop a relatively coherent project, the total ‘refoundation’ of Chilean state and society, in which its participants passionately believed. They astutely avoided the inter and intra-service rivalries which had weakened similar regimes elsewhere; the vertical Prussian structure of the Army High Command was an asset, but so was the clear separation of roles between Pinochet as ‘executive’ – the semi-mystical embodiment of the Armed Forces’ mission to remake the nation – and the junta as a ‘legislature’ of equals. The careful distinction between officers in government work and those in the military hierarchy kept the services themselves out of day-to-day government, as did the presence of a strong contingent of civilian technocrats. Only once was this system challenged from within, in 1978, by the Air Force chief, General Gustavo Leigh, always Pinochet’s main rival. But Leigh was routed in the subsequent showdown and resigned his post, along with most of his High Command, leaving Pinochet all the stronger. As Pinochet himself once said, ‘Not a leaf moves here unless I move it.’