Augusto Pinochet – his name and that sour disapproving face are familiar the world over. He was the last in the long line of military strongmen who once dominated South America. Now he too has left the army; not in disgrace though, but with full honours from the soldiers he led for a quarter of a century and as president of Chile. Pinochet leaves behind a democracy and also a country more prosperous than it was when he took over. To his supporters, Pinochet is a hero; the man who saved Chile from chaos and communism, but to his detractors he should be tried for crimes against humanity. In the early 1970’s, before the war started, Chile was a rarity in South America – a functioning democracy.
Salvador Allende, a socialist, was president. He brought in nationalization, price controls and wage increases. The result – hyper-inflation and shortages – shortages of just about everything. That brought on unrest, strikes, bloody clashes between police and demonstrators – housewives protesting their families’ empty food bowls. On September 11, 1973, the army struck. In the name of anti-communism, Augusto Pinochet attacked Allende in his presidential palace. The coup was covertly supported by the United States.
In the Cold War atmosphere of the time, Washington saw Allende as a tool of Moscow. When it was over, the president was found dead inside the gutted palace. He had apparently shot himself. The army took over the running of the country. Its violent dictatorship last for 17 years. Why so violence and why so long? Pinochet privatised just about everything in sight and yet things still went from bad to worse. Then in the mid-80’s, Chile started to recover. That led Pinochet to believe that he was popular, that he could even win an election. In 1988 he held a plebiscite on his regime. Much to his surprise, he lost. And so grudgingly, Pinochet made way for democracy. It took two years before Chileans finally got to pick a president democratically. But only after the politicians had agreed to a deal with the soldiers – a deal that limited their power – a deal that divides Chile today. For example, although the president is democratically elected he cannot fire the generals. Yet the generals could get rid of him and do it constitutionally.
Pinochet’s constitution designates the armed forces as the guardians of the state’s institutional order. The armed forces are into everything; from generals sitting on the highest councils of the state to colonels sprinkled through the whole system, keeping tabs on government and on the news media. It’s a criminal offence to insult the armed forces or publish information the military doesn’t want published. The government cannot touch the defence budget. In addition, are guaranteed a rake-off from the exports of copper. Chile is one of South America’s wealthiest countries. Chile’s per capita income has doubled over the past 25 years or so. The contrast with more than 40 years ago before Pinochet couldn’t be greater. And that raises a question that defines the Chilean debate. What brought about the prosperity? The numbers game is about more than just economics and the past. It’s about politics and the future; about who is best qualified to run the country. If Chile owes its prosperity to its renewed democracy, then all the years of brutality would have been needless. And that would put into question not only the Pinochet past, but also his present role and that of the army. Certainly the prosperity is not evenly divided; the rich have got very much richer and the poor, if not actually poorer, have been left behind.