I take keyboard in hand today to speak the public life of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
He was born 25 November 1915 in Valparaiso, Chile the son of Augusto Pinochet Vera and Avelina Ugarte Martinez. He married Lucia Hiriart Rodriguez in 1943. They had three daughters Lucía, María Verónica, Jacqueline Marie and two sons Augusto Osvaldo and Marco Antonio. He died 10 December, 2006 in Santiago de Chile.
Augusto Pinochet Ugarte graduated from the Millitary School of the Republic of Chile in 1937 and served the Republic of Chile for the rest of his life. After many commands at the company, battalion, regimental, and division level he was appointed General Chief of Staff of the Army in 1972 and Army Commander in Chief in 1973. He lead the armed forces in a revolt against the usurping president Salvador Allende. He reformed the laws and constitution of the republic and after losing a plebiscite called for by his own reforms stepped down from the presidency peacefully and returned to his role as commander in chief and later senator for life. He died surrounded by family and honored by a grateful nation. Isn’t that a nice story.
Augusto Pinochet Ugarte over threw the legitimately elected president of the Republic of Chile. His coup was a violent one and the early years of his rule bloody and tyrannical. It is believed that about 3,000 people suffered extrajudicial execution during the course of his rule and that an additional 20,000 were tortured. His policies were by no means all successful. During the course of his rule he used his office to personally enrich himself. In short he was a murdering, torturing, thieving dictator . In retirement he was pursued by public prosecutors from many nations, including his own. He is a warning to all those who would over through legitimately elected governments. Isn’t that a nice morality tale.
The truth of course is somewhere in between these two caricatures of his life. I am in fact writing today to commemorate the life of a man who if the Catholics are right about the afterlife, will if he avoids roasting in hell, spend a very long time in purgatory.
At his death, he stands reviled as a murderious dictator. This is of course true, but neither is it the whole truth. In justice to the memory of Pinochet, it is important to lay out the context in which the coup of the 11th of September 1973 took place.
The first thing to remember about the coup is that the government of Salvador Allende which he over threw was by no means a functioning republic. On the contrary, under Allende the rule of law had been suspended in favor of extra judicial expropriation, the suppression of a free press, and rule by decree. The orders of courts of the republic were being routinely disregarded. The power of the printing press was being used to inflate the currency to deliberately impoverish the middle class. His supporters were being organized into armed militias independent of legal state control. Allende was in fact in the middle of establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat.
The situation had reached the point where the supreme court had publicly issued a unanimous resolution denouncing the Allende government for its “ disruption of the legality of the nation.”
On August 22, 1973 the chamber of deputies adopted by a vote of 81 to 47 a resolution charging the Allende government with attempting “to conquer absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state... [with] the goal of establishing a totalitarian system." This resolution called on the military to over through the government.
Now none of this can excuse many of the later actions of Pinochet, but it does explain why he and the rest of the Chilean military decided to over through the government of President Allende.
The second thing it is important to remember is that Augusto Pinochet is by no means the only dictator in the history of the 20th Century. To fairly evaluate his life he must be evaluated against his peers, that is to say his fellow dictators. In this context we must evaluate several things, the oppressiveness of his regime, how he behaved himself personally as head of state and government, and what was the result of his extra legal rule.
One extremely crude measure of oppressiveness is the number of people killed in extra judicial killings. It is undisputed that about 3,000 Chileans were killed outside of the normal processes of law, mostly during the early days of the military government. To compare this to Stalin, one of the most bloody dictators in history, if the same proportion of the population was killed, under Pinochet as under Stalin, about 2 million, instead of 3,000 people would have died. That is to say about a 1,000 times as many. Another standard of comparison would be the dictatorship of the same period in Argentina where about 20,000 people “disappeared.” Argentina has about 2.5 times the population of Chile. The Argentine dictatorship was about three times as bloody as Pinochet’s regime.
Pinochet clearly did not act personally as head of state and government in a manner that was above reproach. He accumulated a large fortune that he stole from the government and people of Chile. That this is the predictable out come of absolute power is shown by the vast majority of his fellow dictators who personally enriched themselves at the expense of their people. As Lord Acton wrote, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Most dictatorships end in one of two ways. Ether the dictator is himself overthrown or assassinated, or he clings to power until his death. In either case the state is left in a state of chaos. It is to Pinochet’s credit that he voluntarily established a new constitutional order and that when, in accordance with that law, he had to relinquish power, he did so. His economic policies were a mixed bag, but generally positive. Since the end of his rule, Chile has been a prosperous democratic republic.
That as dictators go he was not totally blood soaked and that he reestablished a constitutional system of government, of course does not excuse his many sins, but it does put them in perspective.
A third point that I think needs to be considered is to look at a counterfactual example.
If during the early years of his rule, the German army had revolted against Adolph Hitler, the 20th Century would be considerably less bloody. The army considered it several times. Knowing what we know now, if the army had in 36, 38, or 39 risen against the government, they would have earned eternal glory.
However if they had done so, we would never have known how awful Hitler’s regime would have been. Would the German army have been praised or vilified? After all, they would have had to have killed a lot of Nazis to take power. They would likely have put a stop to Hitler’s social programs.
If the army had overthrown the National Socialist German Workers Party would they be remembered as the crushers of a potential democratic socialist state? Remember Hitler was elected and on a national welfare platform not so different from Allende‘s. Would Hitler in that event have been seen in retrospect as the poor well meaning social reformer who was gunned down by the ruthless army? We will never know, because the German army failed to act.
If Allende had not be overthrown would he now be known as the founder of a foul and murderous socialist dictatorship. Would people be saying “what if” and “why didn’t” the Chilean army over though Allende while there was still time? We will never know, because Pinochet did not fail to act.
This of course does not excuse the excesses to which Pinochet went, but it does caution us against blind condemnation.
So, on Sunday died a man who should be condemned for his crimes, but not out of proportion to his crimes.
If that sounds ambivalent, it is so for a reason. If a consistent standard was applied to former dictators, I would be more inclined to be condemnatory, but this is unfortunately not the case.
How many African dictators have committed absolutely or proportionately more killing than Pinochet, totally impoverished their people, equivalently enriched themselves, left a worse state of affairs to their successors, clung to power till the end and then been buried with plaudits to “the father of the nation” or at least allowed death in the dignity of unnoticed anonymity.
I guess my over all ambivalence can be summed up by a story about Ayn Rand. She received a letter asking her to join a group of writers condemning Father Coughlin. The group was an obvious socialist front and Rand wrote back that she would be happy to join when the group was against Father Coughlin and X, Y, and Z other left wing totalitarian public personalities, “but not until then comrades, not until then.”
So to paraphrase Shakespeare, as Augusto Pinochet Ungarte was a patriot, I praise him, as he was a good soldier, I admire him, as he overthrew a usurper, I proclaim him, but as he was a tyrant, I condemn him. The evil a man does lives after him, the good is oft interred with his bones, so let it be with Pinochet, but that won’t be the whole truth.
Update: BTW I have had responses from people who seem to think that I think we should go easy on Pinochet. On the contrary, I think he should have been tried for what he did, just as the Nazis were tried at the end of the Second World War. I just think we should be more consistent about it. How many communist dictators are living out their last days in peace? Will they receive international condemnation when they die? So by all means lets shoot ALL former dictators or at least write nasty things about them when they die of natural causes, but not some of them.