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Rehabilitating Pinochet?

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Following the recent coup in Egypt, the Wall Street Journal posted a fairly run-of-the-mill editorial in favor of President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Arguing that the polarizing and Islamist Morsi government necessitated a military coup, the Wall Street Journal expressed hope that the Egyptian military would wisely steer Egypt back to democracy and resist the urge to govern the country directly. Accusing it of “trailing events at every turn,” the op-ed’s authors also denounced the Obama administration’s foreign policy, while neglecting to admit that the US has little ability to positively influence events in Egypt, and even less ability to foresee them — again, a fairly typical argument from the Journal.

However, in its last paragraph the op-ed veers into what can only be considered at best wildly historically myopic, or more likely simply deeply offensive:

“Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.”

This is, to put it mildly, insane. After participating in and then subsuming the military junta that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet personally ruled Chile for nearly two decades. In that time he oversaw the deaths of 3,000 people (in a country of 13 million in 1990) and torture and execution of democratic activists, fought all meaningful democratic reform, and nearly fought what would have been an entirely-preventable conflict with Argentina. Ultimately, Pinochet left power not out of some respect for democracy, as the Journal seems to believe, but when he was essentially forced out. If the Wall Street Journal’s editors had any respect at all for Pinochet’s victims — or, perhaps more pertinently, any understanding of the legacy of his regime — they would not hold Pinochet as an example for Egypt’s newly re-empowered generals.

As Colin M. Snider writes, this argument is “vile, disgusting, repugnant, vulgar, and ignorant.”

But perhaps more interesting is what this op-ed represents. The Pinochet regime has long enjoyed some cachet among American conservatives, both for the regime’s anti-Communist stance and neoliberal economic reforms, and during his tenure Pinochet enjoyed close ties with the both the US government and neoliberal economists, notably Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. With the end of the Cold War American elites had much less incentive to support anti-leftist Latin American military dictatorships, and generally turned away from previously-favored right-wing autocracies. But due to his free-market reforms and Chile’s subsequent economic growth the Pinochet regime continued to enjoy some degree of respect that other, once similarly favored regimes like the pre-1982 Argentine junta and Paraguay’s Stroessner regime gradually lost. This respect continued beyond Pinochet’s ouster, with American conservatives especially often rhetorically conflating arguments highlighting the regime’s economic success with some nebulous endorsement of it, while downplaying Pinochet’s crimes and the growth in Chilean inequality he oversaw.

But American economic conservatives ready to celebrate the Pinochet regime’s economic policies are usually quick to denounce its autocratic nature, even while implicitly endorsing the regime overall. This position stems from a somewhat understandable dilemma. In the American elite imagination the Pinochet regime is most often offered as clear-cut economic success story — acknowledge the regime’s crimes and the whole narrative edifice threatens to come crashing down. Some commentators attempt to streamline this historical narrative by insisting that while Pinochet was a brutal dictator the Communist-leaning Allende government it overthrew would have been worse. While this plays into American Cold War biases and draws on the specter of leftist insurgencies elsewhere in Latin America, it’s also a counterfactual, and ultimately not very convincing.

Given this rhetorical challenge — the contemporary conservative need to condone Pinochet’s economic policies while also denouncing its abuses — the Wall Street Journal simply elected to avoid the narrative bind entirely, drop the qualifications, and endorse the Pinochet regime whole-heartedly. Admittedly the op-ed only mentions Chile in the last paragraph and is focused on another issue, but this failure to qualify its celebration of Pinochet at all remains noteworthy.

Pithily noting that “anyone familiar with the political views of the WSJ’s editors couldn’t have been too surprised,” Daniel Larison sees the Pinochet reference as a predictable repurposing of American foreign policy tropes to fit a new situation:

“On one level, it was just an old rehashing of Cold War-era justifications for U.S. support for anticommunist authoritarian rulers, except that Islamists were now filling the role that communists and socialists used to play. On another, it was a fairly predictable expression of support for perceived ‘pro-American’ forces abroad even if they happened to be military officers engaged in a coup against an elected government.”

This is of course correct. But it’s possible that there’s something else here. The Pinochet regime is now nearly a quarter century in the rearview mirror. With this growing historical remoteness, it would be unsurprising if American conservatives gradually drop their qualifications when arguing in favor of the regime’s economic policies. After all, noting that a regime best-known (in the United States I don’t think this is an exaggeration) for its arguably-beneficial economic policies was also a reprehensible, anti-democratic dictatorship complicates the narrative. Given that the Pinochet regime is most often mentioned in the US as an appropriated tool in American economic policy debates, this complexity is relevant, and unwanted. As time goes by I would not be surprised if explicit endorsements of the Pinochet regime like the Wall Street Journal’s become more and more common.

Correction: This piece originally misidentified the Wall Street Journal editorial as an op-ed.

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