Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who died Sunday, December 10, was the most successful dictator of the 20th Century—yet he was also one of the most vilified.
Dictators are supposedly judged by two tests. How many people did they kill? And did they bring prosperity to their people? These two tests hang together because Marxists believed that their various ideological despotisms (including those in Cuba, China and the U.S.S.R.) would eventually midwife a utopia—justifying their mass murders retrospectively.
Other Dictators’ Societies
So how did individual dictators fare? Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong each murdered tens of millions in labor camps, purges, forced famines and war. But they were less successful at improving their societies.
Stalin built a society on terror and extended it through conquest, but the U.S.S.R. couldn’t feed itself and eventually collapsed in economic ruins.
Hitler committed suicide in the literal ruins of Berlin with the German people digging for scraps in the rubble of the Third Reich.
Mao? He killed as many millions unintentionally through his industrial “Great Leap Forward” as he did with malice aforethought in his purges and “Cultural Revolution”—and China’s current prosperity is squarely rooted in a silent repudiation of his economic principles.
Yet Mao won lavish praise in Western obituaries, from the London Daily Telegraph to the New York Times.
Left’s Love of Castro
Francisco Franco and Fidel Castro, meanwhile, each murdered no more than tens of thousands of people following their victories in civil war and rebellion. Moreover, their economic paths diverged.
Castro squandered billions of dollars in Russian subsidies in the course of ruining the Cuban economy. With those subsides ended, Cuba today is a tragedy: A naturally prosperous island reduced to beggary and prostitution by the personal vanity and economic illiteracy of a foolish old man who still sees himself as a dashing revolutionary.
Wisely, Franco never saw himself as glamorous. He was a cool cynic who manipulated other people’s ideologies to ensure his own dominance and 40 years of stagnant politics. Behind a façade of tranquility, however, he transformed Spain into a dynamic market economy, built its middle class and created a stable society, modern in every respect except its political system. Within five years of his death, Spain was a democracy, too.
Franco received contemptuously hostile obituaries. Castro’s? Let’s hope we read them soon.
That brings us to Pinochet. His victims are estimated at some 3,200. One innocent murdered is one too many. But if we are talking comparisons, Pinochet’s total of innocents murdered is (as estimated by the Cuba Archive Project) about one twentieth of Castro’s—partly because Pinochet exiled many of his dissidents, while Castro sinks his “boat people”
so that the sharks get them.
And Pinochet’s economic legacy outstrips that of most advanced democracies, let alone the economic rubble of all the Communist dictators. Within a decade of the 1973 coup, Chile was a stable growing economy—transformed by monetary, supply-side, trade and labor market reforms introduced by Pinochet.
When Chile returned to democracy in the late 1980s, it continued his free-market approach. The whole world noticed this. As communism was collapsing in 1989-91, one encountered self-described “Pinochet Marxists” in the Soviet bloc who sought an extension of one-party rule to impose the free-market reforms now needed to repair the ravages of socialism.
Thus, if successful economic transformation could justify political mass murder—the Marxist test—then Pinochet should be celebrated without reserve as the savior of his country (with Franco as a strong runner-up).
Contra the Marxists, however, murder is not an economic policy, and the soundest economic policy can’t justify murder. If Pinochet authorized murders, he should have been tried for them—though the same rule should apply to Castro, other surviving dictators and those supporters of Allende who killed opponents in the Chilean civil war.
Short Civil War
For Pinochet’s coup was in reality a short civil war. In 1973, Chile’s parliament and supreme court, backed by public opinion, called for military intervention to overthrow President Salvador Allende for his flagrant abuse of the Constitution. (They also feared an imminent Marxist coup led by him.)
One of three military leaders who responded to that call, Pinochet gradually accumulated power afterward—probably corrupted by the delusion that he was essential to national salvation. But the original coup was never a personal power-grab: It was an attempt to save Chile from a Marxist dictatorship that, on the evidence of history, would have proved more enduring and more blood-stained than his own rule.
Pinochet, in short, first defeated Marxism and then disproved it, which explains better than anything his status as the world’s worst dictator even though it is at variance with so many other facts.
Among them is the fact that Pinochet also surrendered power voluntarily after defeat in a referendum. In a historic deal, he bargained a dignified retirement in return for restoring democracy and an amnesty. That amnesty satisfied most Chileans and founded Chilean democracy in a secure national consensus—but spurred Pinochet’s foreign enemies on to greater efforts.
Died a Pursued Man
He was arraigned before British courts at the behest of a Spanish magistrate on the most dubious pretexts of international law at the very moment that Castro was being feted in Madrid. “Human rights” activists then kept up the legal chase.
He lost credit with many of his remaining supporters, including some who’d bankrolled his legal defense, when he was shown to have salted away millions in corrupt payments. And even in the hospital he died a pursued man—one step ahead of the next writ.
Maybe Pinochet had reason to be grateful for the fact that there is no justice in this world. But not such good reason as worse villains.