Pinochet's Legacy: Free, Non-Communist Chile

Gen. Augusto Pinochet was laid to rest after several years of illness, which prevented the Chilean Supreme Court from hearing criminal charges against him. I well recall the dark days of the early 1970s. We had cut and run from Vietnam. The Communists were on the march in Angola and Mozambique. Salvadore Allende had been elected by a minority of the electorate and was busy moving Chile to a Communist state.

The Soviet Union, which seemed invincible, announced the Brezhnev Doctrine. Simply stated it was this: Once a Communist country, always a Communist country.

There was no turning back. You could never vote to undo a Communist regime or to overthrow such a regime by other means. If a state turned Communist it would remain a Communist regime forever.

Allende had been elected by a minority of the voters in a three-way split among the electorate. The outright conservative candidate received almost a third of the vote, the centrist candidate received nearly a third of the vote and finally the Communists under the banner of Allende received just over a third of the vote. He interpreted this as a mandate.

Pinochet staged a coup. He bombed the Presidential Palace in Santiago and took over communications in Chile. Pinochet’s saving of Chile from the Communists was ironic. Allende himself had placed the military under the control of Pinochet because he believed the military would be loyal to him. When the moment of truth came, Allende killed himself with a gun given to him by his pal Fidel Castro.

Pinochet took over Chile and ran it with a firm hand. Recognizing that he did not know anything about economics, he turned to the University of Chicago. Chicago economic scholars told him to initiate a free market. He did so. And it worked. Soon Chile was the most prosperous country in the region.

Pinochet did run Chile with an iron fist. Interestingly, when I was giving training seminars in the former Soviet Union, Pinochet’s name frequently came up. Russian leaders wanted my opinion if the Chilean model would be good for Russia.

In due course, Pinochet promulgated a Constitution. He got the voters to ratify it. Then he proposed a referendum question, which if passed would allow him to continue in office for some years. If the resolution were defeated he said he would step down. I was part of a team working with the conservative forces in Chile, in preparation for the vote on the referendum. We were able to have breakfast with Pinochet. He was obviously well educated and clearly was prepared to step down if the referendum were defeated.

We trained the conservative forces and the election was reasonably close but his proposition clearly was defeated. So he stepped down. Chile had prompted the late great Jeane Kirkpatrick to distinguish between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. The Soviet Union was totalitarian, she opined. Chile was authoritarian.

When I went to Chile I was amazed to find freedom of the press. Far more than half of the media was highly critical of Pinochet. At that time there was no opposition press in the Soviet Union. Indeed, in Chile there was freedom of assembly. All sorts of groups and potential political parties were preparing for that resolution.

I asked Pinochet point blank if indeed he would be prepared to step down in light of defeat of his resolution. He told me he absolutely would do so. He kept his word.

Pinochet should go down in history as a liberator. He, alone, reversed the Brezhnev Doctrine. Today Chile is a prosperous left-of-center nation. People there have health-savings accounts and have better health care than in any other Latin American country. Pinochet made that happen. His free market reforms made Chile into a prosperous nation. He even looked after the poor with medical care.

Yet what he is known for, it seems to me, are the deaths of some 3,000 people and the torture of others. As William F. Buckley reminded us, Pinochet “spoke with passion to say he had not himself known about, let alone authorized any of the random killings and torture laid at his door.”

Perhaps he did not know of these killings and the torture of the living. First, let it be said: He fought a war. And when you fight a war, people will end up dead. Second, to this day there are those who vilify Pinochet. I believe they cannot forgive him for reversing the Brezhnev Doctrine. He showed that you can overthrow a Communist regime and set it on a road to freedom. He was an authoritarian who agreed to step down, albeit reluctantly, when he lost the confidence of the people. Name me one Communist dictator of that era who stepped down when his efforts went astray. Not in Hungary, not in Poland, not in Estonia, not in Czechoslovakia. If something went wrong one Communist was replaced with another.

The left in Chile set out to punish Pinochet. They never succeeded. Either he won an appeal or he became too ill to testify. I know it is heresy to say this but the people of Chile should thank Pinochet. He saved their nation from a brutal Communist “experiment.” The Chilean people should ask the people who lived in the Soviet Empire how it was to live there. No free market. No free press. No freedom of assembly. I will light a candle in memory of Pinochet, the man who had the courage to take on the Soviet Empire.