The passing of a tyrant
Dec 13th 2006
From The Economist print edition
No ifs or buts. Whatever the general did for the economy, he was a bad man
HIS was not the bloodiest of the military dictatorships that afflicted South America in the 1970s. That accolade belonged to the Argentine junta. Nor was it the longest-lasting: Alfredo Stroessner misgoverned Paraguay for 35 years and Brazil's collegial military regime lasted for 21. But General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 and who died last weekend, was the most brutally successful of the dictators. He presided over a viciously effective police state and came to personify a whole era of bloody despotism during the latter stages of the cold war (see article).
The left abhorred him not only because of his brutality but because he overthrew the elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende. The coup in 1973, which had the backing of the United States, ended a democratic tradition in Chile that stretched back to the 1930s. For his defenders both at home and abroad—who not long ago were numerous—he was the saviour of his country. They argue that he rescued Chile from communism and went on to turn it into the fastest-growing economy in Latin America by applying free-market policies that would be imitated in eastern Europe and Asia. General Pinochet hoped that a record of economic success, not just intimidation, would enable him to win a referendum in 1988 and remain in power. Chileans voted instead to restore democracy, by 56% to 43%. The general stayed on as army commander, casting an overbearing shadow. He was finally brought to book, if not quite to trial, thanks to a Spanish judge, Britain's House of Lords and the courts in Chile.
The Pinochet story raises two uncomfortable questions for liberals. If the coup did indeed rescue Chile from an elected government that was Marxist-dominated—and thus anti-democratic—was it justified? The answer is no. The Allende government generated economic chaos and extreme political tension and would probably have imploded. But the intention of the junta was to crush democracy, not just communism.
The second uncomfortable question is whether Chile's subsequent economic success was possible only because of dictatorship. Like most Latin American dictators, General Pinochet was instinctively an economic nationalist. But he saw the “Chicago Boys”, a group of free-market economists, as a means to consolidate his personal dictatorship. The radical shrinking of Allende's bloated state was a way to avoid sharing patronage, and thus power, with the armed forces.With Chileans cowed, the Chicago Boys could work as if in a laboratory, with no regard for social costs. They made mistakes: a fixed exchange rate and unregulated bank privatisations triggered a massive recession and financial collapse in 1982-83. More pragmatic policies and a renewal of growth followed. But it took the return of democracy in 1990, with its ability to bestow legitimacy, to create an investment-led boom and a large fall in poverty. Elsewhere in Latin America, free-market reforms were enacted by democracies.
When economic and political liberty are divorced
Most dictators are economic bunglers. A few get the economy right, as Spain's Franco did after 1958. But in the long run (as China is likely to discover) economic liberty seldom thrives in the absence of political liberty. And General Pinochet's claim to have stood selflessly for the former was tarnished when it emerged that he had amassed a fortune incommensurate with his salary. Even if history bothers to remember that he privatised the pension system, that should not wipe away the memory of the torture, the “disappeared” and the bodies dumped at sea. His defenders—who include Britain's Lady Thatcher—really should know better.