Monday, August 8, 2016

Pinochet Averted Communism

By Carlos Sabino

To understand and judge people from the past, it’s necessary to consider the circumstances in which they made their decisions, the alternatives available, and the means they had at their disposal. In the case of Augusto Pinochet, this is even more relevant, because there are still unusually passionate discussions about his administration.
In 1970, Salvador Allende won the presidential elections with barely 37 percent of the votes, on a platform that promised to turn Chile into a socialist paradise. Instead, it soon became a nightmare. After a year of a public spending bonanza, the economy slumped: shortages and lines resulted, and workers’ quality of life visibly worsened.
The Allende administration fomented a climate of confrontation and political tension while ignoring laws or applying them arbitrarily. Groups of socialist hardliners were preparing to attain absolute power through violence.

In 1973, Chilean society became even more polarized, and intense conflicts arose after the governing coalition failed to win legislative elections. The perceived alternatives at the time were reduced to just two: an uprising from the radical left, or a nationalistic military coup d’état to prevent Chile from descending into communism.
Was Chile really heading toward communist dictatorship? There’s no definite way to answer the question, but a majority of the population thought so. Many Chileans believed in those ominous times that unless they took drastic measures, the country would head down a dangerous and irreversible path.
Even the Chilean Congress encouraged the army to step in to preserve freedoms and the Constitution, for the military were the only ones with enough power to prevent chaos.
General Pinochet was the head of the Chilean army, which until then had obeyed the government’s orders. But pressure to spur into action augmented with every passing day, and in September, supported by the Chilean navy and air force, Pinochet joined the plotters of the coup d’état. The attack was not bloodless, but it achieved the fundamental goal demanded by most Chileans: ending the communist threat.
It’s true this meant the ousting of a democratically elected president, but could the Allende administration really be called democratic? Was his electoral “triumph” enough to legitimize the imposition of a societal model that most Chileans rejected, amid huge demonstrations and clear warning signs of collapse?
During Pinochet’s coup d’état and his long period in power, violations of human rights undoubtedly took place, but in such circumstances could one really expect something else? The excesses committed during the crackdown of opponents cannot be waved away, but they need to be considered in their historical context.
While we should condemn the brutality of that period, we have to consider two of Pinochet’s most important merits: his handling of the economy and the way he finally stepped down.
The Pinochet government respected the economic liberties of its citizens, freed an economy trapped by a socialist model, and boosted the country’s growth, reducing poverty like never before. Pinochet, unlike Fidel Castro, was also wise enough to hand over power voluntarily. He wasn’t motivated by personal ambition, and while he did help orchestrate a coup against an elected government, the majority of Chilean society then were ready to accept any solution to prevent communism from taking over.
A balanced assessment of his administration comes out as positive: he allowed Chile to return to democracy, all the while promoting the prosperity the country still enjoys today.
Carlos Sabino is a sociologist, writer, and university professor. He is the director of graduate studies in history at the Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala.