South of the Border

Reconsidering Pinochet

March 22, 2013

Multiple Pages
Reconsidering Pinochet

With the passing of Hugo Chávez, we got a lot of crocodile tears from liberals claiming we had “lost a friend” who “lifted the poor and helped them realize their dreams.” Jimmy Carter told us that he “never doubted Hugo Chávez’s commitment.” The Nation lamented that “he wasn’t authoritarian enough.” I haven’t seen this much love for a Latin American tyrant since Che Guevara became a T-shirt.

But if we’re going to perform oral sex on every despot who can’t pronounce the letter “J,” why not Pinochet?

In 1973, Augusto Pinochet was faced with a dilemma: Let the communists control his country or stand and fight. McCarthyism and the Cold War get a bad rap these days, but communism was responsible for millions of deaths and was spreading all over Central and South America like a red plague.

Pinochet chose Door #2 and led a military coup against President Salvador Allende that was nasty and brutal but pretty much the norm as far as coups go. He killed thousands of people, but so did Che. Where’s Augusto’s T-shirt? Why did The Nation call him “murderous” while acting as if Che and Chávez were the greatest things since sliced tortillas?

“If we’re going to perform oral sex on every despot who can’t pronounce the letter ‘J,’ why not Pinochet?”

Where Allende had taken land from the rich in a Castro-like redistribution program, Pinochet gave it back. He traveled the world talking to economists, politicians, and academics. Critics of libertarianism call Milton Friedman a “Pinochet sympathizer,” but all Milton did was take a meeting where he told Pinochet that dictatorships don’t work in the long run. He also explained that Chile would thrive if the market were given free rein.

He was right. Chile’s GDP is soaring, and it’s mostly because of the policies Pinochet enacted in the 80s. When he met with Margaret Thatcher in 1982, she told him she’d like to set up a military base there so Britain could better protect the Falklands. They became best pals, and rumors abound of backroom copper deals made with Britain due to his cooperation.

Yes, Pinochet enforced curfews where nobody was allowed to be on the streets from midnight to 6AM. So what? This happens in Glasgow every time there’s a crime spree. Besides, having a curfew doesn’t mean you can’t party. All it means is that at 11:30 you have to decide if it’s worth staying all night at this party. If the curfew ruined your party, it wasn’t a good party. And isn’t that what’s behind all this whining about Pinochet? People who didn’t have much going on are blaming the guy who kicked out a communist dictator and turned Chile into a civilized, clean, wealthy, and prosperous nation. If you wanted to make money in Chile, the doors were open. If you didn’t, well, that’s your fault. He may have started out as a dictator, but he left voluntarily when he was voted out of office in 1990. That’s not a fascist. That’s a great guy.

This theory looks great on paper, but it behooves a writer to do a last-minute check with “the people” before sending his essay off to the editor.

I started talking to Chilean expats here in New York. Raving homosexual Mauricio Santelice is an executive pastry chef at the Dream Hotel in Chelsea. He came here in the 1990s after spending his entire childhood and adolescence under Pinochet’s rule. When I told him my theory about the parties, he told me to go fuck myself. “If they caught you on the street at night they would beat you bad,” he told me angrily. “They’d knock out your teeth and break your bones. They’d even pull your hair out. And if they caught you more than once it would count as a felony and you’d be off to jail without a trial.” Mauricio said that the curfew also meant no nightlife, which ultimately meant no youth culture. I told him Pinochet had to be strict because he was up against the communists, and Mauricio looked at me like I just took a shit inside his head. “My sister would protest him a lot growing up,” he said. “They would spray the protestors with water cannons filled with sewage that had permanent blue dye in it. When the police saw someone on the street who was blue, they would beat them worse than someone out past curfew.”

Hmm, maybe Pinochet’s Chile wasn’t as Smurfy as I’d first thought.

Patricia Marandio came here with her family during the coup. She runs a cleaning company in Manhattan and was mortified to hear me defend Pinochet. “We had our own September 11th,” she told me, referring to the day in 1973 when troops took over the country and bombed Santiago. She talked about a writer named Pablo Neruda whom Pinochet killed, adding that murders were spread throughout his 17-year reign. Apparently they’d throw the bodies out of a helicopter over the Pacific Ocean so there’d be no evidence. All right, but Obama is responsible for the deaths of 1,521 Americans and he had a coup-free election.

Finally, I spoke to an ad exec named Edgardo who insisted I only use his first name. His family was forced out shortly after Pinochet came into power. Edgardo’s father was a Social Democrat who had become blacklisted under the regime and was unable to find work. His parents were both in theater and were part of a massive exodus in the early 70s that included so many of Chile’s educated class, the country suffered an immediate brain drain. When I offered up Chile as a great example of free-market capitalism I was reminded that copper, the very engine of Chile’s economy, has been nationalized since 1969. Edgardo said Chile’s business elite had trouble getting international investment because other countries are wary of dictatorships. “Many European countries were embargoing Chilean products,” he added.

Edgardo’s family is divided on Pinochet. Some of them like what he did and all of the ones who were in exile moved back in the early 2000s. I asked him if support for Pinochet was as simple as liberals v. conservatives, and he said no. “What people don’t understand about Chile,” he said “is that it is fundamentally a very conservative country. It’s a very Catholic country. And it’s quite likely Allende would have been pushed out of office democratically, without a coup.” He told me many Chileans continue to support the coup but don’t support the Pinochet regime. “You don’t have to brutally torture your countrymen to fight communism,” he said. I wasn’t totally convinced but then he added, “Your career wouldn’t exist in Pinochet’s Chile. Your comedy, your writing, even this article would be banned.”

And with that, I changed my mind about Pinochet. When my livelihood gets caught up in the mix, I’m out.

That’s the problem with talking to “the people.” They have a tendency to destroy the silly theories you dream up while sitting on a barstool in a free country. Opinions about dictatorships make for amusing banter and great T-shirts, but they don’t take into account the victims of the totalitarianism involved. Whether you’re on the side of Chávez and Che or that of Pinochet, the truth is that choosing sides and having these discussions is a luxury that wouldn’t be possible under any of those regimes. They are all oppressive. I judge a culture on its ability to handle ridicule, and by those standards the West is still the best. 


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