Milton Friedman comes to Chile
General Augusto Pinochet died, Sunday, shamed as a butcher and human rights abuser — even an international terrorist, given the CIA’s finding of his complicity in the 1976 Washington, D.C. car bombing that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit — and yet, as a free man. Some will argue that this was justice denied for the thousands killed and tortured by his regime. But only if justice is measured as retribution.
Long before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, September 11 was a black day for Chileans. It was on that day, in 1973, that years of subversion directed by Henry Kissinger and the CIA came to fruition, with a coup led by Pinochet that overthrew the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende. The U.S. and Chile’s right-wing military and conservative elements in Chilean society the country’s Opus Dei-dominated Catholic Church hated the values represented by Allende’s government, and warned that he was plunging the country into chaos (not that the CIA wasn’t actively spreading that chaos as part of an explicity campaign based on Henry Kissinger’s memorable statement that “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”) But regardless of his ideology, Allende wasn’t killing people, or torturing them, or summarily arresting them. They were free to organize and express their opposition.
But they couldn’t win in democratic elections, so they made a coup. And what followed, in the name of “saving Chile from communism” (supposedly an authoritarian system of human rights abuses) was a wave of savage repression that included rounding up left-wing activists in the national stadium, where many were tortured to death — none more famously than the gentle musician Victor Jara, whose hands were broken by Pinochet’s goons and was then told to play his guitar, during four days of torture before he was machine gunned.
Pinochet’s savagery was conveniently overlooked by such pals as Reagan and Thatcher, simply because those he was brutalizing were people of the left — never mind that they were the non-violent democrats who believed in the will of the people, expressed through the ballot box, and the rule of law, while Pinochet represented the vile stench of the torturer’s exertions.
Back in the 80s, as I was coming of age politically in South Africa, the example of Chile immediately explained why it was that the Reagan Administration backed the apartheid regime — because Chile showed that the U.S. cared nothing about democracy abroad, and would actively support vicious tyrants who declared themselves anti-communist. Even the deranged kleptocrat and mass murderer Mobutu Sese Seko, for example, was an honored guest in Reagan’s White House. As the Clash (who also memorialized Victor Jara on ‘Sandinista’) sang on a different track, “If Adolf Hitler, were here today, they’d send a limousine anyway…”
Back then, I believed that Pinochet deserved to die, to avenge all those whose lives he destroyed for no reason other than that their views were deemed unacceptable to his own, a blend of Prussian Military authoritarianism, Catholic crypto-fascism and the economics of free enterprise fundamentalist Milton Friedman.
But we all grow up.
The South African experience taught me that once the leaders of a violent authoritarian regime are stripped of their power, they are forced to confront their own criminality in the eyes of a society that has moved on, repudiating them — and more importantly, simply moving on to build a better society that, in itself, shows the moral bankruptcy of those that unleashed violence on the people in the name of progress and security. P.W. Botha, another third world thug admired by Lady Thatcher, died a couple of months ago, too, stripped of his power, a cantankerous old fool who had destroyed tens of thousands of lives, but had faced no retribution from his victims. Instead, they had simply moved on, repudiating him by building a new society that had no need for torture chambers.
Botha spent his last years living in the dustbin of history, and so did Pinochet. Once he was forced to allow the Chilean people to vote for their own leaders, he was summarily rejected. And he had to endure the fact that the society he had killed so many to “protect” from communism had, in fact, chosen to return to power the very people he had locked up and tortured. And in the West, in whose defense he had ostensibly committed his atrocities, he was now treated as a criminal, freed from the ignominy of extradition to Spain after 18 months under house arrest only on humanitarian grounds.
Today, Chile is ruled by a former detainee and torture victim, but the society Michele Bachelet is helping develop has no need to turn Pinochet’s own methods on him. They will even allow him a military funeral, but not a state one. After all, he was legitimately head of the military (having been appointed by the legally elected President he later killed); he was never legitimately a head of state.
In its humane handling of Pinochet, in fact, the government of his victims proved its superiority. Sure, his victims would have liked to see him face a judge and answer to each and every charge — Pinochet, while still ruling as the head of the military, created for himself a bogus amnesty. They pursued him to his death, but only via the law. It is Pinochet’s victims who will be memorialized with honor as the old man’s bones are interred. And all Chileans know, whether or not they admit it, that they have created a better society by getting rid of him. Pinochet will have sensed it, too.
And since his arrest and extradition trial in Britain in 1998, he has had to confront the reality that even in the West, he is deemed a criminal — his release, remember, was on compassionate grounds. This from a piece I wrote for Britannica.com following his release:
Abuse is made all the more traumatic when its victims are denied the right to remember, and post-Pinochet Chilean society had–until the general’s arrest– imposed a cruel amnesia on those who had suffered at the hands of the dictatorship. A trial is a cathartic moment for people on whom silence has been imposed; it’s an affirmation, a bearing of witness to their pain and suffering, a moment that allows a healing process to begin. Confronting their tormentor, now stripped of both the power to hurt them and of the palliatives of political rationalization, and recalling the horrors he perpetrated in all their painful detail can be of immeasurable psychological benefit to those burdened by trauma. Pinochet’s victims won’t get to confront him in court, although there’s been an unprecedented bearing of witness–mostly through the media, both Chilean and international–since his arrest.
No matter what crimes he may be guilty of, Pinochet is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell. But justice–imperfect at the best of times–may well have been served precisely by denying the general the exoneration by the West he so desperately craved. In Pinochet’s mind, every head that had ever been cracked by his goons, every torture-riddled corpse tossed into the Pacific Ocean, every child stolen from its doomed leftist parents and handed over to a childless military couple, all of his junta’s crimes against the people of Chile had been committed in defense of Western values–ugly but necessary measures to defend democracy and freedom from totalitarian communism.
This involved some twisted logic from a man who’d overthrown a leftist government that had meticulously upheld the constitution of Latin America’s oldest democracy, while the general himself turned it into toilet paper–but then the ability to rationalize is an essential skill for those who commit crimes against humanity. Torturers go home at the end of their day to wives and families; they have to create a structure of meaning that sanctions unconscionably sadistic behavior toward their foes and then allows them, only hours later, to read their children a bedtime story. And that leaves them vulnerable to a justice more subtle, yet every bit as harsh, as that dispensed by courts.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not a court of law, and it had no power to punish individuals no matter how heinous the crimes to which they were admitting. And yet there are numerous tales of torturers and assassins breaking down in its sessions or after, being overwhelmed by the weight of their own confession. They are left depressed and anxious, unable to function socially now that their own children knew what they had once done. Stripped of their dignity and acceptability in polite society, the torturers of the past are subject to a justice more profound, perhaps, than any prison could offer, because prisons inevitably cast the prisoner, in his own mind, as a victim.
After 15 months as a prisoner awaiting trial in England, Pinochet’s spirit and body are in decline. The arrogant generalissimo will return home diminished and humiliated, shunned by the West as a criminal, the abuses of his regime exposed. And that may be a punishment more profound than any prison term: General Pinochet has been sentenced to live with himself.