Acton Institute Powerblog

Understanding Pinochet

Writing a biography of someone like General Augusto Pinochet is fraught with potential pitfalls. Does it become an exercise in whitewashing someone whose regime oversaw a brutal repression which included the “disappearing” of approximately 2,228 people? Or does a biographer unquestionably accept the left’s narrative about Pinochet, one which downplays the abyss to which the much-romanticized Marxist, Salvador Allende, led Chile during his short presidency?

In a new well-researched biography, Augusto Pinochet (2020), the French journalist Michel Faure navigates these and other snares to provide genuine insight into the puzzles of Pinochet. While writing the text, Faure says, he found Pinochet “an enigmatic character.” How does someone who hitherto embraced a strict constitutionalist view of the army’s role vis-à-vis politics suddenly switch to leading a military putsch? Why would a general who venerated top-down hierarchy allow a small band of economists to dramatically liberalize a hyper-regulated economy? Is the answer, Faure asks, hypocrisy, intellectual confusion, or an “unexpected sincerity”?

Faure opts for unexpected sincerity. Pinochet behaved, he argues, as most dictators do, but he also pursued particular goals which eventually benefited his country. Exploring this dichotomy leads Faure to present what he calls “a portrait of a well-intentioned criminal,” one which helps explain the contradictions of Pinochet and the military’s seventeen year rule of Chile.

A Prussian in Chile

Faure’s account begins with a detailed outline of Pinochet’s upbringing. From a middle-class family, Pinochet entered officer cadet school in 1933. This was a time of considerable tension in Chile. The country was beset by ideological quarrels, political violence, and a major economic downturn. Such instability, Faure underscores, inevitably left their mark on Chilean officers of Pinochet’s generation, not least because the army to which Pinochet belonged was unlike any other in Latin America.

During the late-1880s, Chile recruited Prussian officers to professionalize its armed forces. Chilean military culture subsequently absorbed the Prussian emphasis upon the officer corps as a caste apart from society. This rendered many Chilean soldiers contemptuous of their country’s wheeler-dealer politicians, whatever their party. Pinochet shared that outlook. Nevertheless, his marriage to the very ambitious daughter of a senator may have given Pinochet insights into politics lacked by his brother officers.

Pinochet’s pre-1973 military career was a conventional one. It included time as an instructor at the Military Academy where he taught geopolitics. Pinochet cultivated a reputation as somewhat of a thinker, Faure stresses, but not so much of a thinker that he would be dismissed by his peers as an intellectual. In other words, Pinochet made sure that he stood out sufficiently to garner steady promotion while avoiding the type of attention which might attract disdain, jealously, or suspicion. This ability to navigate complex social dynamics would serve him well in the lead-up to the 1973 coup and its aftermath.

The Allende Catastrophe

Throughout the 1960s, Chile experienced all the upheavals which engulfed other Western countries. In the universities, Marxism’s influence magnified as figures like Che Guevara became folk-heroes for many students. Chile’s influential Christian Democrat party, with its close links to the even more influential Catholic Church, consciously headed in a leftward economic direction. An economy already marked by protectionism and extensive industrial policies became even more dirigiste in character.

Chile’s armed forces were relative bystanders to these changes. They lived, Faure shows, in a highly-insulated world which emphasized values like hierarchy, patriotism, religion, and discipline—commitments increasingly at odds with the growing leftist counter-culture. The gap became starker following Allende’s election as president in 1970, despite only receiving a third of the popular vote.

Among other things, Allende’s socialist government sought to force far-reaching changes upon the educational curricula of parochial schools, funded the publication and distribution of 12 million books promoting “social analysis,” and tried to sidestep Congress’s required assent for many policies via measures deemed unconstitutional by Chile’s Supreme Court. Allende also allowed Fidel Castro to spend 23 days touring Chile and delivering speeches about revolutionary politics. That went together with Allende permitting significant numbers of left-wing militants to enter the country. This included Cuban intelligence operatives who trained Allende’s personal security team which itself was drawn from the hard-left Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). Before Allende came to power, the MIR had engaged in bank robberies and urban terrorism. During Allende’s presidency, it built up arsenals of weapons around Chile and tried to infiltrate the armed forces.

None of this was reassuring to the 63.39 percent of Chileans who did not vote for Allende in 1970, or the 55.49 percent of Chileans who voted for Allende’s political opponents in the 1973 Congressional elections. But Allende’s radicalism, Faure maintains, was especially evident in economic policy. Allende portrayed “the Chilean way to socialism” as democratic in nature and thus different from the traditional path of revolutionary leftists. Faure points out, however, that Allende’s economic policies followed a textbook Marxist approach of having the state steadily absorb the economy. The process began with price-controls, nationalizations of key industries, expropriations of foreign-owned businesses, huge public spending increases, 41 percent wage-rises for blue-collar workers, and extensive land redistributions. The goal, Faure observes, was to maximize popular support for the next stages of the march toward full socialism.

All this assumed that accelerating the state’s involvement in the economy would facilitate prosperity. That premise’s falsity become evident just eighteen months into Allende’s presidential term. After an initial economic upturn, Chileans started experiencing skyrocketing inflation (225 percent in 1972, 606 percent in 1973), severe shortages of basic goods, breadlines, a collapse in business confidence, and substantial contractions in GDP.

By August 1973, Chile’s Supreme Court and two-thirds of its Congress had effectively given the military a green light to move against Allende. Moreover, all three of Chile’s living ex-presidents (from the center-left, center, and right) and the country’s Comptroller-General (an independent government office which audits government finances and scrutinizes all executive decisions and regulations for their legality) had declared that Allende’s government was acting unconstitutionally.

Despite this momentum, Pinochet did not sign onto the September 11 coup until days before it occurred. The key coup planners considered Pinochet somewhat of a mystery and, most likely, a strict constitutionalist. This was one reason why Allende appointed him head of the army in the first place. But Pinochet had a long history of never showing his hand until he absolutely had to. Once, however, he made his choice, Pinochet went all the way. This pattern would manifest itself throughout his seventeen years in power.

Radicalism and Legitimacy

What “going all the way” meant was most visible in Allende’s overthrow. The coup’s ruthlessness, forever symbolized by the famous images of jet-fighters bombing the presidential palace in Santiago, was very deliberate. The objective was to deter armed resistance to the military takeover, thereby diminishing the risk of civil war. The ferocious character of the subsequent repression ordered by the military junta—characterized by mass imprisonment, widespread use of torture, and outright killings—reflected the same deadly logic.

What’s curious about this is that Faure shows how Pinochet’s penchant for radical options went hand-in-hand with a longing for affirmation by those authorities which he respected. He went to great lengths to try and secure the Church’s blessing for many of his policies—something in which Pinochet achieved, at best, only partial success. The same yearning for legitimacy helps explain Pinochet’s determination to establish a new constitution to endow the military regime with an authority other than that of coercion and allow a gradual transition to democracy. To achieve this end, Pinochet turned to serious constitutional thinkers like the conservative intellectual-lawyer, Jaime Guzmán.

The albatross of a “well-intentioned criminal,” it turns out, is hard to shake.

In the late-1970s, Guzman’s legal, economic and political thought was influenced by reading F.A. Hayek. It was no accident that Chile’s 1980 constitution was called “The Constitution of Liberty,” the title of one of Hayek’s most important books. The referendum which ratified the new constitution was marred by procedural problems, irregularities, and an absence of input into the drafting-process from the non-Marxist left. This undermined its legitimacy in many Chileans’ eyes, including some conservatives. Yet Faure illustrates that Pinochet really did want the electorate’s consent to a new constitution because, at some level, legality mattered to him.

Pinochet’s approach to the economy was also characterized by a desire for legitimation, this time by specialists. Throughout 1975, in the face of continuing economic stagnation, Pinochet and other key junta members debated alternatives to the dirigisme pursued by Chilean governments since the Great Depression. Eventually, Pinochet opted to radically liberalize the economy. Pinochet was certainly taken with the sweeping nature of the program proposed by the market liberals who had studied under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger at the University of Chicago that he appointed to key policy positions. But Pinochet was also impressed by the Chicago Boys’ vision, academic credentials, and sheer self-confidence. In short, they possessed an intellectual authority which Pinochet held in high esteem.

Lessons Unlearned

None of this, Faure emphasizes, was as straightforward as it initially seems. Flexibility was more part of Pinochet’s repertoire than commonly realized. He dispensed, for example, with the more radical Chicago economists when economic recession hit in 1982. But Pinochet filled their positions with market liberals more attuned to political realities but nevertheless committed to further economic liberalization.

Nor did the tension, as Faure describes it, between Pinochet’s proclivity for drastic measures and his seemingly authentic hankering after legality always balance itself out. Pinochet frequently lashed out at opponents in petty and occasionally lethal ways. The balance came close to disintegrating completely in 1988. Having conscientiously followed the formal process for transitioning to democracy established by the arrangements ratified in 1980, it took forceful opposition from the heads of the navy and air force to deter Pinochet from ordering the army onto the streets and ignoring the results of the 1988 referendum which denied him another eight years as president.

Occasionally Pinochet acknowledged that he had often sacrificed legality to expediency. When asked by his successor as Chile’s president, Patricio Aylwin, if he regretted the abuses committed by the military regime, Pinochet responded, “We were at war, Mr. President.” In a sense, that was true. Before and after the 1973 coup, Chile’s Marxist left largely saw matters the same way and behaved accordingly. But Pinochet’s unspoken claim was that circumstances could justify actions otherwise considered unthinkable.

That type of thinking has a way of catching up with those who embrace it. Faure underscores how Pinochet’s willingness to order and condone terrible things, compounded by revelations of personal and family corruption in the 1990s and 2000s, left a moral stain on the regime’s actual achievements. The military regime did, after all, bequeath Chile with a constitutional order and stable democracy that, until very recently, has functioned extremely well. It also left the country with a dynamic market economy: something that no-one could have predicted and which, after much pain, yielded dramatic declines in poverty and gave Chile a first-world, high-income economy. This was a stunning transformation, and a rarity in Latin America. As one militant Chilean socialist told Faure, “It was the military who made the revolution”—not the left.

But these accomplishments might be more celebrated, Faure states, if they had not been realized by a regime which had deployed savage methods against its opponents. Moreover, the Latin American left has proved adept at using the crimes committed by Pinochet and his regime to cast a moral cloud over classical liberal ideas and thinkers. The albatross of a “well-intentioned criminal,” it turns out, is hard to shake. In many Latin American but also North American and European circles, I have found that you cannot even mention names like Hayek or Friedman without someone saying, “Yes, but what about Pinochet”?

Of course, much of the Latin American left hasn’t hesitated to use terrorist methods against its opponents in countries ranging from Cuba to Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua over the past 80 years. Marxism contains no in-principle objection to such strategies, however criminal. But the Latin American left’s success at marginalizing any substantive public discussion of its own sins and its relentless focus on those of the Pinochet regime has handicapped the ability of defenders of markets and limited government in Latin America to offer stronger arguments for these things beyond “it works better than the alternatives.”

Yes, markets generally do work. But the widespread material prosperity and significant poverty reductions delivered by economic liberalization has never proved sufficient to deter considerable numbers of people from insisting upon more government intervention to realize greater economic equality via the type of wealth redistributions that undermine incentives to create wealth in the first place. These are precisely some of the demands driving the mass protests in Chile which began in October 2019 and that have produced the country’s worst civil unrest since the Pinochet era. I can think of few more powerful reminders that if the case for limited government and economic liberty isn’t grounded in normative claims which go beyond utility, it becomes harder to convince people of the rightness of these things over the long-term. True friends of liberty neglect that lesson at their peril.

This article first appeared on June 9, 2020, in Law & Liberty, a project of Liberty Fund, Inc., and was republished with permission.

Samuel Gregg

is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.