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Mark Falcoff: The coup at 40

Occasional contributor Mark Falcoff writes to forward this article that was commissioned to appear in Spanish translation on September 11 in the big Chilean daily La Segunda. He is identified there as a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and two of his books are listed, one of which is Modern Chile, 1970-1989: A Critical History. Dr. Falcoff notes: “Other articles from different perspectives (presumably, more generous to Comrade Allende than I) will appear alongside it.” Dr. Falcoff has forwarded us the English language version of his column. I thought it would be of interest to Power Line readers and we are grateful for the opportunity to publish it here. He writes:

History is not merely a recollection of past events, but the sense we make of them. The French revolution took place more than two centuries ago, and yet there still no academic consensus on its causes, the role of its principal actors, much less its costs and consequences. We should therefore hardly be surprised that the military coup that occurred a mere forty years ago this week in Chile should still provoke controversy. The only point on which most people can agree is that the overthrow of the Allende government on September 11, 1973 brought an end to democracy as it had been practiced in Chile for more than a hundred years, and ushered in nearly two decades of authoritarian rule. How and why this happened continues to divide opinion in Chile and elsewhere and is likely to continue to do so.

Considering just how traumatic these years were for most Chileans, what seems most remarkable, at least to many foreign observers, is the degree to which the country has made a reasonably comfortable transition to democratic normality. Not even occasional provocations, such as the assassination of Senator Jaime Guzmán, succeeded in shaking the political elites from the rediscovery of the importance of institutions to bridge over differences. The smooth and relatively effortless revision of the authoritarian constitution of 1980 has been a pleasant surprise. Yet another is the capacity of two important coalitions, one conservative-liberal, the other Christian Democrat-Socialist, to alternate in power, followed by a conservative one. This does not make Chile a “first world” country—the society is still not sufficiently integrated socially for it to be one—but it suggests an institutional maturity greater than ever before.

History does not always move in a straight line. The coup, which was supposed to rescue Chile from a Communist threat, resulted in massive violation of human rights, depriving the military and its civilian supporters of the moral justification from other Western countries that they tirelessly sought. Meanwhile, the experience of exile produced a political class far less provincial, and also (thanks to opportunities to study at foreign universities) ultimately more qualified to govern. General Pinochet’s indiscriminate persecution of opponents during the dictatorship unintentionally created a sense of convivencia among politicians who were at daggers drawn the evening of the coup, and made possible the triumph of the “No” in the 1988 plebiscite. This good feeling has endured through more than a dozen years of electoral rule.

Of course, much that has happened in Chile is also due to a change in the international environment. Innovations in technology, communications, finance and trade have made the country far less isolated (and much less poor) than it once was. The most important difference, however, is the end of the Cold War, in which Chile was for a time a principal theater of conflict. This last point can hardly be exaggerated. Without taking the geopolitical context fully into account, there is no other way of explaining events in Chile not just between 1970-1973, but going back as far as the late 1940s. Today the country is more independent than it has ever been.

What of Pinochet himself? One has to look very hard around the world today to find someone who has something good to say about him. In some ways this not surprising. No dictator of the twentieth century has gained luster with the passage of time. No record of economic growth and reform (or, as in Cuba, of education and health services) can cancel out the systematic practices of torture, murder, disappearances and targeted assassination of opposition figures (not all of them, by the way, on the left). Even the general’s prudent decision to stand down after the 1988 plebiscite (forced upon him by other high ranking officers) has been devalued by subsequent revelations that he, or at any rate, members of his immediate family, were privately enriching themselves at the expense of the Chilean people.

In Chile itself, of course, matters are inevitably a bit different. I speak here not of the parties of the right (some of whose leaders are making serious and praiseworthy efforts to disassociate themselves from the darker aspects of the past) but of ordinary citizens, many of them of modest economic means. These latter are victims of an inflamed rhetoric exercised by the parties of Popular Unity during a thousand intense days of Chilean history—rhetoric which announced on a daily basis that roughly half the country had no future as a social class. The discreet and intelligent policies of two socialist presidents since 1989 have done much to defuse the anti-democratic sentiments which these people harbored (and which some still do). Pinochetista currents remain in Chilean public opinion, but become less relevant with each passing year.

One cannot end these reflections, alas, without at least a brief reference to the other great personality in the drama. It is unfortunate but also true that without President Salvador Allende’s election nobody would ever have heard of an obscure, time-serving desk general who dabbled in harmless geopolitical theories. It was Allende, who probably never expected to actually be elected in the first place, who made possible the accession of flag officers to his cabinet when he refused to reach an agreement with the opposition. It was Allende who failed to master his own coalition and who lacked the conceptual discipline to map out a credible path of Chilean development. He never fully grasped the reins of power, allowing supporters with less benevolent intentions to grab parcels for themselves, not enough surely to reach his announced goal—the longed-for historic compromise between democracy and Marxism–but sufficient to discredit the government and the means by which it had come to power. Somewhat improbably, Pinochet and Allende have found themselves lashed together in a dialectical fashion as the protagonists of the greatest tragedy of Chilean history, a tragedy from which the country is now clearly emerging.

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