'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Allegorical Rehabilitation of Augusto Pinochet 

UPDATE: In regard to my belief that Pinochet is being rehabilitated as ideological preparation for the installation of an Iraqi autocrat to implement US policy (scroll down below), I am not a personal friend of Jonah Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times, all appearances to the contrary:

I think all intelligent, patriotic and informed people can agree: It would be great if the U.S. could find an Iraqi Augusto Pinochet. In fact, an Iraqi Pinochet would be even better than an Iraqi Castro.

Not surprisingly, my preference is for an Iraqi Chavez. For some strange reason, Goldberg didn't present that alternative, probably because it is a lot easier to demonize Castro than Chavez. But Goldberg's reliance on false binary oppositions shouldn't surprise us, after all, as his favorite political leader famously said, you are either with us or against us.

INITIAL POST: We all know that the former Chilean President, General Augusto Pinochet, died last weekend. I had not intended to comment about it, because, really, what could I say that has not been more passionately said by others? I was provoked to speak, however, after Eli Stephens, over at Left I on the News, described a particularly despiccable editorial published by Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post.

According to the Post, Salvador Allende was culpable in his own overthrow and murder by Pinochet in 1973, and Pinochet was responsible for leaving behind the most successful country in Latin America. Leaving aside the nettlesome question as to how one makes such a subjective determination, assuming that the attempt is anything other than puerile, it appears evident that there is an allegorical purpose to it, an urgency that wouldn't otherwise exist if not for the current political situation in South America.

Of course, as the Post perceives it, the unspoken problem, the peril that dare not speak its name, is the election of leftists and left-leaning politicians throughout much of the region: Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Kirchner in Argentina, and yes, even Bachelet in Chile. Chavez, naturally, is the primary target of Post columnists. Barely a month goes by without Jackson Diehl relying upon falsified or obsolete economic data, as well as opposition propaganda about a purported trend towards autocracy, to distort the achievements of the Chavez government. So, there is a need to find an alternative to the movement away from politicians that reflexively support the US and open their economies to US capital without concern for the domestic consequences.

But what is it? Argentina? No, as already noted, the voters there have elected a moderate, left-leaning President, and, even worse, the economy collapsed in late 2001 after a catastrophic currency devaluation, despite having followed US inspired neoliberal privatization schemes for over a decade. Colombia? Yes, it does have a popular right wing President, a rarity, but even Fred Hiatt is not so dimwitted as to believe that you can present a country as violent as Colombia as a success. Paraguay? Uruguay? Let's face it, most Americans couldn't find them on a map, and I acknowledge my own ignorance by admitting that I know nothing about their current political leadership.

Chile therefore wins the contest by default. Contrary to what the Post implies, Chile is anything but an economic success story, it experienced wide swings in the value of its currency during the Pinochet years, swings that impoverished workers and domestic producers to the advantage of foreign investors (well, I guess by Post standards that was a good thing), and has relied upon earnings from an export oriented economy dependent upon disempowered, low wage workers and a lack of environmental protection. As with most countries that have adopted neoliberal policies, job creation in the informal sector, the sector without benefits and job protections, is greater than job creation in the formal one.

Chile has, however, experienced periods of substantial economic growth as measured by GDP and income growth, even if income disparities, once among the most equitable in South American, have now become among the most extreme (again, by Post standards, this just probably presents the economic achievements of Chile in an even more positive light), so it can be superficially described as a success, even if the reality is more nuanced. And, according to the Post:

Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success. To the dismay of every economic minister in Latin America, he introduced the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle -- and that not even Allende's socialist successors have dared reverse. He also accepted a transition to democracy, stepping down peacefully in 1990 after losing a referendum.

Where, where to begin? Pravda must have published something similar about Czechoslavakia in the late 1970s or early 1980s to rationalize the 1968 invasion. How does one unravel the neoliberal Brzhenevism shot through this seemingly simple paragraph?

Well, first of all, Pinochet didn't introduce free-market policies, he imposed them upon the country through military force and police power, legitimized, if that it the right word, by a political structure dictated by Pinochet himself. Unions were crushed, with many of their rights to organize workers and bargain on their behalf eliminated. Dissenters were imprisoned, tortured and, in some instances, killed. Second, it is arguable whether Pinochet's economic policies can even be accurately described as free-market ones, as they frequently involved preferences to foreign capital unavailable to domestic enterprises.

Third, Pinochet's socialist successors lacked the ability to reverse his policies because there was no transition to democracy as claimed. After he left office, the Chilean constitution permitted him to remain Commander in Chief until 1998, and enabled him to serve as a Senator for Life, while appointing 8 other Senators to supplement the 38 elected ones. Hence, he possessed the power to make it impossible for any subsequent government to change policy. It was only last year, 2005, when these provisions were finally removed. Perhaps, it is no coincidence that student unrest emerged in the spring of 2006 when the political parties could no longer refer to the residue of Pinochet's authority as a justification for perpetuating neoliberal policies in education and other social services. Lastly, Pinochet stepped down peacefully after losing a referendum in 1990 because it was obvious that many in the military and the right wing political parties would not permit him to do otherwise.

Bachelet, a woman who, in addition to being tortured herself (a fact conveniently obscured in Hiatt's Post editorial, which described her as having been persecuted), experienced the death of her father at the hands of the Pinochet regime, would no doubt find it shocking, if not offensive, to discover that she, and Chile, owe their good fortune to Pinochet's brutality and alleged pragmatism. Indeed, there is a disturbing sadomasochism interwoven throughout the editorial. The idealistic Allende created the conditions for his own fall from power and death. It is thus implied that Pinochet quite rightly administered a sadistic punishment. Chile could only experience an economic miracle after the killings and torture of many of its citizens. Such a concept transforms the notion of economic shock therapy into the perverse. Bachelet can only attain the presidency after being tortured and suffering the loss of her father.

Such is the Post perspective on the life of Pinochet and its importance for the people of Chile. There is, however, another allegorical aspect to the editorial, a more subterranean one. The US invaded and occupied Iraq to bring stability and democratize the country, or so we are periodically told. But, much more so than Chile in the early 1970s, Iraq is in chaos, with extreme, uncontrollaable violence, no reliable public utilities, such as water and electricity, and a dysfunctional health care system that has been completely overwhelmed.

It is, according to US politicians and the mainstream media, a democracy in crisis. In Chile, in 1973, after participating in the manufacture of an earlier crisis, we accepted a military coup, and then relied upon a dictatorship to impose an economic and social order acceptable to us. The results, the Post assures us, were, on balance, salutary. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. Could it be that the Post is, in its own way, telegraphing a change in administration policy designed to bring an Iraqi Pinochet to power? If so, the consequences are likely to be dire for all involved. Unlike in Chile in 1973, the populace has guns, and knows how to use them.

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