On the Death of a Villain

14 December 2006
Kagarlitsky explains why Pinochet is so popular with Moscow’s liberals.

Moscow's liberals simply adored General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who died Sunday at the age of 91. In the first place, Pinochet suppressed revolutionary tendencies in Chile. Second, he boosted the country's economy. Fans of Fyodor Dostoevsky and democratic values relish every detail in recalling the mass executions and violence against communists under the Pinochet regime. And when puzzled Western visitors asked why Russian intellectuals and rights advocates admired such an executioner and mass murderer, our humanists, based on the depth of their own experience, condescendingly explained that human rights could never triumph without mass terror.

Pinochet was not the only Latin American dictator to distinguish himself by shooting his own citizens. But it was Pinochet who garnered the most fame. Soviet-era propagandists preferred to focus on his regime, inasmuch as Moscow maintained loyal relations with analogous regimes in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Our intellectuals consequently knew little of those regimes and focused their admiration on Pinochet's dictatorial feats instead.

In the mid-1990s, some new approaches to the Pinochet regime surfaced. The news this week of the former dictator's death brought forth a veritable wave of publications, all cut from the same cloth. The first were somewhat hypocritical sighs of relief concerning the repression under Pinochet; then came long discourses on his economic successes under the direction of the economists of the Chicago School. The reader has likely heard the explanations of how the economy blossomed under military rule.

Meanwhile, a closer look at the "Chilean economic miracle" reveals a picture far from the ideal propaganda version. Before Pinochet's junta came to power, Chile was considered a strange crossbreed of a Latin American economy with a European society. In other words, the standard of living was high in comparison with the rest of the continent, and social inequalities were not especially egregious. President Salvador Allende's leftist government relied on this tradition for its reforms in Chile from the point it took office in 1970 until Pinochet's coup in 1973.

But Pinochet's policies destroyed the old socialist order and created a new society distinguished by catastrophic inequality. Middle class living standards rose dramatically, approaching those in Western Europe countries. But this came at the expense of the equally sharp impoverishment of the lower class, the very people for whom reforms had earlier been implemented. Even the country's impressive rate of economic growth was achieved against the background of the recession that characterized the dictator's first years in power. In other words, it was not so much a case of developing but of restoring the economy.

Another issue is the drastic way the structure of the national economy changed. The development of a domestic market gave way to an export-oriented economy. The beggarly wages for workers, previously considered a social problem, now were called a competitive advantage. Pinochet never managed to deal with this and, in the late 1970s, finally had to abandon a number of the recipes for change from the "Chicago boys." Government intervention in the economy increased, culminating in Pinochet's decision to nationalize industries. Malevolent talk began to circulate about the "Chicago path to socialism."

If the Chile of the 1970s was considered to be a Latin American version of Sweden, then today's Chile is not much different from Russia. That perhaps explains the popularity of Latin America's most famous executioner for our liberals.

Copyright 2006 The Moscow Times