Tuesday, December 12, 2006

WaPo Editorial Heaps Praise on Pinochet

The WaPo has an absolutely vile editorial today, praising Augusto Pinochet for the "liberal democracy" his reign of terror supposedly helped create. The editorial offers a pro forma acknowledgment of Pinochet's brutality and the atrocities visited on tens of thousands of Chileans, and then proceeds to dismiss them as necessary steps on the road to a thriving free-market economy:

AUGUSTO PINOCHET, who died Sunday at the age of 91, has been vilified for three decades in and outside of Chile, the South American country he ruled for 17 years. For some he was the epitome of an evil dictator. That was partly because he helped to overthrow, with U.S. support, an elected president considered saintly by the international left: socialist Salvador Allende, whose responsibility for creating the conditions for the 1973 coup is usually overlooked. Mr. Pinochet was brutal: More than 3,000 people were killed by his government and tens of thousands tortured, mostly in his first three years. Thousands of others spent years in exile.

One prominent opponent, Orlando Letelier, was assassinated by a car bomb on Washington's Sheridan Circle in 1976 -- one of the most notable acts of terrorism in this city's history. Mr. Pinochet, meanwhile, enriched himself, stashing millions in foreign bank accounts -- including Riggs Bank, a Washington institution that was brought down, in part, by the revelation of that business. His death forestalled a belated but richly deserved trial in Chile.

It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. It's leaving behind the developing world, where all of its neighbors remain mired. It also has a vibrant democracy. Earlier this year it elected another socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, who suffered persecution during the Pinochet years.

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.

By way of contrast, Fidel Castro -- Mr. Pinochet's nemesis and a hero to many in Latin America and beyond -- will leave behind an economically ruined and freedomless country with his approaching death. Mr. Castro also killed and exiled thousands. But even when it became obvious that his communist economic system had impoverished his country, he refused to abandon that system: He spent the last years of his rule reversing a partial liberalization. To the end he also imprisoned or persecuted anyone who suggested Cubans could benefit from freedom of speech or the right to vote.

The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.

There you go: after all, what's a few thousand people tortured, murdered, and thrown from airplanes into the ocean if it lowers the unemployment rate 30 years later?

Chile had ten million citizens at the time that Pinochet was busy killing them. The US has 300 million citizens, that's 30 times the population of Chile at the time. To appreciate how many political prisoners Pinochet had put to death, an equivalent number in American terms would be nearly 100,000 Americans put to death for their political beliefs, and another 36,000 Americans mysteriously disappeared by the government. Is that a price you're willing to pay for economic growth?

Apparently, 136,000 people killed for their political beliefs is a price the Washington Post finds acceptable for a couple percentage point bump in the GDP. ...

Marc Schulman, a contributor at The Moderate Voice, seconds Fred Hiatt's notion of morality: "I'm no fan of right-wing dictators," he notes. "But they're better than left-wing dictators."

Thank heaven, though, other TMV contributors have saner priorities:

I must admit, Marc, I am extraordinarily disturbed by the growing chorus of apologia for brutal thug Augusto Pinochet. The argument seems to be twofold:

1) A left-wing dictator would have been worse, and
2) At least he helped spark the economy.

Both, I feel, are being wielded far too casually to excuse one of the hemisphere's most notorious tyrants.

To the first, yes, Pinochet is likely better than Fidel Castro. Castro, for his part, is likely better than Adolph Hitler. The debate as to whether right-wing or left-wing dictators are "worse" is tiresome and, I feel, puts the desire to score partisan points ahead of what should be a bipartisan and universal norm of condemning all of history's murderous tyrants to the hell they belong. Moreover, I can't be too impressed by Pinochet voluntarily stepping down and "pav[ing] the way for liberal democrac[y]" after over a decade in office, given that he got there by overthrowing a democratically elected government in Salvador Allende. Allende may not have been ideal, but he was the elected leader (unlike Mr. Castro), and I think its an absurd attempt at counterfactual to assert that he, too, would have been a brutal thug. Democracy, at the very least, already existed in Chile. Pinochet replaced democracy with a particularly vicious tyranny.

To the second, I don't feel these sort of extrinsic issues can or should in any way be used to lament the loss of evil. I'm no fan of stagnated economic development, but I dislike thousands of "disappearances" and mass torture a whole lot more. Giving points to Pinochet for improving the economy is like giving props to Castro for increasing the literacy rate, or the British colonial government for making the trains run on time. When weighed against the type of incalculable evil waged by Pinochet against his populace, it is a flyspeck.

At least Marc was restrained enough to admit that he does not like right-wing dictators. Others have been far less circumspect. One conservative voice called Pinochet's death "a loss for us all." The National Review's symposium on his life contained five positive eulogies to one condemnation — the one being from the leader of the Human Rights Foundation. Otto Reich probably best (if unwittingly) displayed the type of perverse moral weighing going on in these minds:

Augusto Pinochet was a tragic figure. Instead of being remembered for saving Chilean democracy from a communist takeover, and starting the country on the longest-lasting economic expansion in Latin America, which he did, he will be remembered mostly for carrying out a brutal campaign of human-rights abuses.

Am I the only one not tearing up over this "tragedy"?

This desire to redeem some of history's worst oppressors needs to end. These people are cast from the same mold as those who are now calling Slobodan Milosevic "a hero and a kind of prophet." Never forget who we are talking about. If this is what it takes to make the trains run on time, then I say let them be a little late.

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