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The death of Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s former dictator, has triggered worldwide reactions even though more than 30 years have passed since his overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and his death in the Moneda palace on September 11th, 1973. Pinochet’s notoriety was kept alive in recent years by his detention in London, in 1998, for his responsibility for the human rights violations which he unleashed on the Chilean people following the US-sponsored coup of 1973. His death means that he has escaped justice and that, for thousands of victims of torture, disappearances, imprisonment and exile, a sense of frustration remains. However, for the jubilant crowds in Santiago who celebrated the death of Pinochet and marched towards the statue of Salvador Allende in front of the Moneda palace, theirs was, above all, a celebration of the memory of Allende’s martyrdom and his ideals of democratic socialism which are now spreading like wildfire around Latin America at the dawn of the 21st century.
The military coup headed by Pinochet was the start of a counterrevolution aimed at halting the advance of powerful social movements which had been spreading in the southern cone of Latin America during the 1970s and which had its most clear exponent in the government of Salvador Allende in Chile. The brutal nature of the repression against the working class and political parties of the left which supported Allende’s project made it clear from the start that this coup was a carefully planned attack staged by a close alliance between Chile’s privileged classes and the US government. Pinochet’s regime of terror was coupled with profoundly regressive economic measures. These included the wholesale privatization of state assets in areas such as health, education, public services, and sectors of the copper industry. In fact, Chile became a laboratory for testing the radical “neoliberal” economic policies devised by Milton Friedman’s pupils in Chile, known as the “Chicago Boys.” These policies led to a huge recession in 1975 and again in 1982-1983, and, in contrast to the “economic miracle” hailed by financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it has resulted in one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world.
The active role of the US government in promoting, financing, and lending political and diplomatic support to Pinochet’s regime is now well documented by the US senate Church report and documents later declassified during Clinton’s administration, now publicly available in the National Security Archive. Among his many crimes, Pinochet was responsible for ordering the elimination of the former commander in chief of the Chilean army General Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires, and the assassination of Allende’s Foreign minister Orlando Letelier in the very heart of Washington’s diplomatic quarter, a terrorist attack perpetrated on US soil by the Chilean DINA (Pinochet’s secret police) in close collaboration with CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. Most of the military involved in human rights violations were trained in torture techniques, similar to those now used in Iraq, at the so-called “School of the Americas” at Fort Benning. Henry Kissinger’s infamous phrase, “we cannot allow a country to go communist because of the irresponsibility of its people,” in reference to the Allende government, most clearly exposes the hypocrisy of successive US governments in supporting the use of state-sponsored terrorism to safeguard their interests while purporting to support the spread of democracy. The sad history of successive US interventions in Latin America and the current ongoing attempts to subvert the democratically elected government of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela attest to this.
The resistance to Pinochet’s regime took many forms and resulted in the death, torture, and exile of thousands of activists during his 17-year-long dictatorship. In the first few years, the parties of the left tried to organize an underground resistance which was followed by a brutal program of physical extermination by the secret police. This resulted in death by disappearance of more than 3,000 political prisoners. In spite of the repression, the high unemployment and severe economic recession in 1982 led to mass protests in which, week after week, scores of ordinary Chileans were killed by the military. His regime came to an end after a referendum in 1988 in which the majority of the Chilean population rejected his pretension of continuing as an elected despot. In the final years of his life, following Pinochet’s landmark detention in London in 1998 for his commanding role in human rights violations, the true nature of his regime has gradually been exposed to new generations in Chile, where a significant sector of the population still supported him as a “savior against communism.” The macabre details of the crimes began to emerge little by little during the course of the judicial processes in which Pinochet was indicted. Accounts of disappeared prisoners being tied and thrown into the sea or into the craters of volcanoes, the systematic rape of women, including the use of dogs, and other horrific measures aimed at terrorizing the regime’s opponents, began to emerge during the course of judicial processes in Chile and abroad. But, for Chile’s oligarchy, which had been, until recently, prepared to justify these aberrations as a necessary part of the crusade against communism, it was the revelation of the fraudulent holding of secret accounts totaling tens of millions of dollars, stashed away in tax havens abroad, that ended up destroying the myth of the incorruptible strongman that he wanted to leave for posterity. These and the numerous human rights cases against him resulted in his house arrest, although his continual feigning of mental illness slowed down the legal process until the eventual heart attack that led to his death. His legacy of brutal crimes and corruption rightly belongs with that of Anastasio Somoza, Fulgencio Batista, Mobutu Sese Seko, and tens of other corrupt dictators aided and abetted by US imperialism in its quest for global domination.
Last night, thousands of Chileans took to the streets in Santiago and all the major cities in Chile to celebrate his death. This cathartic act represents a small consolation for the thousands of victims and relatives of the disappeared for whom justice has been denied by the Chilean courts and the political establishment. It is significant that many Chileans have used the occasion to celebrate the figure of Salvador Allende, a man who crystallized the dreams and aspirations of the dispossessed masses in Chile and Latin America for social and political transformations. More than 30 years after his death, these dreams are finally being realized by the progressive governments which are spreading throughout many countries of Latin America. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has perhaps best captured the aspirations of independence and social change through democratic means in his Bolivarian revolution. Let us hope that the Venezuelan people and others in Latin America will stand up to defend their gains against any US-sponsored Pinochets who may be waiting in the shadows at this very moment.
Roberto Navarrete was a political prisoner under the Pinochet regime. This essay first appeared in Red Pepper‘s Venezuela Blog on 11 December 2006.