General Pinochet Still Rules:
Twenty-five Years After Allende
by Marc Cooper
The Nation magazine, March 23,1998
Memory, in a country like Chile, in a country that has survived its
own massacre, is always unpleasant, and certainly, nowadays, unpopular.
And yet the raucous demonstrations I n witness unfolding in front of the
now-reconstructed La Moneda Presidential Palace
I this winter can't help but remind me of some of the more glorious
moments I witnessed here twenty-five years ago when I worked inside the
palace as a young translator to Socialist President Salvador Allende.
The immense Constitution Plaza, which yawns in front of the Moneda,
was back then very often the stage upon which tens and sometimes hundreds
of thousands of Chileans would march and rally around the ideas and programs
that then seemed the touchstones of a new and still unfolding era: a nation
taking control of its destiny, breaking free from dependence, reclaiming
its natural resources, empowering and transferring wealth to the poor, daring
to construct a democratic socialism. For me and for many of my generation,
what we saw in the plazas and streets of Allende's Chile, coming in the
wake of the French '68, the hot Italian autumn of '69, the American post-Kent
State student strikes of 1970, promised to ignite a new time of optimism
and radical renewal.
We were, of course, wrong. The last massing demonstration I attended
in this plaza was on September 4, 1973, the third anniversary of Allende's
election, when a half-million Chilean workers, knowing the end was near,
marched in front of a somber looking president and vociferously pleaded
for weapons. But it was far too late. Only seven days rata, backed by the
Nixon White House and bankrolled by the C.I.A., the Chilean military made
its move. Within hours, the Moneda was rocketed and burned by Hawker Hunter
jets, Allende was dead, Congress was padlocked, tens of thousands of civilians
were being hunted down and arrested, and Gen. Augusto Pinochet was in power.
A week after that I was forced to leave Chile as a U.N.-protected refugee.
Chile was not the prelude to my generation's accomplishments. Rather,
it was our political high-water mark. The Chilean military coup of 1973
was merely overture to the massacres in East Timor and in the Khmer Rouge's
Cambodia, the Argentine dirty war, the scorched-earth campaigns in Guatemala
and El Salvador, the C.I.A.-orchestrated contra destabilization of Nicaragua,
the rise of Thatcherism in Europe, the Reagan/Bush counterrevolution in
the United States.
That's why I am at first so intrigued by the crowds of up to 5,000 Social
Security workers who have been regularly flooding downtown Santiago this
winter, throwing leaflets into the air, chanting, stomping and whistling,
chaining themselves to light posts and church pews, blocking traffic and
standing up to riot-police water cannons and tear-gas barrages. It certainly
looks like the same gumption that drove Chilean workers to demand guns from
Allende to face down the military.
But there's an ugly glitch in this scenario. This is the Chile of 1998.
And like so much in modern Chile, this demonstration is an illusion. These
workers aren't fighting for a free pint of milk for every Chilean infant,
for nationalization of the copper mines, for a higher minimum wage or for
union control of the workplace. No, these workers-men and women alike-are
the salaried and commissioned sales force of Chile's privatized pension
system. And they are infuriated by a very mild proposed government rule
change aimed at curbing the fraud that riddles the system. If approved,
the new rule would add a thin layer of protection to all Chilean workers.
But it would also directly bite into the monthly commissions the protesting
workers have been earning by juggling other pension funds. Indeed, these
workers in the streets today are battling for the right to keep ripping
off their fellow workers. It's a long road to have come down in twenty-five
years. Since I first arrived here just weeks after Allende's 1970 election,
my life has become ever more entwined with Chile, first as a student, then
as a researcher in a government publishing house and later as Allende's
translator, husband of a Chilean and member of a large Chilean family. But
the more profound my involvement, the less I recognize this country.
Allende triumphed in Chile precisely because, long before his election,
a century-old tradition of parliamentary democracy and advanced social legislation
had forged a society that prided itself on high public discourse, a national
commitment to mutual aid and solidarity, and what seemed-even under conservative
administrations-a permanent sense of social justice. But that's a Chile
that has vanished into collective amnesia. Today-after seventeen years of
military dictatorship, and eight years of "democracy" in which
what passes for the left is complicit as co-manager of a grotesque system
that allows murderers to walk free and torturers to be elected to national
office, that boasts one of the most unequal economies in the world, where
education is essentially privatized-Chile is perhaps the one place on earth
where idolatry of the market has most deeply penetrated.
Chile hardly holds the patent on a pullback from politics, a reflex
now rampant from Peoria to Poland. But few countries in recent decades have
traveled quite the distance backward that Chile has. In Eastern Europe the
economic systems were stood on their heads, but decades of Stalinist cynicism
and duplicity served to grease the way for the savageries of frontier capitalism.
Chile was different, though. In 1970, on the eve of Allende's election,
one U.S. researcher found Chilean teenagers-along with their Israeli and
Cuban counterparts-to be among the three least alienated, most optimistic
groups of youth in the world. But years of military dictatorship and a quarter-century
now of the most orthodox application of sink-or-swim social policy has imposed
a sort of collective neurosis on Chileans-it has driven them crazy, driven
them to market.
Chilean millworkers now assiduously follow daily stock quotes to make
sure their private pensions will be there when they retire. When their children
leave the school gates, they plop Velcro-backed insignias from elite academies
onto their uniforms, lest the other subway riders guess they go to more
downscale institutions. Bookstores that once brimmed with political classics
now stock huge piles of translations of Anthony Robbins and other quick-road-to-success
gurus. National "educational" TV features training films in entrepreneurship
and good customer relations. Prime-time infomercials beam dubbed-over blue-eyed
gringos blissfully hawking vegetable Smart Choppers and Sure Fire bass lures
to the rural and fishing villages of the Chilean south, where horses are
still sometimes a preferred means of transportation.
A recent police checkpoint in the posh Vitacura neighborhood found that
a high percentage of drivers ticketed for using their cell phones while
in motion were using toy-even wooden- replicas. Other middle-class motorists,
pretending they have air-conditioning, bake with their windows closed. Workers
at the ritzy Jumbo supermarket complain that on Saturday mornings, the dressed-to-kill
clientele fill their carts high with delicacies, parade them in front of
the Joneses and then discreetly abandon them before having to pay. In the
tony La Dehesa neighborhood, Florida palm trees are the landscaping fashion
a la mode and black butlers are all the rage. But they better be stocky
six-foot Dominicans, as the first wave of imported help, from Peru, turned
out to be unfashionably short-statured. In the rickety shantytowns around
Santiago, readily available Diners Club cards are used to charge potatoes
and cabbage, while Air Jordans and Wonder Bras are bought on a twelve-month
Yes, a few lonely souls still protest the disappearances, murders and
thousands of unprosecuted barbarities of the past two and a half decades.
But they are denounced as threats to stability, provocateurs, losers, dinosaurs-as
is nearly any reminder of how Chile's new commercial culture was grafted
onto a political body charred to the bone.
And yet, for all the striving to forget, for all the frenzied talk about
being an "economic Jaguar ' about modernization and a global future,
Chile cannot escape its past. On March 11 the man who embodies Chile's darkest
history, 82-year-old Gen. Augusto Pinochet, gives up his post as Commander
of the Army and takes up his new seat as unelected but fully empowered "Senator
for Life." Indeed, under a Constitution his regime wrote in 1980, which
allows for a certain number of appointed senators, former military commanders
will now constitute the single biggest "party" caucus in the Senate.
And with a two-thirds Congressional vote necessary to enact serious reforms,
Senator Pinochet will, until he dies, hold the power of political veto in
Pinochet's continuing prominence in Chile is more emblematic than aberrational.
His dictatorship may have been voted out of office by the plebiscite of
1988, but it is his economic and political model that has triumphed. For
the U.S. media, the Chile story is, as always, a neat and simple tale: Bloody
dictator forced by history to wipe out communism gets voted out and a civilian
government leads the transition to democracy while retaining a free-market
economic system. But reality is more complicated. In Chile there has been
no transition, nor will there be one in the foreseeable future. What we
are seeing instead is the consolidation of
a new global model-a model imposed here twenty-five years ago at the
point of a bayonet and since then ever more refined and better marketed.
It is a model that, in some form or another, is being proposed for all of
us. "Chile is what I call a transvestite democracy," says radical
Chilean sociologist Tomas Moulian. "She looks like a nice friendly
young lady. But lift up her skirts, and you're in for a big surprise."
The Chilean Miracle
The New York Times recently celebrated this state of affairs by crediting
Pinochet with a "coup that began Chile's transformation from a backwater
banana republic to the economic star of Latin America," and the Clinton
Administration wants Chile to be the next member of NAFTA. Putting aside
the fact that the pre-Pinochet "banana republic" produced a bumper
crop of world-renowned artists, scientists and other intellectuals, including
the winners of two Nobel Prizes in Literature, the Times also got it wrong
on the economy. The 7 percent annual growth since 1986 cited by enthusiastic
supporters of the Chilean economy obscures several other less attractive
figures: There was no growth between 1973 and 1986; real salaries have declined
10 percent since 1986; and salaries are still 18 percent lower than they
were during the Allende period. One-fourth of the country lives in absolute
poverty, and a third of the nation earns less than $30 a week.
A recent World Bank study of sixty-five countries ranked Chile as the
seventh-worst in terms of most unequal income distribution, tied with Kenya
and Zimbabwe. To get a notion of just how skewed it is, consider the following:
In the United States - hardly a paragon of wealth sharing - 60 percent
of national income goes to workers and 40 percent to capital; in Chile,
40 percent goes to workers and 60 percent to capital. The top 10 percent
of the Chilean population earns almost half the wealth. "The 100 richest
people in Chile earn more than the state spends on all social services,"
says Christian Democratic Senator Jorge Lavandero.
Chile is a case of rapid growth with little development- growth concentrated
in the export of natural resources. Neither a solid middle class nor a well-paid
working class has emerged. In the past, Chile suffered from a chronic job
shortage, and the poor subsisted on a network of welfare and social solidarity.
The new economy has dismantled welfare and dismembered community aid while
at the same time making low-wage jobs plentiful. The result? There are just
as many poor people as ever. The only difference is that now they have to
work hard to attain even that standing. Therefore, "economic growth
by itself will not solve problems of poverty and inequality," says
Canadian economist Philip Oxhorn. "It will only reproduce them."
Defenders of the Chilean model say these inequalities are a small and
acceptable price to pay for a system that rewards individual initiative.
"We have extraordinary success because this system was applied without
any political opposition," says Jaime Vargas, a U.S.-trained economist
who works for a private think tank. "People know the rules of the game
and have to believe in themselves. People are not into politics and not
into any groups of any kind - unions, clubs, whatever." Chile, he says
proudly, "is a world of incredible individualism."
Orlando Caputo, one of the best-known opposition economists in the country,
has a more clinical view: "The Chilean system is easy to understand.
Over the past twenty years $60 billion has been transferred from salaries
The Chilean Dream
The belt of tin-roofed shantytowns that house a quarter of Santiago's
4 million residents seethed with Allende supporters during his brief tenure
and then became a fiery necklace of resistance to the dictatorship. The
military bulldozed the Che Guevara and New Havana settlements. And Pinochet
"uprooted" 200,000 shantytown dwellers and relocated them to new
slums in the chilly Andean foothills. But other neighborhoods took up the
mantle of intransigent opposition: La Bandera, La Legua, Pudahuel and especially
Since its birth in a land squat in 1957, La Victoria has incubated two
generations of radical activists and revolutionaries. During the protests
and confrontations of the mid-eighties, La Victoria was on the front lines.
When armed troops opened fire on a group of reporter friends of mine, they
shot dead the community priest, Andres Jarlan. His successor, Piem Dubois,
was deported to France. Often during those years, and in defiance of military
rule, La Victoria's main artery, Avenida 30 de Octubre, would be covered
with proletcult murals denouncing the regime's soldiers as assassins. On
the eve of planned protests, the dictatorship would ring La Victoria with
thousands of troops, and if confidence was high enough, they would rip the
neighborhood apart in house-to-house searches.
Usually standing at the eye of these hurricanes was "Red Olga,"
the obstreperous, square-shouldered, white-haired Communist matriarch of
La Victoria. Arrested in 1974 and held in the notorious Teja Verde concentration
camp for two months, Olga returned to La Victoria and turned her tiny home
into the "Olla Comun"- the community soup kitchen that not only
fed 200 families a day but also served as command-and-control center for
the local anti-Pinochet resistance.
When caught by the curfew in La Victoria, when seeking the latest hard
information on anything from troop movements to the price of hamburger,
or when just simply seeking refuge from a tear-gas cloud in the eighties,
I would always retreat to Olga's.
But when I call her up now after not seeing her in ten years she warns,
"Don't come in on the main street. You'll get robbed by the drug addicts.
Come in the back way." When I finally meet up with her, she seems not
to have aged. The same picture of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and straw
hat from Cuba hang on her dingy wall. She closed down the soup kitchen in
1990 and soon saw the political tide recede around her. Many of La Victoria's
problems are the same as they were a decade ago: high unemployment, inadequate
health care, alcoholism and a raging crack epidemic.
"The big difference now," she says, "is we no longer
have any organization." The block committees, the community boards,
the rank-and-file political groups, have all but evaporated in the ether
of modernity. "Now, it's everyone for himself," she sighs. "People
live only for the moment. They remember nothing. They vote for anybody.
We didn't have to get all the way to socialism, but we should have gotten
more than this."
Olga now squeaks by on a pension of $95 a month. Her only luxury is
her telephone, which eats up a fifth of her monthly income. "You try
to talk to the people about changing their lives," she says. "And
all they do is shrug their shoulders." As for today's politicians,
so many of whom now claim to have led the opposition to the military, she
has no time for them. "Funny, isn't it," she says laughing. "After
the war, there sure are a lot of heroes."
A couple of miles down the smog-choked Pan-American Highway and across
from the plebeian metropolitan cemetery, I visit my aging Uncle Germain
and Aunt Manuela. Their shantytown, Rio de Janeiro, couldn't have been named
for anything to do with that Brazilian city except its infamous favelas-the
teeming hillside slums. Germain and Manuela are among that bottom third
of Chileans getting by on a few dollars a week. There have been changes-some
for the better, some just changes- since the early days of the dictatorship.
Pavement now covers the dirt road in front of their shack, glass has replaced
the heavy plastic in their windows and Manuela's loyalties have drifted
from Marx toward Jehovah. Germain has moved from a welfare program in which
he swept the steps of public buildings to being a night watchman for $3
a shift. Meat can be eaten two or three times a week instead of once, and
a twenty-five-inch Sanyo color TV (a gift from a son) dominates their tiny
sleeping quarters and seems to be permanently aglow.
But some things remain the same. None of their grandchildren can dream
of paying for university. Doctor's visits-even those subsidized by the tattered
state health care system-are considered a luxury, to be indulged in only
in emergencies. Medicine- indeed' the ability to stay afloat at all-would
be impossible if it weren't for regular help from family living abroad.
Also unchanged is an unshakable class consciousness. My aunt swears blue
at the mention of the military or those they protect. But old age and decades
of defeat make any political response seem like folly to her.
Among Chile's bottom two-thirds of l the population, the political center
of gravity has shifted increasingly away from places like La Victoria and
toward newer communities like La Florida. Situated at the very end of the
north-south subway line, a forty-five-minute commute from downtown, composed
of cracker-box high-rises and cramped single-family houses with postage-stamp-sized
patios and iron fences, La Florida is an oasis for working-class and lower-middle-class
families who nowadays are putting in twelve-hour workdays. La Florida's
own mall, Shell station and McDonald's sit like three sacred pyramids at
the gates of the community and are a popular tourist destination for amazed
working-class day-trippers. A decade ago, such a trio of consumerist temples
could be found only in the most exclusive neighborhoods.
Today, La Florida looms as The Chilean Dream. Scrape together a few
thousand bucks and buy your own house in the Chilean version of Levittown.
No matter that you are twenty miles from nowhere, that the housing stock
looks vaguely Bulgarian, that the smog and the traffic are noxious. This
is all about feeling rich in miniature. This is about a concept new to Chile:
When I enter the living room of 35-year-old Cecilia's three-bedroom,
950-square-foot home, I feel like I'll need a coat of Vaseline to squeeze
in. Her house, microwave, stereo, used car and private-school tuition for
her three kids are all leveraged on several lines of credit. Her husband
makes only a couple of hundred dollars a month working in a government highway
Cecilia is the main breadwinner. She never talks about politics unless
asked. But she's a staunch leftist, coming from a family of Communists and
supporters of M.I.R.-the extreme left quasi-guerrilla group pulverized by
Pinochet. Until recently, Cecilia was one of those Social Security salespeople.
After three years of solid performance, she was summarily booted from her
job for not having met her monthly quota of sales. "No matter how long
you work for these pension agencies," she says over a cup, of tea,
"you can only come in under quota one month. Two , months in a row
She explains in surreal detail the corruption and unfairness of Chile's
privatized Social Security system. Thanks to "pension reform"
imposed by Pinochet in 1981, all workers in Chile, whether employed or self-employed,
must contribute a percentage of their income every month to a private retirement
fund managed by one of a half-dozen investment companies known as A.F.P.s.
Unlike in the United States, where both worker and employer pay 7.5 percent
each into Social Security through payroll deductions, Chilean employers
no longer make any contribution at all toward worker pensions. They retain,
however, the right to withhold employee contributions from workers' paychecks,
and news stories are legion of this or that company that "forgets"
for months and sometimes years to deposit workers' funds into A.F.P.s. And
because so many Chileans are self- or marginally employed, almost half the
fund-holders don't keep their own required contributions up-to-date. An
equal number have been revealed to have less than a $1,000 balance-hardly
enough to support retirement.
Because the fund managers invest in bonds and Chilean stocks, each fund
closely mirrors the others in terms of investment choice and performance.
So while there's tremendous competition among the A.F.P.s to get as much
money into their own investment pools as possible, there's little incentive
for workers to transfer from one fund to another. "But that's where
we salespeople come in," says Cecilia. "We work on commissions
based on the new accounts we recruit. So we get all our friends and say,
'Give me your account and I will give you a gift'-a bottle of whiskey, a
cordless phone, a stereo. Right now the hot gift is a mountain bike."
As a result, about half of Chilean account holders switch A.F.P.s once every
six months. About a third of those transfers, says the government, are "irregular,"
suggesting considerable fraud.
"My biggest deal was a factory in Valparaiso," remembers Cecilia.
"The union there pooled thirty-four workers who offered to transfer
the* accounts all at once. I closed the deal. I gave the union a big-screen
TV, a steam iron and a juicer, which it raffled off to the workers."
Cecilia worries little about being unemployed. She has a thriving side
business representing several banks. Like an Avon lady, she goes door to
door in the neighborhood selling lines of credit. "All you need to
show is six months' worth of pay stubs," she says. Then she can get
you an immediate loan equivalent to four months' salary. Payable over twenty-four
months, the interest rate is 75 percent a year. "My father would die
if he knew what I was doing. I grew up with him reading me Marx and Lenin,"
she says. "I still believe in all that. But I have no choice. It's
sink or swim."
Ping-Pong Politics: "Excessive Realism"
The same Pinochet who oversaw summary executions, whose political police
tortured opponents to death and hid their bodies in pits of Iye, who "disappeared"
more than a thousand citizens, who ran scores of thousands through his jails
and prisons-the same Pinochet can become Senator for Life this month because
absolute impunity reigns in Chile. This is not only because of an amnesty
law the military regime passed to protect itself but also because of the
deal cut between the military and politicians of the center and left.
After a decade of slaughter, the Chilean left vigorously surfaced in
a wave of massive and sometimes violent protests in the early eighties.
But by the end of the decade, confrontation with the military was supplanted
by negotiation. By 1988, the civilian opposition agreed to participate in
the plebiscite designed by Pinochet's regime. It was win-win for the dictator:
A Yes vote would give him eight more years in power; a No vote would allow
him to hang on as military commander and would allow a civilian government
to be elected but under the terms of his rewritten Constitution. By the
time of the plebiscite campaign, the center-left opposition, known as La
Concertacion, dropped from its program state intervention in the economy
and any questioning of property rights. A vague call for "reconciliation"
pushed justice for the military criminals off the political agenda.
The civilian opposition won the plebiscite, but that in no way meant
the end of Pinochet's model. In the months following the plebiscite and
before the first civilian election, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists-Allende's
old party-held extended talks with the regime to plan the "transition,"
and in so doing almost fully accepted the military's terms: The Senate would
continue to be packed with appointees; the secret police and the military
would remain protected by amnesty; the archaic and pro-military judicial
system would be left intact. The military budget would remain autonomous
and untouchable. The new elected president would not be able to remove any
top military commander for eight years. As one former army captain told
me, "This was the only transition in Latin America where the military
came out not only untarnished but downright virgin."
The demand voiced by thousands who celebrated in the streets on the
morrow of the plebiscite-that Pinochet resign from the army-was never echoed
by the civilians who took over the government. "How embarrassing for
us," says dissident Senator Lavandero. "We could have defeated
Pinochet in '83, and again in '88, but lamentably my own party negotiated
democracy away with him."
The past eight years of civilian rule have been what some call a time
of "excessive realism." And as the junior partners in this arrangement,
the Socialists have moved from a position of expediency to one of complicity
as co-administrator of the hemisphere's most rigidly orthodox neoliberal
In giving legitimacy to a system designed by their enemies, the Socialists
trivialize politics and generate a vast cynicism. "Young people who
are idealists, who had so many hopes when Pinochet lost the plebiscite,
are finding out we are being betrayed' that a deal was cut over our heads,"
says Pablo Bussemius, the 25-year-old Socialist student body president at
the University of Chile's law school. "Now with Pinochet headed for
the Senate, there's an ever greater disillusionment and withdrawal from
That disillusionment was measurable in the campaign for last December's
mid-term Congressional elections. When the nightly fifteen minutes of free
air time for political parties came on the TV, ratings plummeted; a full
20 percent of TVs were simply turned off. This in a country where, traditionally,
politics has been the main talk at the dinner table. No surprise this time
around. The right ran a campaign as defenders of the poor! And the center/left
government parties broadcast a campaign that would have tingled Dick Morris's
toes. "Love Is Better in a Democracy," Chileans were told as the
tube flashed images of couples hugging and kissing.
Perhaps one political TV talk show best encapsulated the bankruptcy
of modern Chilean politics. As a panel of the four men running for senator
from Santiago fielded inane questions from a clearly deranged host, tuxedoed
waiters walked on-camera and served them cakes and pastries, while on the
corner of the stage two teenage girls (described by the host as "journalists")
sat in skimpy miniskirts and noted down questions called in from the audience.
After a commercial break, the scenario shifted to the outdoor patio of the
TV studio. The host then encouraged the Socialist candidate to play ping-pony
against the candidate from me hard-right U.D.I.-a party founded by Pinochet's
dreaded secret police. As torturer and tortured batted the ball between
them and simultaneously answered questions from the host, what could the
audience have been thinking?
When the votes came in on December 11, generalized panic set in, and
not because the ruling coalition had lost 5 percent of its vote or because
the hard right displaced its more moderate allies. A full 41 percent of
the eligible electorate either didn't register to vote, abstained, defaced
the ballot or left it blank. A million voters under age 25 failed to register.
These are predictable results for Americans, but earth-shaking for Chileans,
who have been accustomed to 95 percent and higher turnout rates. In Chile's
second city of Valparaiso, the winner in the multiparty vote went effectively
to "none of the above"-20 percent of the ballots defaced. In Santiago,
the Communists, running in opposition to the government, doubled their vote
to nearly 10 percent.
The contours of the balloting reveal a barely submerged discontent.
Notwithstanding the government's reluctance to take on Pinochet, or the
hard-core 30 percent or so of the population who in some measure or another
still revere him, the other 70 percent sees all the world's baubles for
sale on easy credit. At the entrance to every department store, every shoe
store, every pharmacy, there is the ubiquitous young girl on a podium offering
instant credit. Air Nikes? Cash price 29,000 pesos-or twelve payments of
2,900 pesos, the equivalent of $6. A bottle of Shalimar? Cash price 16,000
pesos-or ten payments of 2,200 pesos.
Sociologist Tomas Moulian points to the spread of credit to the masses
as only the latest step in implementing the neoliberal economic model. In
one of Chile's sweetest ironies, his book on the subject, The Real Chile:
Anatomy of a Myth, stayed on the country's bestseller list through all of
1997. "What we have in Chile," he says in an interview, "is
the marriage of a neoliberal economy with a neodemocracy, a simulated democracy.
The end result is a neoliberal system defended now by its historic Socialist
adversaries. Pinochet, for his part, is a symbol of this capitalist counterrevolution,
which profoundly changed our culture and even the capitalism we had before
Moulian's thesis runs something like this: The first two years of military
rule merely reversed the Allende-era reforms, liberalized prices, lowered
salaries and subjected the working class to the now familiar nostrums of
economic "shock therapy." The Chicago Boys period of 1975-81,
shaped by Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, introduced structural "reforms,"
increasing exports and creating new economic groups indebted to international
banks. A draconian labor law clamped down on workers, and a wave of privatization
(including Social Security) atrophied the state. That phase fizzled in 1982,
leading to a mini-depression that liquidated national industry and drove
half the population below the poverty level.
"But a sense of direction was recovered immediately," says
Moulian. "A re-ordering, a re-privatization of everything, commenced
under a neoliberal pattern. The new economic groups that emerged were much
stronger than the older ones. Not indebted to foreign capital, they were
interwoven with it. And the tremendous pools of private money generated
by the private pension funds were used to fuel these new groups. It was
the workers' money that built such prosperity for the elite." This
Chilean model, says Moulian, "anticipated Reagan and Thatcher. Because
of the neoliberal intellectual sway over the military, Chile started out
early on the road that everybody is now on."
He adds: "In this sense the Chilean terror was rational. This whole
model is frankly impossible without a dictatorship. Only the dictatorship
could have disciplined the working class into submission while their salaries
were lowered and their pensions used to accumulate wealth for others. Only
a dictatorship can keep a country quiet while education, universities and
health care are privatized, and while an absolute marketization of the labor
force is imposed. Today, under this simulated democracy, the work force
is too fragmented to recover and the population is distracted by consumerism
and disciplined by credit obligations."
Words From the Colonel: 'To Buy or Not to Buy'
Drive around the "Little Manhattan" section of Santiago's
I Barrio Alto-its lavish "High Neighborhood"-and you'll come face
to face with the few who are perched atop the steep pyramid of Chilean social
class. Fifty percent of all national construction in the past decade has
taken place in just the two wealthy suburbs of Vitacura and Las Condes.
In the hillside La Dehesa neighborhood, the family house that is a replica
of Tara pales beside the reproduction of Versailles. It seems there are
only two kinds of vehicles up here, Mercedes sedans and shuttle buses that
cart the domestic help to and from the shantytowns-the same sort of shuttles
that scurry between Soweto and the Johannesburg suburb of Bird Haven.
A little closer to downtown but only a half-notch down the social scale,
the municipality of Providencia is a delight of lush gardens and colonial
mansions. Its city hall is a converted Tuscan villa replete with marble
columns, stained glass and crystal chandeliers. Its manicured rose garden
is a favorite meeting place for uniformed nannies taking their stroller-bound
charges for an afternoon airing.
I've come to meet the elected Mayor of Providencia, former army Col.
Cristian Labbe. I knew his father, also a colonel- that is, until Allende
sacked Labbe senior when he refused to salute a visiting Fidel Castro back
in 1971. The young Labbe followed his dad's footsteps into the military,
and Pinochet became his mentor. Rising from the dictator's security apparatus,
Labbe became one of his trusted political advisers, eventually serving as
government secretary general in the last years of the regime.
Outfitted in a white shirt with two Mont Blanc pens in his pocket, his
blond hair greased straight back in the preferred style of the Chilean aristocracy,
Labbe receives me with tea in his personal office. There is an air of immediate
hostility on his part. Not because of my association with Allende, which
I purposely avoid mentioning, but because, of all things, I am an American.
In the bizarre ideological universe of extreme nationalism and latent neo-Nazism
that Labbe inhabits, Americans are viewed as busybody socialists. He tells
me right off that he's still angry over the pressure the United States exerted
on Pinochet to stage his 1988 plebiscite. "We carried out each one
of our promises even though no one believed us," Labbe says with a
red face. "Not even you gringos believed us. We had every organ of
the U.S. government down here acting as if they owned us."
For reasons of journalistic efficacy I let the remark pass. Instead
I ask him to reflect on Pinochet's legacy. "We live in democracy today
only because of the work of the military government," he fires back.
"Chileans today recognize the morality of merit and incentives. Chileans
know that if you want to do something, you can. Today, if you do well, you
are respected' not scorned. A Mercedes today is a symbol of success. Now
we have freedom of have a visceral hatred for the dictator. He cannot appear
unprotected *n public, and always provokes catcalls and boos. Polls have
consistently shown two-thirds or more of the population in favor of his
A courageous judge in Spain is currently hearing testimony on Pinochet
for "alleged crimes against humanity," including the murder of
Spanish citizens in Chile. The Chilean "democratic" government
has denounced the inquiry, President Eduardo Frei has tried to block an
attempt by a few young Christian Democratic Congressmen to go forward with
the* own impeachment of Pinochet and the Chilean foreign minister has called
the proposed impeachment "profoundly inconvenient." Nonetheless,
a large number of Chilean social and cultural leaders have given their public
support to the Spanish investigation.
Perhaps even more significant, a Chilean appeals court judge sent shock
waves through the political establishment in mid-January when he agreed
to hear a case brought by Communist Party leader Gladys Marin. Marin, whose
husband was disappeared by the military, is trying to block Pinochet from
taking his Senate seat by formally charging him with "genocide, kidnapping
and illegal burying of bodies." It's the first time any Chilean court
has accepted a direct charge against the dictator.
So far, the much-touted reconciliation in Chile has been one-sided.
The military has never been asked to atone or even apologize for its crimes,
so the reservoirs of popular resentment run deep even if they are rarely
given public voice. But on a recent bus commute through downtown Santiago
I witnessed a moving scene. A street troubadour boarded the bus to sing
for his supper. This all-too-common occurrence has driven Chilean commuters
beyond boredom, so barely anybody made eye contact with the poorly dressed
middle-aged singer. But while most of these beggars scratch out three or
four tunes before passing the cup, this fellow sang only one song. "Tu,
no eres nada, ni chicha ni limonada," he crooned, reviving the signature
song of Victor Jara, the leftist folk singer whose hands were smashed and
who was then killed by Pinochet's military in the weeks following the coup.
"You are nothing, neither hard cider nor lemonade. Get out of the middle
of the road, join up and save your dignity...." Two or three young
people clapped their Walkman earphones on as soon as he strummed his first
chord. The thirty or so of-hers on the packed bus listened quietly as they
stared ahead or out the window. But when he finished, almost all went out
of their way to give him some coins.
'Consolidation of a Model'
Strolling through downtown Santiago, one is offered a reminder of how
mesmerizing and paralyzing mass consumer culture is when newborn. In our
own case, at least American consumerism sprang up as a natural outgrowth
of booming economic development. In Chile, mass credit consumerism substitutes
for development. Worse, before 1973, conspicuous consumption was taboo in
a country still infused with a sense of social solidarity. Television didn't
arrive here until 1962. There was no mall until the early eighties, and
no fast food till a few years later.
Imagine the frisson the average Chilean feels today when he or she walks
the Alameda, the main downtown thoroughfare, and choice, as Milton Friedman
says. Man is free to buy or not to buy. Once we had two universities. Now
we have 300. Once we had one type of car. Now there are twenty or thirty.
That is freedom."
When I ask about the social cost of such liberation, about a certain
legacy of human rights abuse, Labbe cuts me off with a condescending smile.
"Look, let me tell you a parable," he says, taking a sip of imported
Earl Grey. "There's a terrible auto accident. The victim has no vital
signs and is barely breathing. He's rushed to the emergency room and his
whole family begins demanding that everything and anything be done to save
him. The surgeons start cutting and operating. The patient revives slowly.
First he goes to urgent care. Then he's put on a restricted diet. Some of
his activities are also restricted. With careful treatment over years he
fully recuperates. He's even free now to choose another doctor if he wants.
And one day he goes to the beach. When he takes his shirt off, his brother
sees a bunch of scars and stitch marks. And the brother is scandalized!
Shocked! 'My God,' he says, 'you are a victim of human rights abuses! "'
At least Labbe, in his roundabout way, recognizes the scars. That's
more than a lot of his constituents will do. I know because some of those
who say "nothing really happened in Chile" are in my own family.
After tea with the colonel I walk a few blocks to my fifty-something cousin
Sonia's gate-guarded Providencia apartment. I dine with her and a 35-year-old
third cousin, Lisette, the fair-skinned daughter of a wealthy businessman.
Both women are what are called in popular lingo momias, reactionary mummies.
But even I am not prepared for the dialogue that unfolds.
"What a catastrophe these past eight years of [civilian] government
have been," says Sonia. "We are back to strikes, disorder, corruption.
Pinochet was grand. He brought order and depoliticized the country."
I answer: "Well, he is also responsible for killing and torturing
a lot of people."
"Outside of Chile that's what they say happened," interrupts
Lisette. "But it's not true. I've always said if you weren't doing
anything wrong, nothing would happen to you. Nothing happened to me. I never
saw anyone killed. Though I will say this, these eight years haven't been
as bad as I thought they were going to be. Democracy isn't as bad as everyone
said it would be."
Ignoring that last remark, I return to death and disappearance. I recount
the murder of Orlando Letelier by Chilean secret police in Washington, D.C.,
the bombing murder of former Gen. Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires, the approximately
3,000 dead-including 1,000 disappeared-listed by the government-named Truth
Commission and, finally, my own experience of narrowly escaping Chile alive
a week after the coup and the fact that so many of their own family members,
including my wife, were forced into exile.
"I don't know about this or that fact," answers Sonia, totally
unfazed. "All I know is what I have lived through personally. And personally
I was much happier, I felt much safer with Pinochet."
And there you have what Tomas Moulian calls "The Great Psychotic
Denial." When there's never been an acknowledgment from the armed forces
of any wrongdoing, when the civilian government-including the Socialists-demands
no such recognition, when the right and left trumpet Chile as the model
of the future, when the dictator remains free to become senator, when torturers
and assassins are exempted from prosecution, then anything said to the contrary
must be a lie. To admit otherwise would be to acknowledge the horrible price
paid for the privileges of Providencia.
Birthdays and Barricades
The Chilean military can no longer afford to live in the economy it
created. During the dictatorship its members took on huge mortgages and
big car payments; now removed from direct power, they are struggling to
pay the bills in a rampant free- market economy. "They are very worried,"
says longtime military affairs commentator Raul Sohr. "The military
is the child of the state. And to the state they have returned. While the
rest of the country has to put up with privatized everything, the military
now has its own schools, its own hospitals, its own vacation camps, its
own subsidized housing, transportation and universities. It even has its
own state pensions. They have their own private socialism."
Beyond the irony in this anecdote, there's also a caveat about Chile's
future. Chilean soldiers aren't the only citizens poised on the economic
razor's edge. The country's economic stability is leveraged on continuing
exports and expanding consumer credit-two pillars easily knocked out by
fluctuations in the world market. Already, the Asian economic crisis caused
one Chilean stock market dive this year as well as an unprecedented but
to date still-controllable dip in the peso. The last time the Chilean economy
took a dive, in 1983, the country went to the brink of rebellion-and that
was under the heel of military rule.
"The greatest enemy to future stability is a sort of generalized
ignorance and arrogance that comes with triumphalism," says Ricardo
Israel, director of the University of Chile's Political Sciences Institute.
"People are satisfied saying we now have the same products you can
buy in New York or London. We are also laden with the tremendous ideological
weight of the church and the armed forces. We are still way behind in Chile.
Yet so many Chileans have deluded themselves into thinking we are the vanguard.
Hardly. Maybe a vanguard in duty-free shops. Nothing more."
There have been some intriguing symptoms of political restlessness of
late. The eviscerated labor movement has finally started to distance itself
from its "partners" in government. Last October, 80,000 young
people jammed the National Stadium- one of the dictatorship's infamous killing
fields-for a concert to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Che Guevara's
death. The hard antigovernment left won student body elections in two of
the country's three main universities. And when in November it won in the
third, in the fiercely conservative Catholic University, the shock waves
battered both the right and the official pro-government left. "When
the children of the elite vote for the hard left, you better believe something
is happening," says Sohr. Says Colonel Labbe: "I tell you I just
can't understand it. Why would the students of La Catolica vote Communist?"
Augusto Pinochet is celebrating his 82nd birthday the evening I leave
Chile. His morning starts with civilian supporters lining the sidewalk in
front of his Barrio Alto mansion to applaud him. Then come the official
visits of the entire army brass. With what one newspaper later calls a "visibly
emotional" Pinochet looking on from his balcony, the official army
band serenades him with the "Happy Birthday" song. Then the general
and future Senator for Life requests a rendition of the
"Erika" march, followed by his favorite tune, the old Nazi
favorite "Lilt Marlene."
An editorial by Cristian Labbe lauding "the vision of a statesman"
appears in the leading daily, El Mercurio (a former beneficiary of C.I.A.
At twelve noon, a few dozen student leaders gather in front of the downtown
Defense Ministry and unfurl a banner offering Pinochet a one-way ticket
to Spain for his birthday. Seconds later, squads of national police attack
the students and several journalists, clubbing, tear-gassing and arresting
them. No one knows what the charges are.
By 8 P.M. Pinochet has arrived at the army's so-called Rock House, where
he is feted by 1,300 guests, including several top industrialists, army
officers, IV personalities and a former Miss Universe. The President Pinochet
Foundation is transmitting the event by closed-circuit TV to thirty-six
other banquets in Pinochet's honor across the country. Three of Chile's
private TV networks are also transmitting the entire event. As I head to
the airport I hear Pinochet's crackly voice over the radio telling his supporters
that he is "perfectly aware" of the "destructive ambitions"
harbored by those who criticize the military. Suggesting that any effort
to hold him personally responsible for the past would be tantamount to treason,
he goes on to warn that "anything that affects a single member of the
army affects the whole army."
When my taxi crosses into downtown we are snarled in traffic. Some 5,000
mostly young protesters are in the streets blocking traffic, singing and
wishing the general a "very unhappy birthday and all the sorrow in
the world." To make my flight I have to dodge the water cannons, the
barricades, the bonfires and tear gas. But I do so with pleasure. This evening
Chile seems much like the country I knew twenty-five years ago. This demonstration
is far different from the skirmishes staged all month by the Social Security
sales force. These students are fighting for much more than their narrow
personal interest. Those of us who lived through the promise of the Allende
period hope they are not the last rattle on the snake of rebellion and liberation,
that they are instead- and against the odds-the catalyst that will spur
millions of others to remember a future. ,
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, lived in Chile and worked
as a translator for President Salvador Allende from 1971 to 1973.