Allende-Pinochet, the Debate Continued

On 15 February 2012, Jeremy, having read my article on PBS's Allende-Pinochet documentary (, wrote the following:

nonymousI know this is old, but I have to vehemently disagree with this exercise in Pinochet apologetics.

Pinochet secured his power by engaging in widespread, systematic mass murder and human rights violations; Allende did not. It is simply not valid to draw a parallel between the two in terms of "crimes against humanity."

Your argument for Allende's campaign of "torture and murder" is based on a series of fallacious appeals to authority. You can't use the contemporary accusations of opposition figures like Aylwin and Frei as sufficient evidence. All you've proven with your response to Mr. Letelier is that Allende's opposition opposed him. For what it's worth, Aylwin was grossly exaggerating Allende's military power (armed groups in the rural areas were weak, and largely outside of Allende's control), and I don't see how Frei's call for a military coup supports your argument. Again, it tells us about the polarization of the time, but what of Allende's supposed torture and murder? Pinochet's brutality, on the other hand, is beyond dispute.

And do you really believe, based on the testimony of a single disillusioned guerilla, that Allende and co. were planning to export violent revolution, in the Western Hemisphere, during the Cold War, with the US already hostile to them? It doesn't take Henry Kissinger to figure out that's suicidal. Again, the evidence provided is insufficient to support your claim. One accusation of a supposed future conspiracy does not put Allende any closer to the level of Pinochet.

Finally, your assertion that "whereas Allende left Chile in shambles, Pinochet—unlike any other dictator who comes readily to mind—left his country much better off for his tenure" is a gross oversimplification. Could you make a serious argument for this? Yes, it's a complex topic. Can you do it in one sentence? No.

Of course it's true that Allende's administration was an economic and political disaster after the first year. But you can't just ignore Pinochet's brutality when declaring that he made Chile a better place. You're discounting the lasting effects on Chilean society, politics, culture, and victims' families. Even if, for the sake of argument, you leave that aside and consider only economics, the situation is not that clear-cut. Pinochet did effect a large increase in GDP. But that's only one indicator. Under Pinochet, real wages remained stagnant for almost twenty years, and unemployment and poverty skyrocketed. These situations only improved when Pinochet loosened his grip and allowed Aylwin to claw back the most extreme neoliberal policies. So Pinochet and the Chicago Boys facilitated economic growth; but I think if you asked the average worker, peasant, or Mapuche, they'd have a different take on Pinochet's economic policy.

If you want to make a serious historical comparison here, you need to find some sources that are more balanced and credible than the accusations of Allende's opposition. I suggest Collier and Sater's "A History of Chile," as well as the following article from The Economist:

February 15, 2012 3:03 AM

Here is the Economist article Jeremy directs us to

The Pinochet affair
Blackwashing Allende
Jan 28th 1999 | from the print edition
WHILE the Law Lords in Britain pore over the disputed legalities of extraditing Augusto Pinochet, the allegations of atrocities by his regime are—unsurprisingly—little disputed there. So his supporters have adopted a new tactic: whitewash the general by blackening the president he overthrew in 1973, Salvador Allende.
General Pinochet’s first notable British supporter was Margaret Thatcher. Soon after his arrest in October, she argued—indisputably—that he had been a good friend to Britain in its 1982 Falklands war with Argentina. But right-wing support, exemplified in a pamphlet by one of her former aides that was put out on the Internet last week, has since gone much further.
The Pinochet campaigners argue that Allende, who died (probably by his own hand) in the coup, was at least presiding over, and more likely conspiring in, preparations for a Marxist seizure of total power. A sub-text has Allende, in conspiracy with Fidel Castro, training terrorists for revolution not just in Chile but in Latin America. So General Pinochet, who seized power first, had to be tough, didn’t he?
That’s the mild version. There is a much fiercer one: as one apologist wrote to the conservative Daily Telegraph, the general’s methods “were regrettably harsh, but no worse than Allende’s”. That is a big claim: in Chile, only the furthest right seriously questions the conclusions of the truth commission set up after the general left power in 1990 that under his regime—mainly in its early years—some 2,000 political opponents were killed and thousands more tortured. Was Allende really just as bad?
In law, neither version could exonerate General Pinochet. A regime fully in control—as his was within months of seizing power—cannot excuse its atrocities on the ground that its predecessors were equally ruthless. But politically such arguments carry weight. If they are true.
Are they? Is it true, for instance, that:
Allende, elected in 1970 with only 36.5% of the vote, and unable to impose total Marxism legally, was actively preparing a left-wing coup, conspiring to train guerrillas and letting them stockpile arms even in presidential buildings for the purpose?
He had set up terrorist training camps, under KGB, Cuban and North Korean experts, that would have made Chile “the major terrorist base for Latin America”?
There were—as a former minister under Lady Thatcher wrote last month in Britain’s Times—17,000 Cubans in Chile?
“As the media seem to have forgotten,” according to the spin-doctor masterminding the pro-Pinochet campaign in Britain, “there were atrocities on both sides”? Were the torture and killing of opponents, certainly practised by the Pinochet regime, also used by Allende’s government?
The main, though not only, source of the new pro-Pinochet pamphlet is a “white book on the change of government” rushed together by the general’s regime in the weeks after his coup. Both works paint a Chile awash with foreign—notably, Cuban—extremists and their Marxist followers with large stocks of Soviet-block weaponry. (Not least in the presidential palace and residence. The white book details a veritable armoury, of everything up to anti-tank guns, allegedly found there. It is a fearsome list—if it is genuine.)
The book also includes “Plan Z”, a document supposedly found in the desk of a communist former under-secretary for the interior. It sets out a plan for the murder of the armed forces’ high command at a presidential banquet, a left-wing seizure of power and then the elimination of opposition figures. But did “Plan Z” really exist? The pamphlet says “its authenticity has not been disputed.” That is untrue.
A disenchanted ex-CIA agent, Philip Agee, was soon to argue that the document might have been a CIA fake. In Chile today many question it, even some admirers of the Pinochet regime. How come, they wonder, that little more was heard of such a monstrous conspiracy, once “Plan Z” had played its part in discrediting Allende?
The “terrorist training camps”—though, surprisingly, not their Soviet or North Korean instructors—figure large in the pamphlet. So they did in the white book. One such, allegedly, was sited at an out-of-town presidential residence. Chileans from the left of the spectrum this week told The Economist there were more than half-a-dozen camps, of varying quality: two run by the MIR, a revolutionary-left movement, were serious enough. Chile’s ex-president (and the father of its present one), Eduardo Frei, thinking of these and the alleged weapons stocks, wrote, after the Pinochet coup, of “the creation of a parallel army”. The training, says one ex-trainee, was less military (and pretty basic at that) than ideological. Whether “terrorist” is fair is uncertain; that the aim was to export terror not even the pamphlet claims.
The 17,000 Cubans—in one popular version, 17,000 armed Cubans—remind one of the soldiers allegedly sent by tsarist Russia to Britain during the first world war: no one saw them land, no one saw them sail away, but they were seen marching through Scotland, their Russian origin betrayed by the snow on their boots. Certainly these Cubans must have slid away craftily, their boots doubtless crusted with tobacco: the military regime just after seizing power claimed there had been 13,000 foreigners (by now they have become “foreign extremists”) illegally in the country when it took over. Of that total, 9,600 were from Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay.
The real sting of the Pinochet-Allende comparison, though, is that of political torture and murder. Grant that people get beaten up in police stations, under all regimes, worldwide, did Allende’s regime use political torture? The Economist has spoken to people who say it happened to them. But no records, or even claims, suggest anything like the scale proven against the military regime.
As to killings, any comparison of Allende to that regime is quite simply false. The new pamphlet, citing the old white book, records 96 “political” deaths, on right and left, during the Allende years. Hardly any, except a few during a minor mutiny in mid-1973, can be (or were) blamed on the official forces. In contrast, the pamphlet admits 1,261 such deaths—82 among the armed forces—in the few months after the coup. The pamphlet ascribes this to “bitter and brutal” fighting during a left-wing revolt. The 1,261 died, it says, “in the course of the struggle.”
They did not. It would be an odd urban struggle in which “well trained, highly armed” extremists lose more than a dozen men for every one they kill. In fact, as many have related who were merely held or tortured there, most of the deaths occurred in the national stadium in Santiago, where real or alleged enemies of the new order were held, to be singled out by masked informers, often for immediate execution. And that still leaves at least 800 later deaths under the regime, when it was in total control, to be accounted for. Or whitewashed?
For further evidence, go to a source of the time: The Economist, non-Chilean but firmly critical of Allende and what its then Chile specialist was later to entitle his savagely critical book, “Chile’s Marxist Experiment”. That title was in fact overblown. Allende’s economics were, approximately, Marxist and certainly disastrous. Not so the political system he ran. The opposition press and parties carried on. So did elections, and even in March 1973 the regime could win only 44% of the vote for Congress. Still, this paper was deeply suspicious, and the more so—in those days of raging cold war—because of Allende’s friendship with Fidel Castro.
Twice it sent its specialist for long visits. He wrote a six-page report in March 1972, one of five pages in October 1973, a month after the coup. The second time, our man clearly had free access to the regime and its evidence against Allende. But even in 1972 he talked widely to enemies of the Allende government. Both his reports damned it. Both produced mild versions of some charges now laid against Allende: for instance (1973), of Cubans training his personal guard, or guerrillas “tolerated” by the government, (though the actual ones our reporter met were a fairly hopeless, partly Amerindian group, more like Mexico’s Zapatists than the strike force of revolution). But what did this ferocious critic of Allende’s regime say of its now alleged political tortures or killings? Not a word.

Now Bill Stott again:
I am grateful to Jeremy, as earlier I was to Renato Letelier, for his civil comment. We are going to disagree, Jeremy, but without invective.
The Economist's anti-Allende correspondent to which the 1999 article alludes with such distaste is Robert Moss (if you're going to give us the title of a book he wrote, Economist writers, why not give his name?). Moss wrote for the Economist of Sept 15, 1973, just days after the Pinochet coup:
“What happened in Santiago is not a typical Latin American coup. The armed forces tolerated Allende for almost three years. In this period he figured out how to drown the country in the worst economic and social crisis in its modern history. But the Allende government went even further than destroying the economy -- it violated the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. The form in which he crudely bypassed Congress and the judiciary weakened faith in the country’s democratic institutions. . . . The temporary death of democracy in Chile will be lamented, but the responsibility clearly lies with Dr. Allende and those of his followers who constantly rode roughshod over the Constitution.” 

Middle-of-the-road Chileans of the time certainly believed this: only see the quotes I've given from the Christian Democratic former national president, Eduardo Frei, and Christian Democratic party president--and, after Pinochet--the country's first democratically elected president, Patricio Aylwin. (Jeremy, you can't get away with pretending that these men or the Christian Democrat party they headed were far-right; its leaders came to oppose Allende, whose accession to the presidency they had supported (in the interest of fair play: he'd won the most votes), because of what he had done in the office. That's the claim I'm making about the majority of the Chilean people; they came to hate and fear Allende because of his incompetence and the threatening chaos he created and tolerated.)
Specific points.
+ I didn't say Allende killed or tortured as many people as Pinochet and his henchmen did. He did strip hundreds of farmers and ranchers and factory and business owners of their property. Hundreds of people went into exile, many never to return. If only 96 people died, that, with his other acts, was enough to cause panic and the belief that there was going to be a huge class-based bloodletting.
A prominent leftist who apparently called for exactly this in a speech in the National Stadium two days before Pinochet's coup was the senator and secretary of the Socialist Party, Carlos Altamirano, a collaborator with the MIR, a terrorist group that still bombs and burns in Chile.

 + Cubans didn't train Allende's presidential guard; they were his guard--Cuban security men provided by Fidel Castro. Allende apparently didn't trust Chileans. A rumor was floated several years ago that the head of Allende's security was told by Castro that, in the event of a coup, he, the security man, should shoot Allende, making it look like suicide, because dead martyrs are more appealing than living ex-leaders. In fact, Allende killed himself with a rifle Castro had given him.
+ I hadn't heard of 17,000 Cubans. The belief in Chile is that there were over 10,000 communist agitators from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Warsaw Block countries. So far as I know, after the coup, all were allowed to leave.
+ Plan Z. Who knows? I have met a doctor who says that after the coup he found a list in a drawer of his hospital giving the names of the physicians and staff who were to be killed by Allende's thugs.
+ If they are old enough, the "average Chileans" I come in contact with--taxi drivers, maids, and sales people--generally remember the Pinochet years with nostalgia because there was far less crime then in the poorer sections of Santiago. Also, because--but here's a whole new theme--Pinochet permitted private universities to come into being, thus opening new possibilities for the bright and ambitious, even if they were poor.
But, as I said at the start, those who admire Allende, overlook his human rights violations, and regret his overthrow, and we who find much to admire in Pinochet's regime, all the while rejecting its human rights violations, aren't going to agree. It's obvious that the Allende-Pinochet confrontation will always be the central dramatic focus of Chilean 20th century historical studies, just as the American Civil War and the events leading up to it and flowing from it are the central focus of 19th century US history. A generation or two from now Chilean historians may have come to consensus on the issue. Or they may still be as far apart as Letelier and Jeremy and I are.

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