A Successful Dictator Who Was Vilified...
December 13, 2006
by John O'Sullivan
General Augusto Pinochet, who died on Sunday, was the most successful dictator of the 20th century -- and also one of the most vilified. How do we explain the discrepancy?
Dictators are supposedly judged by two tests. How many people did they kill? And did they bring prosperity to their people? These two tests hang together because Marxists believed that their various ideological despotisms (in Cuba, in China, in the USSR) would eventually midwife a new utopia. Such a triumph would justify their mass murders retroactively.
So how did individual dictators fare? Stalin, Hitler and Mao each murdered tens of millions in labor camps, purges, forced famines and war. But they were less successful at improving their societies. The USSR could not feed itself, depended for survival upon external subsidies and eventually collapsed in economic ruins.
Hitler committed suicide in the literal ruins of Berlin with the German people digging for scraps in the rubble of the Third Reich. And Mao killed as many millions unintentionally through his industrial "Great Leap Forward" as he did in his purges and "cultural revolution." With the understandable exception of Hitler, these mass murderers received respectful obituaries in the Western media.
Franco and Castro cannot quite match such achievements. Each of them murdered no more than tens of thousands of people after their victories in civil war and rebellion. On economic policy, moreover, their paths diverged.
Castro squandered billions in Russian subsidies in the course of ruining the Cuban economy. Deprived of Soviet subsidies, Cuba is a tragedy: a naturally prosperous island reduced to beggary and prostitution by personal vanity and economic illiteracy. Franco transformed Spain into a dynamic market economy, built its middle class and created a stable society that was modern in every respect except its political system. Within five years of his death, Spain was a democracy.
Franco received contemptuously hostile obituaries; Castro's are currently being revised by editors in the hope that rumors of his death have not been greatly exaggerated.
That brings us to Pinochet. His victims are estimated at 3,200. One innocent murdered is one too many. But if we are talking comparisons, Pinochet's total of innocents murdered is about one-20th of Castro's.
As for Pinochet's economic legacy, it outstrips that of most advanced democracies, let alone the economic rubble of all the communist dictators. Within a decade of the 1973 coup, Chile was a stable growing economy transformed by monetary, supply-side, trade and labor market reforms introduced by Pinochet. When Chile returned to democracy in the late 1980s, the Christian Democrat government of Patricio Aylwin continued his free-market approach. The whole world noticed this. If successful economic transformation could justify political mass murder -- the Marxist test, remember -- Pinochet would be celebrated without reserve as the savior of his country. Contra the Marxists, however, murder is not an economic policy, and the soundest economic policy cannot justify murder. If Pinochet authorized murders, he should have been tried for them -- provided that the same rule applies to Castro, other surviving dictators, and those supporters of President Salvador Allende who killed opponents in the Chilean civil war.
For Pinochet's coup was in reality a short civil war. In 1973 Chile's parliament and supreme court, backed by public opinion, called for military intervention to overthrow Allende for his flagrant abuse of the Constitution.
Pinochet was initially one of three military leaders who responded to it. He gradually accumulated power, probably corrupted by the delusion that he was essential to national salvation. But the original 1973 coup was never a personal power grab. It was an attempt to save Chile from a Marxist dictatorship that on the evidence of history would have proved more enduring and more bloodstained than his own rule. Pinochet first defeated Marxism and then disproved it -- that explains better than anything his status as the world's worst dictator even though it is at variance with so many other facts.
Among them is the fact that Pinochet also surrendered power voluntarily after defeat in a referendum. In a historic deal, he bargained a dignified retirement in return for restoring democracy and an amnesty. That amnesty satisfied the Chileans and founded Chilean democracy in a secure national consensus -- but unlike other national amnesties it merely spurred Pinochet's foreign enemies onto greater efforts.
He was arraigned before British courts at the behest of a Spanish magistrate on the most dubious pretexts of international law at the very moment that Castro was being feted in Madrid. He was pursued legally thereafter by "human rights" activists. He lost credit with many of his remaining supporters, including some who had bankrolled his legal defense in London, when he was shown to have salted away millions in corrupt payments. And even in hospital he died a pursued man -- one step ahead of the next writ. Maybe Pinochet had reason to be grateful for the fact that there is no justice in this world. But not such good reason as worse villains.
This article originally appeared in the December 12, 2006, Chicago Sun-Times.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.
Click here to view the full list of Journal Articles, Op-Eds & Blogs.