Pinochet Through Rose-Colored Glasses

The Wall Street Journal editorial board, ever-ardently guarding the principles of freedom, slipped this gem about Egypt into last Friday’s paper:

Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took over power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.

There are clearly a number of problems with this, not least the cynicism and resignation with which the Journal treats Egypt’s politics. But for me, the real crime in here is painting a positive association between an outcome for Egypt and General Augusto Pinochet (and generally any frivolous words about Chile’s brutal military regime).

Their first issue here is history. In what the Guardian’s Martin Pengelly calls “nostalgic, unquestioning support from some on the free-market right“, the Wall Street Journal glosses over the very obvious fact that the Pinochet regime tortured or murdered tens of thousands of Chileans, in plain sight and with tacit approval of the upper and middle classes allowing it to happen to their friends and neighbors.

Second and more important, the assertion that Pinochet “midwifed” a transition to democracy is, by any account, false. Instead of orchestrating some grand electoral moment where Chileans would freely choose between democracy and a continuation of military rule, the general envisioned a watertight election providing cover for another 8-year “elected” term.

But, as history tells, he lost this fight. This is principally due to a movement that the New York Times succinctly described in their critique of the recent Pinochet-era movie “No”,

Numerous books and academic theses…have been written on the plebiscite over the last quarter-century [and] uniformly credit the anti-Pinochet forces’ grass-roots effort to register 7.5 million Chileans as pivotal to their success at the polls.

Not unlike Spain, where surprise moves by King Juan Carlos derailed General Franco’s posthumous plans, Chile’s “transition” wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did. Were Pinochet the real “midwife”, the transition would have been stillborn.

Was Pinochet all bad? Of course not. Were Chileans united in opposition against him? Hardly. But by linking what is going on in Egypt right now to a 40-year old political situation thousands of miles away betrays a worldview that economic stability should come at any cost, including a “benevolent” dictator.

This throwaway line is an insult to the thousands of families who lost loved ones at Pinochet’s whim and the millions of Chileans who lost their right to participate in the political process for nearly 25 years. It is also dangerous, both for the Egyptians that are currently living in these difficult times and American readers who take a generally credible news source like the Wall Street Journal at its word.

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