Home The Washington Diplomat September 2008 Top Chilean Envoy Sheds Light On Pinochet’s Lingering Shadow

Top Chilean Envoy Sheds Light On Pinochet’s Lingering Shadow


“Our 9/11.” That’s what Heraldo Muñoz, Chile’s permanent representative to the United Nations, calls Sept. 11, 1973. It was the day that a right-wing military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Strangely, it was Muñoz playing the part of a potential suicide bomber that day.

As tanks and soldiers rolled into the capital toward the presidential palace, Muñoz joined socialist backers of the government as they vainly tried to rally resistance and waited for instructions from above. Muñoz had even cached dynamite at a friend’s house and went to retrieve it.

“My only concern was how to counter the coup and to die, if necessary,” Muñoz writes dramatically in his new book, “The Dictator’s Shadow,” which is set to debut in D.C. on Sept. 11, an intentional choice.

But the coup, prompted by economic turmoil, was overwhelming and Muñoz never put the dynamite to use. Refusing to go gently into that good night, Allende committed suicide and the age of the Pinochet regime began — and wouldn’t end for 17 years.

“For many Chileans he brought a crushing loss of innocence,” writes Muñoz. “Once more, Don Quixote had been defeated.”

The Henpecked Dictator Quixote’s vanquisher was an unlikely one, according to Muñoz. He portrays Pinochet as a henpecked husband lacking in intellect, confusing Washington State with Washington, D.C. Muñoz also characterizes Pinochet as a follower, not a leader, and a reluctant coup participant. “In times of passionate commitments and causes, his policy was realpolitik: be pragmatic, appear neutral, and cultivate the trust of those with power and authority,” he writes.

But he also acknowledges the keys to the general’s rise to power: persistence, discipline and a keen ability to wait in the shadows until opportunity presented itself. In 1973, Pinochet seized that opportunity with a vengeance.

According to Muñoz, the general was a different kind of dictator, relying on well-chosen, trusted advisers to inform his policies. “He was not intelligent — but he was astute,” Muñoz notes.

The human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime are well documented, including the “disappearances” of thousands of dissidents, many of whose remains still have not been located. At the time, Pinochet was so sure of U.S. support from President Richard Nixon that he even ordered the murder of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in the streets of Washington itself.

“Pinochet knew how to use fear as a political weapon,” Muñoz said in a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat. “He was a survivor.”

He was also a man of his times, caught up in the global battles of the 1960s and ’70s between capitalism and socialism. Domestic tensions in countries around the world came to a head as leftists pushed for revolutionary change, while right-wingers stood for the system, and centrists were caught in the middle.

Unintended Consequences Despite his notorious human rights record, Pinochet implemented many liberal economic reforms that pulled Chile out of financial crisis. As a result, Pinochet epitomized an American dilemma: how to support free market policies abroad that are implemented by undemocratic regimes. In backing Pinochet, “the U.S. government, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, helped to unleash forces that it could not control,” Muñoz writes, adding that the coup inspired the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the communist regime there.

Muñoz also compares America’s backing of Pinochet in the 1970s under the Nixon administration to similar U.S. misguided support for dictators it ultimately had to disavow, such as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. “One lesson from this book is beware of what you wish for, because it might come true,” Muñoz told The Diplomat.

Pinochet’s reign of terror finally ended in 1988 with a plebiscite that repudiated his rule, although he hung onto power for another two years. Muñoz, who characterizes Pinochet’s reign in terrorist terms, notes with irony that the strongman’s later downfall via the courts was due to a terrorism financing investigation into his personal funds. Despite a litany of criminal charges pending against him, Pinochet was never jailed due to alleged health concerns and died, notably, on International Human Rights Day in 2006.

But Muñoz concedes that Pinochet’s rule also had some positive results, namely inspiring human rights movements across the world such as Amnesty International and strengthening international human rights tribunals. With his arrest in London in 1998 on a Spanish warrant, “no former tyrant could be sure of escaping the global justice system,” Muñoz writes.

As Muñoz observes, the fallout from America’s backing of Pinochet also led to congressional investigations in the 1970s on U.S. covert action and human rights policy. “Those hearings marked the beginning of Congress’s challenge to the executive branch on the conduct of foreign policy,” he writes.

Worth the Cost? Debate continues inside and outside Chile over whether the economic growth under Pinochet justified his harsh rule, and the country remains torn over his legacy, with some arguing that he gave Chile order and economic stability. Muñoz himself acknowledges that Pinochet’s implementation of monetarist policies blessed by the International Monetary Fund — while including painful repercussions such as suppressing unions — “laid the foundations for the country’s economic success.”

“Most Latin American dictators ran disastrous economies. Pinochet’s was the exception,” he writes. “The agonizing question is: Was Pinochet necessary? Could Chile have reached its present prosperity without him?”

For Muñoz, the answer is clearly yes. He argues that similar economic reforms came more peacefully elsewhere (such as Brazil, Peru and even a Colom–bia wracked by civil war) after the Cold War.

“Even under authoritarian rule, [the reforms] did not require the murder of union leaders, the exile of thousands of dissidents, the torture and disappearance of political prisoners, the terrorist bombing of exiled leaders, and a permanent state of internal war,” Muñoz writes. “In the end, economic liberty seldom thrives in the absence of political freedom.”

As evidence, he claims that Chile’s true economic success came only after the return of de–mocracy in 1990, with both economic growth and per-capita gross domestic product nearly double that under Pinochet, making Chile the highest-growth Latin American country from 1990 to 2006. Moreover, he points to the side effects of Pinochet’s economic reforms: a doubling of Chile’s poverty rate, neglected infrastructure and stagnant wages.

Another Lingering Shadow Muñoz, who was part of a late push by Chile for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction program, said the Iraq war has cast another long shadow over world history.

Muñoz’s previous book, “A Solitary War,” chronicled Chile’s efforts to avoid the U.S. invasion and the consequences of Bush’s decision to go it alone. “In order to go to war, you have to go with friends, and this didn’t happen,” Muñoz charged.

He also accused the Bush administration of prodding, pressuring — even spying on — allies to persuade them to support the war, and threatening trade retribution if they didn’t.

But those threats didn’t last as the United States once again looked to allies to help clean up the Iraq mess, and in the end, the cost of the anti-war stance by Chile and other Latin American countries was minimal, Muñoz said. He noted that although the United States threatened to end negotiations of a free trade agreement with Chile, it was signed eventually, albeit not at the presidential level. Muñoz also pointed out that cultivating better business relations with Latin America was in the United States’ self-interest, because in recent years the country has exported more to Latin America than it has imported.

But Bush’s war strategy has sowed deep resentment and mistrust in a region already distrustful of U.S. motives. “There is still a lingering suspicion or bad taste over Iraq, not just in terms of the human cost but the financial cost,” Muñoz said. “There has been an attempt in the last year to rekindle the relationship between America and Latin America, but it seems too little, too late.”

Nevertheless, Muñoz praised U.S. engagement in the “six party” talks with North Korea over its nuclear arsenal and the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. In fact, it was Chile that gave the United States the final vote it needed to adopt a U.N. resolution pressing for the withdrawal of those Syrian troops — a sign that “little by little, the page has been turned and the atmosphere has improved.”

Next Month: The Washington Diplomat analyzes how Latin American nations are working to reconcile with their pasts, from Argentina’s dirty war to Uruguay’s military regime to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.