The Fruits of Democracy

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The Fruits of Democracy

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

This week, Chileans will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the military coup of September 11, 1973, that ended the socialist government of Salvador Allende. The coup established the Pinochet dictatorship that in turn led to the end of the fledgling socialist revolution and establishment of Chile as one of the most stable and successful economies in Latin America. Of course, in Chile — and pretty much everywhere else — this is not exactly an uncontroversial thing to say.

Given the bitterness in the local rhetoric over just how the coup should be remembered in Chile, it is still clear that the political and intellectual classes are hardly willing to give up on this perennially hot-button issue. The same rhetorical battles still rage today that have turned the 1973 coup into a 30 year-old cause for righteous indignation on both the left and the right. Thirty years is not long for people to forget a bloody coup, and reminders are still everywhere. In Santiago, the buildings around the plaza of the Palacio de la Moneda where Allende shot himself, still sport obvious damage from the fire fight that raged that morning, and everywhere there are disgruntled Marxists who have managed to convince themselves that Allende was the man who was going to lead them to a socialist paradise.

Back here at home, American leftists still bristle at the thought of the coup and never tire of chanting like a mantra that Allende was "democratically elected" and thus incapable of being legitimately removed from power in spite of the utter lawlessness and economic chaos that followed his ascent to the presidency. Conservatives on the other hand defend Pinochet with a vehemence not seen since Oliver North was canonized for his blatant disregard of Congress and the rule of law. For the conservatives, Pinochet was the only thing that prevented Chile from following Cuba down the glorious path of Marxist revolution, and while there is no doubt that Allende’s chummy friendship with Castro and his Marxist thugs would have likely relegated Chile to the bottom rung of Latin American prosperity where Cuba now resides. But it is also clear that no matter how much American conservatives wish it were true, Pinochet isn’t exactly the Patrick Henry of his age.

Allende, like all demagogues, was a liar with little regard for the rule of law. He was a ruthless politician with utterly malleable principles that were up for grabs to whomever could supply the most votes. Like so many democratically elected leaders throughout the world, Allende managed to eke out a mere 36% of the vote and then proceeded to interpret the weak showing as a great mandate for his own socialist policies. He declared that "Santiago will be painted red with blood if I am not ratified as President," and as soon as he was ratified, he quickly took to destroying the constitution that his defenders hold up as the source of his "legitimate" election. The Chilean courts denounced Allende’s disregard for the rule of law, and Allende retaliated by refusing to enforce over 7,000 court rulings. Not surprisingly, Chile soon became ruled by gangs, thugs, and Marxist revolutionaries. As Allende proceeded to ruin the government through nationalization of industry and agricultural lands, the resulting impoverishment and industrial collapse produced a ready army of unemployed peasants ready to take up arms against the "capitalists" that Allende convinced them had caused it all. Castro’s embassy in Santiago swelled to a staff of over 1,000 people ready to assist in the coming of the final glorious revolution against the chains of capitalism. As the economy succumbed to triple-digit inflation, murder and thievery (both state-sponsored and otherwise) became the order of the day. Unable to consolidate a sound majority coalition and with the economy in shambles, Allende planned to consolidate power by other means, and according to documents found in the presidential palace following the coup, Allende was planning to massacre his conservative military opponents and some 600 politicians, journalists, and conservative opposition members by the end of 1973.

The coup of September 11th put an end to all of that.

Today, Pinochet is reviled by the left as a modern Hitler/Mussolini character with a beastly lust for blood. The evidence is abundant, that in the 15 years of military rule, Pinochet either ordered or failed to stop the state-sponsored murder of about 3,000 leftist activists, many of whom were foreigners (prompting Pinochet’s arrest as a "war criminal" in 1998). 1,200 more disappeared and there is some evidence that in the late 70′s, remains of many of the dead were dumped at sea.

It quickly becomes apparent that when considering dead bodies, the Pinochet regime looks less than enlightened. This is partially due to the fact that while Pinochet had a bureaucratic regime that was highly organized and easy to connect to Pinochet himself, the killing under Allende tended to be committed by paramilitary groups that Allende did not have direct control over, but was nevertheless quite friendly with. So the choice the Chileans had was between two kinds of murderous government. One that was haphazard and guerrilla-centered, and one that was ruthlessly efficient.

Now, while aging leftists still maintain that Allende was put out of commission for "daring to dream," it is not that difficult to choose which regime one would rather live under. Under Pinochet, one could carry out his life in peace as long as he stayed out of the way of the regime politically. Raising a family was possible, and prospering economically was not at all out of the question. Under the chaos of Allende on the other hand, merely trying to make a living was a crime punishable by death. With Allende, Chile was moving quickly down the path that Cuba had traveled a decade before where hiring a taxi, running a grocery store, or investing in a retirement account became a crime against the state. While Pinochet’s regime was no doubt authoritarian, Allende’s was quickly becoming totalitarian, where one doesn’t simply lose political rights, but all economic ones as well. Thus the choice became one between slavery and slavery with a side of abject poverty. Making the choice was fairly simple, and many made that choice. They chose Pinochet.

The rarely mentioned objection, however, is that it is nonsense to be forced to choose between one kind of subjugation and another. Leftist Allende defenders hold him up as a near-perfect martyr to the cause of a socialist paradise, and maintain that the evil of capitalism is so great that only a iron fist like that of Pinochet’s could keep the revolution from being won by the enlightened masses who elected Allende. Others who "dare to dream" like Pol Pot, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao always escape the kind of scorn heaped on small-time dictators like Pinochet.

But those on the right are also foolish to defend Pinochet with such vehemence and knee-jerk loyalty such as he has received in the years since the coup. One ultra-conservative magazine ridiculously ran an article in 1999 on Pinochet under the heading "20th Century Heroes," and mere mention of the topic in undergraduate classrooms sends mini-cons into fits expounding the many virtues of Pinochet and his regime.

This is nonsense. Upon his exit as executive, Pinochet’s regime wrote legal privileges for military personnel into the Chilean constitutions that the American Founding Fathers would have found tyrannical at best. Today, Chilean presidents still lack the power to fire key military personnel. To imagine an American equivalent, picture a permanent Donald Rumsfeld.

On the other hand, the fact that Chileans enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Latin America is directly due to Salvador Allende’s removal from power less than three years into his disastrous presidency. Not only did Pinochet’s regime restore a legal system founded on the protection of persons and property, but it also freed the economy from the tariffs, taxes, regulation and outright government theft that had grown unchecked during the Allende years. Pinochet lowered tariffs, privatized large portions of the health care and social security systems, and made the economy safe for foreign investment. Yet, Allende is the one whom the world touts as the friend of progress and prosperity. But in reality, like all his fellow socialist u201Cdreamersu201D Allende was the enemy of order, rationality, liberty, and prosperity. Had Allende’s agenda come to pass, Chile would have joined the list of all the other socialist successes like Russia, Cambodia, and Cuba.

Above all, the coup of 1973 reveals to us the ludicrousness of elevating democracy to an end in itself. As centuries of experience have taught us, the success of free societies is dependent on the ability of bourgeois, property-owning middle classes capable of protecting property from the grasping hand of the state. Pinochet’s coup was a triumph for the middle classes of Chile who feared they were about to be subjected to the horrors of socialist revolution and endless civil war. Yet, it was the overturning of a "legitimate" election. An election that put power in the hands of a political elite bent on creating wealth for themselves by destroying those who created it. As with the Europeans following the Great War that made the world "safe for democracy," democracy brought the Chileans nothing but poverty, chaos, and war.

Today, with all his grandiose plans for a democratic paradise in Iraq, this is a lesson the President would do well to learn. It may well be that years from now, when we look back on that disaster that is unfolding in Iraq, we will decide that the people of Chile got off easy.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] writes from Colorado. His personal web site can be found here.

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