Pinochet in the Dock
Jude Wanniski
October 27, 1998


Memo To:Tim Golden, New York Times
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Messing up Chile

Congratulations on your Sunday "Week in Review" report on the problems created when the British government arrested Chile's former military dictator, Augusto Pinochet, on human rights charges filed by a Spanish judge. If your newspaper's editorial page editors had taken the trouble to ask the questions you asked in assembling your report, I'd like to think they would not have been so glib in cheering Tony Blair for having grabbed the 82-year-old general while he was in London for medical treatment. The Wall Street Journal took the occasion to complain that a right-wing dictator should not be treated this way if Cuba's Fidel Castro gets to pop in and out of London at will. Although it makes sense, this is not really a satisfying argument either. The quote you got from Genaro Arriagada, the prominent academic who had been a leading critic of Pinochet in his dictator years between 1973 and 1988, is the heart of the problem: "Part of the achievement of our transition back to democracy has been to take all of the demons of this history and put them into some kind of closet. This case brings them all back out again. What right does some Spanish judge have to do that?"

A few years ago, I had a long talk about the "closet" with John Biehl, when he still was Chile's ambassador to Washington. (He's now in the government.) Biehl told me then how the nation had made a cultural decision to stop talking about the fratricide that took place following the overthrow and assassination of Salvadore Allende, the communist president who had run the economy into the ground. So many people on both sides of the argument had been murdered by left-wing and right-wing vigilantes that civil discourse had become impossible. Every political gathering disintegrated into back-and-forth angry recriminations. The people as a body practically woke up one day and decided not to talk about the past anymore, but to concentrate on the future. This was not like our Civil War, where northerners and southerners remained geographically separated in the democratic union. In Chile, there were families who suspected other families in the same neighborhoods of Santiago of having participated in the killings.

Pinochet became a hated figure among liberals throughout the West,  because he represented the conservative faction that had ended Chile's experiment with democratic communism. I was on the editorial page of the WSJournal at the time, and remember how angry the Times editorial page was even back then, furious that Chile's economy steadily improved under Pinochet. The cheers that came from its editorial two weeks ago were a faint echo of the ideological demons Chile was producing at its peak. Remember, in 1973, it was still not clear that the United States would win the Cold War. Indeed, we were in the process of losing the Vietnam war in 1973 and serious American intellectuals actually were complaining that our democracy was a burden to us.

We already can see in Chile how easily the national accord can unravel. With liberal governments in power all over Europe and a Democrat in the White House, how easy it would be to open up all kinds of scabs of the Cold War. We have to hope that the Labor Government's Home Secretary, Jack Straw, lets Pinochet go home. Or we will see conservatives making sure scores are settled when they come back in power.