Editor’s note: This piece by Anthony Daniels appeared in the February 7, 2000, issue of National Review.
When the British home secretary, Jack Straw, announced that he was “minded” (as he so modestly put it) to allow Gen. Augusto Pinochet to return to Chile on the grounds of ill health, he was admitting — whether he intended it or not — that the whole affair had been political from the first. Pinochet’s detention had never been, as the Blair government tried to pretend, a question of justice being done though the heavens fell. On the contrary, it was a sordid and perfidious political maneuver calculated to gain the applause of the government’s leftist critics and divert their attention from its economic conservatism.
The affair has been rich in ironies. The government has throughout maintained friendly relations with dictators much bloodthirstier than Pinochet. A British judge pontificating on the case “forgot” to mention his close personal association with Amnesty International, an organization that was campaigning at the time for the general’s extradition. Pinochet received support from an unexpected source, Fidel Castro, who recalled, perhaps, the asylum granted to Erich Honecker in the general’s own Chile, and who might one day be in need of similar services himself. At the very least, Pinochet’s arrest was unlikely to encourage the early retirement of present and future dictators. The country from which the extradition request issued-Spain-had not put a single official of its own recent (and much longer-lasting) dictatorship on trial. Good liberals, who normally decried as barbaric the principle of punishment, and saw in criminals only the victims of society, bayed for the general’s blood in advance of any judicial proceedings. There were no legalistic scruples about the proof required of Pinochet’s personal responsibility for what occurred during his regime. And while it held the general captive, Britain released scores of convicted terrorists who had committed crimes on its own soil, and refused to prosecute a woman who had for years been an atomic spy for the Soviets and who was only three years older than the general. Since he was a declared friend of Britain, it began to look as if his arrest were a typical act of modern British self-hatred as well as perfidy.
But there is a further puzzle in the whole affair: Why is Pinochet so much the most hated (at least by intellectuals) of all dictators of the second half of the 20th century? Why should he alone have suffered the humiliating fate of arrest and detention in a foreign country, at the behest of yet another foreign country? After all, in the bestiary of the past century, he was but a minor and insignificant creature, even if (as is unlikely) he were personally responsible for every cruelty committed in Chile while he was dictator. When South Africa recently refused to extradite the former Ethiopian ruler Mengistu back to his homeland, there was not a peep of protest, though all of Pinochet’s crimes could have been fitted into an afternoon of Mengistu’s rule, and the tortures practiced in Chile were but therapeutic procedures by comparison with what was done in Ethiopia. Even among the conservative Latin American military dictators, Pinochet was not the worst: For every liberal intellectual who froths at the mention of his name, how many are there who have even heard of Lucas Garcia of Guatemala, for example? And the generals of the Argentinean junta, whose record was certainly no better than Pinochet’s, are not hated-except in Argentina-with anything like the same venom. Why not?
There is an obvious explanation: Alone of the dictators, Pinochet was stunningly successful. He found his country an economic disaster and left it a beacon whose light shone well beyond the confines of Latin America. It drew students of success from all over the world. It was more prosperous than it had been in all its previous existence.
Worse still, Pinochet had effected this change by following-more or less, with one or two detours en route-policies that were exactly the opposite of those that liberal intellectuals had been advocating for decades, and which arrogated to themselves roles of primary importance. He proved by his country’s success that there was no such thing as imperialism holding Third World countries back: that their manacles were largely self-forged, and that the best thing governments of such countries could do for their economic welfare was to get out of the way. A mere army general — of the kind usually contemptuously referred to as a gorilla (as distinct from the much-admired guerrilla) — had achieved in a few years what untold numbers of liberal intellectuals had been unable to achieve anywhere in the world over much longer periods.
This was a terrible wound to the liberal intellectuals’ self-regard. If they weren’t needed for Third World solidarity committees, what were they needed for? Indeed, Pinochet’s regime had proved not only that such intellectuals had no providential role to play in the salvation of Third World countries — such as they expected to play while Allende ruled Chile — but that they represented an obstacle to be overcome on the path to economic development. Pinochet was thus an existential reproach to them.
Had his regime confined itself to torturing and “disappearing” its opponents while the country staggered from economic crisis to economic crisis, Pinochet would have been the object of mild theoretical reproach, but not of the strident and emotional obloquy that leads to demonstrations outside embassies. It was his achievements, not his faults, that were so hated.
None of this applies, of course, to Chileans who hate Pinochet because a relative, friend, or acquaintance was tortured or disappeared during his rule. It surely takes little imagination to see why they would hate him.
But if you read leftist literature on Chile (by no means a pleasure from the purely literary point of view), you will still never find an admission that the Left had any blameworthy part in Pinochet’s rise to power. It is never admitted that Allende openly espoused and admired an ideology that had by then not only suppressed all manifestations of freedom and prevented prosperity over a third of the globe’s land surface, but had killed scores of millions; or that his tactics, to use constitutional means to achieve unconstitutional ends, uncannily resembled Hitler’s.
To warm up the embers of Jack Straw’s student activism, the British taxpayer has now been landed with a bill of approximately $24 million. It is a lot to pay for the shallow gratification of a shallow man.