The Last Act

Sometime early in the 1990s Vice President Dan Quayle invited me to lunch at his residence in Washington. The purpose was to discuss his upcoming visit to Latin America, which included the task of representing the United States at the inauguration of Chile’s new president, Patricio Aylwin.

Quayle was a more serious person than often depicted in the media, and he was genuinely concerned about the possible impact of his visit to Chile. As he was aware that I had some knowledge of that country, he sought me out. He said to me, “The State Department says I have to visit General Pinochet the day before the ceremonies. What shall I say to him?”

I replied, “There’s no point in reading him lessons on human rights. He’s already heard them before, and he’ll just turn off his hearing aid. Instead, tell him, ‘Well done, general! Mission accomplished!’ But then be sure to add: 'But your position in Chile history depends on what happens now.'" To judge by the press reports, the vice president followed my advice. And so--for reasons of his own--did General Pinochet.

The success of the Chilean transition to democracy owes much to many forces and individuals--not to mention a democratic political culture that preceded and survived the dictatorship--but the general’s willingness to step down to power after his defeat in the 1988 plebiscite was an indispensable factor.

The subsequent success of Chile--not only in economics but in politics, culture and international affairs--redounded to the credit of the general, possibly in spite of himself. At the very least, the sustained economic growth the country has experienced would be inconceivable with him. In recent years, many people had begun to think of someone who, whatever his crimes might have been, was driven by a profound (if sometimes perverted) sense of patriotism, a kind of loony integrity, a firm devotion to his country.

That was before last week. Now we know that, like other Latin American dictators, he considered absolute power an opportunity to enrich himself and his family. There can be no satisfactory explanation for the discovery of a patrimony of as much as $12 million in Washington banks, even taking into account a lifetime of service as an officer in the armed forces and sixteen years as chief of state. The fact that this information came to light by accident, as a result of an investigation by a U.S. Senate subcommittee, makes things look even worse for him. Unlike the Garzón affair, no one can say that this is part of a dark plot by the international left to punish the general for overthrowing the Allende regime.

These revelations can only have a devastating impact on the general’s place in Chilean history.

Nonetheless, they can also have a positive impact in other areas. It will underscore that--as President Lagos has said--“no one in Chile is above the law.” This commitment has historically separated (and sadly, continues to separate) Chile from its neighbors. It will also invite the armed forces to reaffirm its historic commitment to professionalism and respect for the Constitution.

More important still, it will liberate the Chilean Right from what remains of the authoritarian temptation and permit it to become the modern political force that it has the potential to be. Successful democracies require the alteration of different political forces in power, discussion, debate, and genuine political competition.

Unfortunately, in Latin America even genuinely popular forces have been attracted historically to monopolies of power of one sort or another. In the case of Chile, at some point in the future the current Christian Democrat-Socialist coalition will lose an election to a unified Right-wing list. Just as it was important that the Socialist Party divested itself of its Trotsko-anarchist baggage before it could be trusted to govern again, the country would benefit from a Right which has severed all connections with pinochetismo.

In truth, this process has been underway for some time now, but the events of last week will doubtless accelerate it. Such would be a happy outcome to something that in other ways constitutes a sad final act for the most important Chilean personality of the century just completed.

Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar at AEI.

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