The longtime (197390) dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, has died at age 91. For years he has been vilified by the left, the press, and the academy as the most despicable tyrant of the second half of the 20th century. But there's some serious competition for that title. For more rounded treatments, see this editorial in the Washington Post, this column by John O'Sullivan, and this blog post by David Frum.
All make the valid point that the president Pinochet ousted, Salvador Allende, was in the process of setting up something like an authoritarian communist government. Allende was elected in 1970 in a three-way race in which he got only 36 percent of the vote.
Under Chile's Constitution, the Congress then had to choose the winner, and it followed Chilean custom and voted for Allende as the candidate who received the most votes. The problem was that Allende was probably unacceptable to a clear majority of the voters. If there had been a runoff between the top two candidates, Allende would almost certainly have lost.
Once Allende got into office, he started ignoring the law and the Constitution. So there was about as good a case to be made for a coup as you could imagine. But, as the Post, O'Sullivan, and Frum in their different ways point out, no case for the 3,000-plus killings and the jailing and torture of political opponents that Pinochet was responsible for.
Both the Allende authoritarianism and the Pinochet dictatorship were exceptions to the generally democratic governance Chile has enjoyed since independencemore than any other Latin American nation. Moreover, Chile has been economically among the most successful Latin American countries. Allende set about to destroy Chile's economy; Pinochet revived it by free-market policies. He also, under pressure from the Reagan administration, allowed a referendum on his rule and, when his side lost, voluntarily left office in 1990. Since 1990, Chile has elected center-left presidents who have substantially followed Pinochet's free-market policies.
Friends who have lived in Chile tell me that, despite its admirable political heritage and economic success, it is a melancholy place. On a thin strip of land on the Pacific Coast, Chile seems a long way away from anywhere. It's apparently got one of the world's highest rates of consulting psychiatrists (Argentina, I'm told, is similar in this respect). I visited Chile in 1997 and found Santiago to be a very pleasant city, but it's perhaps a little claustrophobic: The Andes loom up over the skyline to the east and it's only about 50 miles to the gritty port of Valparaiso and the beach resort of Viña del Mar to the west. But the coastline extends 2,650 miles to the north and south.
I wonder whether this peculiar geography has had any effect on shaping Chile's national character.
Mickey Kaus has some interesting speculations inspired by British press reports that the U.S. government was surveilling Princess Diana when she died in August 1997. Weird. Evidently there will be an official report issued Thursday in London. Many Democrats screamed bloody murder when the New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency has been surveilling contacts between suspected al Qaeda terrorists abroad and persons in the United States. It will be interesting to see what their reaction will be if it turns out to be true that the U.S. government was surveilling Diana. Caution: As Kaus points out, the British tabloid press can be massively unreliable. On the few occasions when I've read the London tabloids, I have gotten the feeling that you couldn't write such stuff without getting drunk first.