Was General Augusto Pinochet, the 29th President of Chile who effectively ruled the nation between 1973 and 1990, a good guy?
He has become the man who has launched a thousand memes. During the rehabilitation of Marxism that has occurred in academia, the media and popular culture over the course of the last two decades, a cheeky retort by those with brains not addled by the great whitewashing of the Communist terror has been to remind those who believe their Marxist revolution to be inevitable that quite a few of their fellow travellers in Chile once believed the same.
Until September 11, 1973, that is.
Helicopter memes have proven a delightful antidote to the sometimes annoying, sometimes outright terrifying confidence of the modern extreme left that its eventual victory is unavoidable and predetermined by some pseudo-scientific law of history.
But was General Pinochet a “good guy”?
The short answer is no. The long answer is more complicated.
I speak with a certain authority most Australians lack in this matter. I have distant family members in Chile who were prominent amongst both the higher ranks of the military and the communist dissidents who were dismayed by the overthrow of their hero Allende.
Pinochet and those under his command are responsible for the straight-up extrajudicial murder of 3,000 people. You don’t get to be a “good guy” after you do that. That’s 3,000 families who waited without hope for their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters or brothers to come home. Thousands of children knowing daddy wasn’t ever going to hug them again. Thousands of mothers crying for the children they had raised from infancy, cut down in their prime without trial or charge. Those empty arms, those tears from innocents, those nights spent wondering in pain and fear. They count. They mean something.
No, you don’t get to be a “good guy” after that.
Yes, the vast majority of those who died had been poisoned in their minds by the disease of Marxism. Maybe there is no cure for this disease once it has taken root. Maybe these people couldn’t be saved. But the pain and suffering of their families still lies heavy on Pinochet’s record.
So Pinochet was not a “good guy”. But was he a necessary guy? Did he do the dirty work required to save his country? Were the pain and the killings unfortunate necessities required for a greater good?
To examine this you have to examine the world and Latin America at the time of the coup. It is difficult for moderns to imagine the context of this time, since the historians in our systems of higher education have downplayed so much of it in the historical consciousness. Much of the world then lay under Marxist tyranny or the fear of nuclear war provoked by ideological struggle. Most of the universities of the west had been corrupted from the inside by pro-Marxist academics. In the early seventies a large minority, perhaps even a majority, of western leftist thinkers still believed that some form of Communism would inevitably dominate the world.
In Latin America, the proxy battles between the United States, the Soviet Union and even in some cases Maoist China were fierce and bloody. The USSR in particular, stymied in its efforts in Europe by the West and in Asia by China, concentrated resources and diplomatic energy in America’s backyard, seeking to throw its superpower adversary off balance. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 had given the Soviets a base from which to send guerrillas, arms and resources to Marxist rebels across Latin America. In 1964, the Brazillian government of João Goulart (who, while not a Communist himself, was supported by the Brazilian Communist Party) was overthrown in a right-wing coup.
In Argentina, the socialist guerrilla group the Montoneros and the openly Maoist People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) engaged in kidnapping, assassination and urban terrorism in attempts to overthrow the government throughout the 60s and 70s.
In Venezuela, the Castro-backed Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) and the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) engaged in rural and urban guerrilla activities. This included hijacking a Venezuelan cargo ship, kidnapping Real Madrid soccer star Alfredo DiStefano, sabotaging oil pipelines, bombing a Sears Roebuck warehouse and bombing the United States embassy in Caracas. They also executed many officers, soldiers and civilians for not supporting them, before being suppressed by the government and forced into legality by the early 80s.
In Nicaragua, by the early 60s the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had begun its war against the sometimes insanely corrupt U.S-backed government of its country and would go on to overthrow the government in 1979, leading to a decade characterised by human rights abuses, mass executions and oppression of indigenous peoples.
Colombia, due to its tumultuous political history, was fertile ground for Marxist groups, with guerrillas from the 19th of April Movement (M-19), the The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) engaging in a bloody civil war from the 60s onward. This war, that continues on to today, has claimed around half a million lives with up to five million people forced to flee their homes.
In Uruguay, the Tupamaro Marxist guerrilla group engaged in political kidnappings, “armed propaganda” and assassinations, prompting ever-harsher crackdowns leading to an eventual coup in early 1973, justified almost entirely by the need to crush the group for good.
In 1965, in Peru, the Marxist Revolutionary Left Movement and the National Liberation Army (yes, they ran short of names pretty quickly) declared war on the government and, while they were defeated, they laid the foundations for the truly horrific Maoist group “Shining Path” that would come to prominence a decade later.
And that’s just naming the big groups. There were dozens of smaller Marxist rebel groups with or without Soviet and Maoist funding, all causing chaos in Latin America (and in the case of central America, more chaos than usual).
In Chile, the main Marxist group committing violence was called the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR). Yeah, I know, another one. No, Communists are not particularly creative with names. This MIR emerged in 1965 from various student organisations that had originally been active in the youth organisation of the Socialist Party and was made up of a coalition of orthodox Marxists, anarchists and Trotskyists.
In September 1967, MIR-led students from the University of Concepción (an industrial city about 500 km south of Santiago) attacked riot police who were trying to protect other officers seeking to arrest leftists who had destroyed a police vehicle. In response, MIR kidnapped one of the policeman and held him hostage. Christian Democrat and then Chilean president Eduardo Frei negotiated with MIR and agreed to drop charges against the leftists if the students would release their captive unharmed. Frei was a good guy. He didn’t want to take on the Marxists. He and the other good-guy centrists in his party just wanted a quiet life.
These actions by Frei and others like him did nothing to dissuade further violence. During 1968, MIR committed multiple acts of vandalism, intimidation and physical assaults on conservative and right-wing students and faculty members. Be you a teacher or a student, if you were right of centre at a university in Chile in the late 60s, you were in fear for your health or even your life.
On May Day 1969, fifteen MIR activists armed with knives took over the Bio Bio radio station in Concepción and transmitted a special broadcast calling for the locals to take up arms and overthrow the government. The next day, MIR activists operating in Concepción attacked the branches of National City Bank, the building of the La Patria newspaper and other local businesses they considered “oppressive”. In June, MIR kidnapped journalist Hernán Osses Santa María, editor of the newspaper Noticias de la Tarde, who had made the mistake of conducting in-depth reporting on the leftist violence in Concepción. In response, police surrounded the University of Concepción and forced the students to release their victim unharmed.
The Christian Democratic Party government, probably regretting their earlier leniency, took legal steps that essentially banned the MIR organisation. But it was too late. The police discovered that MIR had already set up at least two guerrilla training camps. Between August 1969 and September 1970, to finance their “revolution”, MIR carried out at least twelve armed robberies of banks and other businesses in the capital Santiago alone.
On 4 September 1970, Socialist Party candidate Salvador Allende won the presidency with a narrow plurality of 36.2%. MIR was immediately absolved of criminal charges, given an amnesty and the ban on the group was lifted, allowing MIR to operate openly.
That didn’t go well.
MIR immediately began a campaign of violence and intimidation again, this time branching out from the University campuses to carry out illegal “confiscations” of farms and businesses. They were more or less given free reign to assault outspoken conservatives, right-wingers and members of the public and security forces. According to police figures submitted to the Chilean senate, 1,458 farms were illegally occupied by MIR and similar groups between November 1970 and December 1971.
In November 1970, Antonia Maechel, owner of the La Tregua estate in the Panguipulli area, took her own life after being raped by leftist militants who had seized her property. On 6 February 1970, policeman Luis Merino Ferreira was killed in a clash with MIR militants. On 11 August 1970, MIR guerrillas killed policeman Luis Fuentes Pineda. On 21 September 1970, guerrillas shot and killed another policeman, Armando Cofré López, during a bank robbery in the suburb of Irarrázabal in Santiago. On 3 November 1970, yet another policeman, Luis Armando Cofré, was killed in a shoot-out with MIR guerrillas robbing a Banco Panamericano branch.
In April 1971, Juan Millalonco, a member of Christian Democratic Youth, was shot dead in Aysén by socialist militants and in Santiago, guerrillas killed 33-year-old Raúl Méndez Espinosa at his sweet shop for not paying protection money. Also in April, Rolando Matus was shot dead resisting the takeover of his farm in Pucón, and Jorge Baraona and Domitila Palma died resisting the takeover of their farms in southern Chile. On 24 May 1971, guerrillas committing a bank robbery killed policeman José Arnaldo Gutiérrez Urrutia and wounded two others. In June 1971, guerrillas killed Edmundo Perez Zujovic, a Christian Democrat and former interior minister. That same month, a Marxist guerrilla walked into police headquarters in Santiago with a submachine gun and killed three detectives before blowing himself up with dynamite. Also in June, another policeman was killed by MIR guerrillas in Concepción.
On 30 August 1972, yet another policeman, Exequiel Aroca Cuevas, was murdered by Marxist guerrillas in Concepción. On 27 February 1973, MIR guerrillas attacked the Llanquihue police station, shooting and wounding 10 officers. In March 1973, 16-year-old Germán Enrique González and 17-year-old Sergio Oscar Vergara, both members of the Christian Democrat Party, were killed while resisting the takeover of their farm. On 2 April 1973, MIR guerrillas operating in Santiago shot and killed a police detective, Gabriel Rodríguez Alcaíno. In May 1973, Mario Aguilar, a member of the right-wing Movimiento Patria y Libertad was gunned down by leftists in downtown Santiago.
On 27 July 1973, a farmer and member of the Christian Democrat Party, Jorge Mena, was surrounded by leftists and clubbed to death in Osorno. The next day, another farmer, Juan Luis Urrutia, died resisting the takeover of his land in Bulnes. On 30 July, MIR guerrillas aided by Brazilian Marxists killed Manuel Garrido, an employee of Paños Continental. On 29 August 1973, a Mexican Marxist shot and killed Second Lieutenant Héctor Lacrampette Calderón as the young army officer was waiting for a bus in Santiago. The next day, farm workers José Toribio Núñez and Celsa Fuentes died of horrific burns after being caught in a Marxist-orchestrated bomb blast targeting the pipeline between Santiago and Concepción.
And what was the response of the Allende government to this mass outbreak of violence from a group he himself had pardoned and legalised?
He nationalised the copper mines, invited Fidel Castro to visit and advise him, accepted the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union, turned a blind eye to MIR’s campaign of infiltration in the military and (according to KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin) began setting up a relationship between Chile’s and the USSR’s intelligence services. Meanwhile, MIR was talking about turning its guerrillas into a pro-Allende militia to replace the army and “complete” the revolution.
Perhaps its understandable Allende did nothing to restrain his violent supporters. After all, his nephew Andrés Pascal Allende was one of the MIR leaders and had been one of its first members. Gotta look after the family, don’t you know.
The end result was perhaps inevitable. A floundering economy, high inflation and the horror most normal people felt in response to the spectacle of Marxist guerrilla groups supportive of the president apparently committing murder and theft with government approval, was always going to come to a head eventually. In August 1973, the Chilean Supreme Court publicly complained about the government’s inability to enforce the law of the land. It was the beginning of the end for the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president.
Unsurprisingly, after having some of their members murdered including one beaten to death with clubs, the centrist Christian Democrats were no longer willing to continue their coalition with Allende. Little things like that do tend to get in the way of political wheeling and dealing. In conjunction with the right-wing National Party, they overwhelmingly passed a Chamber of Deputies resolution, 81–47, accusing Allende of attempting to implement a totalitarian socialist state and calling on the armed forces to intervene if Allende would not step down.
By complete chance, the brand new commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces (having only been appointed a month before) was Augusto Pinochet. As previously mentioned, General Pinochet was not a “good guy” like the previous Christian Democrats who had coddled the Marxist murderers. Not much of a “good guy” at all.
And the rest is history. The Chilean economic miracle, despite perhaps not being as wondrous as free market supporters would paint it, was still far superior to the direction Allende was heading. Thanks to the reforms implemented under Pinochet, Chile is today easily one of the richest countries in South America. His regime spilled blood and caused pain, but while it is always cold-hearted to try and compare suffering, the comparison between the outcomes he achieved and those of other regimes both socialist and otherwise needs to be made. Cuba, once one of the richest countries in Latin America, is today an economic wasteland, many of whose citizens have the unenviable choice of fleeing or working for low wages in tourism or for slightly higher ones in the burgeoning sex industry. Venezuela is a mess of titanic proportions, with the residents of what should be the wealthiest and most resource-rich nation on the continent reduced to killing zoo animals for food as millions flee.
From Tierra del Fuego to southern Mexico, the legacy of Marxist governments, guerrillas and revolutionaries has been oceans of blood, wrecked countries, tortured bodies and a continent ripped apart. Even when coups did stop the rise of Marxism, they failed to do so with as little bloodshed as Pinochet. In Argentina, a coup in 1976 to stop a Communist uprising led to the infamous “Dirty War” in which around 30,000 people simply disappeared. By comparison, Pinochet is almost a saint. Yet because he succeeded economically where all their theories said he would fail, Western Leftists still curse his name while forgetting the far more grievous crimes of his near neighbours. But again, “killing less people” doesn’t make you a “good guy”.
The “Helicopter” memes still being used to trigger Marxists online today are far more applicable to Argentina than to Chile, yet the focus persists in the minds of the Western left of the demon in the General’s cap. I guess in their nightmares, some of them must still hear rotary winged aircraft in the distance. Bless their hearts.
So, no. General Augusto Pinochet was not a “good guy”. But if there is justice, history may yet see him as the Necessary Man. Sometimes being a good guy isn’t enough.