Pinochet's failure to reunite Chile

The strongest indictment against Gen. Augusto Pinochet is his failure to reunite Chile, despite ruling longer and more absolutely than any other president.

Most Chileans condoned the bloody 1973 coup that ousted President Salvador Allende as the only way to avert a civil war. Pinochet promised peace, progress, and unity to a polarized nation that had been traumatized by hyper-inflation and violent street fighting. And he won a clear mandate in a controlled plebiscite in 1980 by offering Chileans an ingenious choice: the continuation of his authoritarian dictatorship until at least 1989 or a return to the chaos of Marxism.

In addition to the gross and systematic violation of human rights - without precedent in Chile - it is obvious that major policies and programs of the junta have been divisive, especially the free-market model, the Labor Plan, and the appointment of military officers to run the universities. Pinochet's relations with the Roman Catholic Church are very fragile: The police have repeatedly raided parishes, priests have been expelled, and many bishops have issued excommunication decrees for torturers that are aimed directly at members of the armed forces and security services. Since the 1973 coup, the church has been a strong, articulate critic of the government on human rights violations and the deprivations of the poor.

Pinochet's attitude toward his opposition, particularly his harsh repression of peaceful dissent, has also sowed division in a people who have enjoyed considerable freedom and equality for almost 150 years by playing politics the English way: majority rule but respect for the loyal opposition. Critics of the junta complain that reconciliation is impossible as long as only Pinochet supporters are considered ''good'' Chileans. According to a former minister of interior: ''Respect for the right to disagree is the basis of an orderly society , as well as respect for the adversary without calling him a traitor, conspirator, or a foreign agent.''

Reconciliation has also been hampered by unfair rules of the free-market game that have widened income disparities to a degree common throughout Latin America but rare in Chile, despite Pinochet's commitment to a ''new democracy'' based on an equitable sharing of the burdens and benefits of development without privileges for any group. The rich became richer while most Chileans received a smaller slice of the pie, even during the 1976-80 economic boom.

The social cost of post-1973 economic policies has been borne disproportionately by poor families, whose real wages plummeted while unemployment rates reached 30 percent. The living standards of many middle-income groups have also declined because of sharply reduced purchasing power. Professionals have been hurt by the drop in real salaries, and very low tariffs together with high interest rates, restricted credit, and an overvalued peso have weakened the competitiveness of many small and medium manufacturers and exporters. The government's economic team, the University of Chicago's disciples of Milton Friedman, hailed the record bankruptcies of recent years as a healthy weeding out of incompetent competitors.

On the other hand, the base of Pinochet's civilian support has been a small elite of conglomerates - known as the economic groups or piranhas - who were encouraged by the Chicago boys to exploit the free-market model. An oligarchy of a few families based in banks, industry, and commerce purchased at bargain prices many key firms nationalized by the Allende administration. And they reaped huge profits on the spread between low-interest loans from foreign banks and usurious real rates of interest as high as 50 percent paid by Chilean borrowers.

Almost all Chileans, including President Pinochet, blame the economic groups for much of the country's worst depression since the 1930s. Opposition political and labor leaders and Catholic bishops accuse the piranhas of ransacking the nation by greedy speculation and fraudulent practices, and mortgaging future generations with an enormous external and domestic debt while flaunting a hedonistic consumerism previously unknown in Chile, amid proliferating soup kitchens, street peddlers, and beggars.

For an American who has known Chile since 1949, when I spent a year there on a study and research fellowship from the Department of State, the most depressing aspect of the current crisis is the loss of certain moral values and traits during the chaotic Allende administration and the repressive Pinochet regime. For almost 150 years, peace, tranquillity, and stable parliamentary government flourished in Chile because of the homogeneity, solidarity, and spirit of consensus and common well-being (bienestar comun) of its people. Today , however, these qualities are disintegrating and Chile is destroying itself.

The absence in Chile of an indigenous, semi-servile class gave this country a distinctive national character that differentiated it markedly from its neighbors. Among the peoples of Hispanic America, it was the Chilean who emerged into independence with the most national unity. And this is the most important sociological factor in the country's historic evolution.

When the astute Lord Bryce walked the streets of Europe 70 years ago, he confessed his inability to identify the nationalities of Latin Americans, except Chileans, whom he recognized immediately. In his classic ''South America: Observations and Impressions,'' Lord Bryce noted that Chile was the most united country in the region.

This was a unique tribute to a homogeneous people with a very strong sense of national identity and purpose. Chile siempre, todos uno.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.