- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s death leaves me with mixed emotions. Over a span of decades and continents, our lives intersected, beginning when I first went up to Oxford in 1973. The red and black brick wall on the north side of Keble College was painted with white letters three feet high and half a block long reading “CIA — Hands Off Chile!” The September coup that launched Gen. pinochet’s 17-year rule was then barely a few weeks old.

In my second year at Oxford, I met a barmaid at a pub. She told me she was living with a Chilean exile dying for Spanish-speaking company and invited me to dinner. It was the first of many enjoyable weekends at their thatched-roof cottage on the outskirts of Oxford, where we played chess and drank brandy, and talked politics and culture through the night.

My host was an artist who had been rounded up by the Chilean military and held in the notorious National Stadium after Gen. Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Because his political offenses were relatively minor, he was offered exile. Thousands were not so lucky. They simply disappeared, executed by government-sponsored death squads and buried in mass graves in Chile’s remote Atacama Desert.

Before Gen. Pinochet’s coup, Chile had one of the oldest and most stable democracies in South America. Salvador Allende, a Marxist, had been popularly elected. At the height of the coup, with Chilean planes bombing the presidential palace, Allende killed himself. He used a gun Fidel Castro had given him.

In 1988, Gen. Pinochet agreed to a national referendum on whether he should remain in power until 1997, or restore Chile’s democracy. Gen. pinochet lost. In the early 1990s, as an official guest of the Chilean government, I stood at the spot where Allende died. The political consulting firm I worked with had helped create the advertising campaign that lead to Gen. pinochet’s ouster. The 17-year electoral hiatus had left the Chileans hungry for knowledge, and I was invited to lecture to political parties on how to compete in the age of mass media. When Socialist Patricio Aylwin was elected president, I was hired by the Chilean Foreign Ministry to promote trade between the United States and Chile, an effort that lead eventually to the U.S.-Chilean Free Trade Agreement.

Gen. Pinochet was anti-democratic, corrupt and criminal in his violation of human rights. Yet he also laid the foundation for Chile’s emergence as one of Latin America’s success stories, where economic growth and social equity have progressed jointly. When the time came for him to relinquish power, he did so in an orderly way which eased Chile’s return to democracy.

Few dictators know how to make a graceful exit. I lived in Spain under the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. While at Oxford in the ‘70s, I studied Spain’s transition to democracy as it unfolded. Like Gen. Pinochet, Gen. Franco was also odious to anyone who genuinely loves liberty and respects humanity. But, like Gen. pinochet, Gen. Franco was also admirable for planning a democratic political transition at the end of his rule.

One of the great lessons of this decade is the difficulty of replacing colonial or dictatorial rule with democracy. As we are painfully learning in Iraq, it is not simply a matter of ousting a dictator and installing democracy. The societal transformation that makes democracy tenable calls for much more than a mere change of regime. Chile and Spain represent contemporary examples of successful transitions, but history also offers grave examples of failed efforts.

India’s independence from British rule represents the opposite outcome, the end of authoritarian rule followed by chaos and disorder. Up to a million perished in sectarian fighting before the country was partitioned along religious lines between Pakistan and India. In ensuing decades, the two hatchlings of British imperialism fought several wars before grinding to the current nuclear standoff. Iraq, which lacks either a Gen. pinochet or a Franco to establish order all the while planning an eventual transition to democracy, may face a similar fate.

And so I am conflicted over Gen. pinochet’s passing. I don’t really believe in benevolent dictatorships, I reject the idea that the ends justify the means and I think it is false mathematics that curtailing freedom or sacrificing the lives of some yields a greater good for others. In short, I reject most of the justifications and rationalizations for authoritarianism, curbs on civil liberties, government spying on citizens, torture and war. But in the case of Chile, I can’t bring myself to completely reject the ironic notion that Gen. pinochet preserved Chile’s democracy.

Would Salvador Allende have willingly given up power if an election went against him? Or would he, like Fidel, have become president for life? It is a question I would love to explore with my Chilean friends today, over a late-night dinner and a bottle of brandy.

John B. Roberts II is an author and television producer. He served in the Reagan White House and as an international political consultant.

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