By Rodrigo Acuña
20 December 2006
It is a truism that all evaluations of history are tainted by one’s vision of how the world should work. Another truism is that a lack of primary sources can often leave certain grey areas in the historical record.
Sometimes, however, events or eras are roughly clear and some degree of consensus is achieved.
General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile (1973–1990) is one such case. In particular, the illegitimacy of his regime and its vast human rights violations against anyone broadly on the political Left or who opposed his regime. Most serious Latin American studies scholars and journalists would agree that Pinochet brutally overthrew a government which, despite many faults, was democratically and legitimately elected.
Dissent from a consensus, of course, always exists and on 15 December, The Australian published a strange article by James Whelan, a neo-conservative journalist who for many years has written works which present the Pinochet era in a favourable light. Whelan’s piece was revisionism of the worst kind.
My initial reaction to Whelan’s article was that it was not worthy of a reply. Not only was it the voice of a vociferous neo-con (Whelan occasionally writes on Latin America for Online Human Events which comes recommended by the likes of ex-US President Ronald Regan and the corrupt Colonel Oliver North), his piece was filled with many factual errors and omissions.
Given that a minimal amount of research could have discovered these errors, the publication of such a piece led me to two conclusions: either the editorial standards at The Australian are rather poor or it believes in publishing apologists for State terror who have fertile imaginations.
Whelan’s arguments are quite simple: President Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) Government which was overthrown by Pinochet’s military coup on 11 September 1973 was committed to "ending the bourgeois democratic State", it "plunged Chile into a hell-on-earth chaos", and it was General Pinochet and his policies who saved the country.
Although he concedes without "the slightest doubt" that there were "abuses" under the General’s rule, the "overwhelming majority of the dead and missing were, in fact, either outright terrorists or those who were sheltering, financing and supporting them".
"A war on terror tends to be a dirty war", comments Whelan.
Whelan’s first point is quite simple to disprove. The Allende Government acted within the Chilean Constitution and there was no real indication that it wanted to replace Chile’s multi-party system with a Soviet, Cuban or any other totalitarian style of government. In Valparaíso on 4 February 1971, in a challenge to Socialist Party Secretary Carlos Altamirano Ortega, Allende stated that:
'We have said that the transformation and changes are going to be made within bourgeois democracy. And if comrade Altamirano reckons that we ought to go faster, I say to him that we are not going to go faster.'
Dr James Levy — honorary fellow at the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of New South Wales — argues that Allende’s UP Government acted within the Constitution and that, "No one has ever proved anything to the contrary."
He adds that many of the Allende Administration’s programs were, in fact, a continuation of the policies of the previous Christian Democrat Government of Eduardo Freí (1964–1970). Levy states:
'The nationalisation of Chilean copper, for example, followed on Frei’s ‘Chileanisation’ of copper; the agrarian reform program was initiated under the Christian Democrats and the Minister responsible was retained by the Allende regime to push it forward; the mobilisation of the impoverished barrios [slums] likewise began under the Christian Democrats — and I could go on.'
Given the various successes of the Allende Government in improving the lives of the poor, it was the Chilean Right (with a little help from their friends at the Central Intelligence Agency) who created an atmosphere of turmoil. This ranged from pursuing the impeachment of Allende by legal means, hoarding food and funding strikes which stopped production, to assassinating members of the military who were loyal to the Constitution and were not willing to be Washington’s lackeys.
Whelan’s article mentions none of these facts. Likewise, it was inconvenient for him to recall that, after more than two years in power, the UP won 44 per cent of the popular vote in the March 1973 Chilean Congressional elections — up from 36 per cent in 1970 and one of the largest increases by an incumbent government in Chilean history.
Washington had literally declared an economic war on Chile which had devastating consequences but, once Chile’s political right and the US’s Nixon Administration realised that the Allende Government was not going to crumble, nothing was left but to find a man willing to betray the Constitution and carry out a coup.
One of Whelan’s biggest errors was to say that the Pinochet regime was engaged in a war against terrorists thus de-legitimising the majority of victims of the Pinochet era. In the majority of cases, these victims’ only crime was belonging to a trade union, a left-wing political party or simply having voted for Allende.
According to Associate Professor Barry Carr, Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at La Trobe University, Whelan’s arguments are "typical of [those run during] the dictatorship" — noting that he hasn’t heard them for "20 years". Carr, who is one of Australia’s most internationally respected scholars on Latin America, agrees that there were terrorists in Chile at the time but, he says, they "worked for a vast network of State terrorism which was created by the Pinochet Government".
In 2005, the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture appointed by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos handed down the second part of its report. Whelan claims that the Commission’s figures on torture were "frivolous" — as if that Commission was the only one to have recorded the testimonies of the dictatorship’s victims. Giving a gross figure for the current Chilean Government’s annual reparations to victims of the military regime of $254 million, Whelan ignores that for most victims this boils down to a pension of 112,000 Chilean Pesos ($230–260) a month, which is less than Chile’s minimum wage of 135,000 pesos per month.
And according to Margarita Durán Gajardo — a Chilean human rights activist based in Santiago with the Committee of Human Rights — there are many tens of thousands of people whose claims are still being processed by the judicial system.
In Carr’s view, one of the only reasons why an article like Whelan’s would attempt to "seriously re-write history", is that "in the past few years the neo-cons have not been doing too well in Latin America — hence this vilification of a moderate government like that of Allende". Whelan, according to Carr, is also attempting to present Pinochet as one of the first warriors against terrorism — merging the Cold War into the War on Terrorism.
When asked to comment on Whelan’s article, a long-time human rights activist in the Chilean community, Gonzalo Parra — co-ordinator of the Chilean Popular and Indigenous Network — said it was a distasteful piece. He added:
'Contrary to the economic growth mentioned by Whelan, the reality is that the majority of Chileans continue to struggle on a daily basis against that very political and economic system that is the legacy of the Dictator — a system that puts Chile in the top 10 countries of drug abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, delinquency and unequal distribution of wealth.'
Pinochet supporters have long felt proud that the General, unlike his regional counterparts, was not corrupt. Some concede that he was brutal but at least he was 'clean'. Whelan goes as so far as to say that Pinochet’s opponents have proven 'nothing' in terms of his embezzling State funds.
In Carr’s view, the scholarship on this issue also proves the contrary — pointing to embarrassing documents, where Pinochet’s wife Lucía rebukes her husband for not having swindled enough on a particular deal. In March 2005, a US Senate investigation found that the General concealed more than $US13 million in dozens of secret bank accounts. The fact that Pinochet was not brought to trial on this issue, like his human rights record, is more a reflection of the poor state of judicial neutrality in Chile rather than the General’s innocence.
None of the points I have made are really new. The scholarship on the Allende Government, on Pinochet’s coup and his regime’s gross human rights violations is voluminous. A simple telephone call by The Australian to any of Australia’s respected Latin American Studies Departments could have de-legitimised Whelan’s claims.
I called Tom Switzer — Opinion Editor at The Australian — and asked him about his paper’s decision to run the Whelan article. He said that he had commissioned the piece, having run an article by Ariel Dorfman a few days earlier. The logic is, of course, simple: since Dorfman is a progressive Chilean writer and an ex-member of the Allende Government, The Australian has the right to publish someone like Whelan? Switzer conceded that Whelan’s views were a minority, outside of the scholarly consensus. However, according to Switzer, this has not stopped the paper from publishing in the past.
This is not an example of setting up a balanced debate, it’s a case of pretending a debate about the facts exists when it really doesn’t.
On 20 February, 2003, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked to comment on the morality of the United States’s role in the overthrow of the Allende Government. In a rare moment of honesty, Powell responded: "It is not a part of American history that we are proud of".
Likewise, The Australian should not be proud of publishing commentators like James Whelan who refuse to accept the existence of State terrorism.