The arrest of Chile's counter-revolutionary general, Augusto Pinochet, and the approach of the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution bring into focus two celebrated battles of the Cold War, in which members of my generation took passionate sides. As one who went into these battles on one side and came out on another, I have mixed but ultimately clear emotions about this history and the events that shaped it.
Being in the left imbues one with a sense of having chosen the moral side in all such conflicts. Belonging to the camp of morality and progress becomes a kind of second nature, and compensates somewhat for the fact that most of these battles are necessarily lost. It used to be said among us that as revolutionaries we were destined to lose every battle but the last one. We did not join the progressive cause to support history's winners, but to stand up for its losers: The powerless, the victimized, the oppressed. Our political commitment was about weighing in on the side of social justice. It is a good feeling.
For this reason, when it came time to relinquish those political commitments, it was far easier to identify what was wrong with the left and to draw back from it than it was to move in the direction of the right and plant my feet on new political terrain. As a matter of fact, I withdrew from all politics for nearly 10 years before changing course.
As I was stepping back from the left, repelled by crimes that progressives had committed and catastrophes they had produced (it turned out that winning the "last" battle could be worse than losing), I had a nagging feeling about certain political events and historical figures associated with this past. One of the figures was Pinochet.
In our progressive version of this historical episode, we saw Chilean democracy as having produced a historical anomaly -- a Marxist actually elected to power. This Marxist, Salvador Allende, had even been allowed by the ruling forces to form a government and to begin a program of social reform. We knew, of course, that this could not last. Ruling classes never gave up their power without a fight. Sooner or later, there would be a counter-revolution, probably a military coup. The only question was when. In making this calculation, we had our eye on Washington, the capital, in our eyes, of the world imperialist system. In political statements we issued, we invoked the cautionary memory of the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA attempt to topple Fidel Castro in the second year of his revolutionary regime. This was the true face of American power, whose policies were orchestrated by multinational corporations with investment stakes in the third world. It was only a matter of time before their interests asserted themselves.
According to the script, the coup against Allende came in 1973. The regime was toppled and Allende committed suicide in the heat of the battle. The generals' coup was led by Pinochet, who became the nation's military dictator. Thousands of progressives were rounded up; 5,000 were executed. The military dictatorship was made permanent. Chile's democracy was dead.
We knew that, of course, the CIA was behind these events. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger could not tolerate another revolutionary example in the hemisphere. The International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT) had big investments, and its influence reached far into the Nixon administration and the American intelligence community. It was all straight out of Lenin.
Even though I had already defected from the left, I did not want to be any part of such developments. It was one thing to reject the left; it was quite another to embrace what appeared to be this kind of right -- one that trampled over defenseless people, making their lives even more miserable than they had been. Nor was there any particular reason for me to do so. It was perfectly possible for me to have concluded that the schemes of the left were utopian and could result in great social disasters and grotesque crimes without jumping to the opposite conclusion that the sadism of military dictators was a proper or even preferable alternative.
Another reflex familiar in the thought patterns of progressives like myself was to avert one's eyes from bad news when it came from the left. Too much was at stake in each revolutionary enterprise, which was really a harbinger of human possibility. The enemies of promise would use every socialist failing to kill the socialist dream, and thus hope itself. For this reason, I was paying as little attention as I could to the fate of the revolution that inspired Allende and the Chilean left. This was Castro's revolution in Cuba, which also had been one of the primary inspirations for the American new left, but for many years had been going from bad to worse. I was not unaware that Cuba was having problems, but I ascribed them mainly to the machinations of the two evil empires -- Washington and Moscow.
At the end of the '70s, however, I saw a documentary film about Castro's revolution made by Cuban filmmaker Nestor Almendros, who had left the island in 1963. Almendros was an Academy Award-winning cinematographer whose credits included "Sophie's Choice," "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Days of Heaven." His documentary about Cuba was called "Improper Conduct," and it focused on the Cuban government's treatment of homosexuals as a metaphor for its treatment of all social and political deviance. It was a stunning indictment of what the revolution had become. One scene that conveyed its power was an on-camera interview of a black Cuban exile on a street in New York's Harlem. The exile was a flamboyant homosexual, in his early 20s, dressed in a tangerine satin shirt open to the sternum and white flared trousers. The interviewer asked him whether he liked the freedom he had found in America and in Harlem. With a broad smile, he answered he did. The interviewer asked why. He said, "I am free here. In Cuba I could be arrested just for being dressed like this, and put in jail for six months." The interviewer said: "How many times were you arrested?" The Cuban answered: "17."
This was not a political person. This was one of those ordinary Cubans on whom history was inflicted, and with it the drama that socialist intellectuals had created. If this was what the revolution represented to a Cuban like him, what did that say about the ideals to which I had been so devoted? The island now had a lower per capita income than in 1959, when Castro took power. The political prisons were full. Hundreds of thousands had fled. Hundreds of thousands more were waiting to flee. Castro had turned Cuba into a national prison.
Ten years after I saw Almendros' film, an election was held in Chile. Pinochet was ending his military rule and restoring Chilean democracy. A national referendum, authorized by Pinochet, would be held to pronounce judgment on his own regime. Even the left would have the right to field a candidate. Pinochet had always justified his military regime as a temporary measure -- in much the same way that Castro had defended the revolutionary dictatorship. It was necessary to defend the regime, restore stability and create the economic foundations of a true democracy.
Under the 15 years of Pinochet's rule, Chile had prospered so greatly that it was dubbed the "miracle economy," one of the two or three richest in Latin America. It provided a stark contrast to Castro's achievement. In 1959 Cuba had been the second richest economy in Latin America, but in the 25 years since had become one of the three poorest. While Pinochet was holding his referendum, Castro was approached by socialists in Europe to hold a similar election that would create a democratic regime in Cuba. He refused.
The results of Pinochet's referendum were instructive. If Pinochet had won, he would have become the new president of a democratic Chile. But Chileans rejected Pinochet and elected a more moderate candidate who was not of the left. True to his word, Pinochet stepped down. His dictatorship had indeed been a temporary measure to restore Chile's stability, prosperity and democracy.
These developments prompted me to take another look at the events that had taken place after Allende's election and his attempt to institute radical programs that led to a mini-civil war and the coup. I had long since become suspicious of the idea that the CIA was a kind of deus ex machina that explained this result. The CIA surely had a finger in the pot, but it had become clear over time that there were real limits to what the CIA could accomplish. It had not, for example, been able to overthrow Castro despite 30 years of trying. It could not even oust the Marxist dictator of a mini-state like Granada, or a drug lord in its own employ like Panama's Manuel Noriega. These removals required military invasions. And Chile was not a tiny island or an isthmus nation but a relatively large country, with a long-standing democratic tradition.
An article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal shortly after Pinochet's recent arrest summarizes what I discovered: "Salvador Allende reached the presidency of Chile in 1970 with only 36 percent of the vote, barely 40,000 votes ahead of the candidate of the right. In Mr. Allende's 1,000 days of rule, Chile degenerated into what the much-lionized former Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva (father of the current president) called a 'carnival of madness' ... The Chilean Supreme Court, the Bar Association and the leftist Medical Society, along with the Chamber of Deputies and provincial heads of the Christian Democrat Party, all warned that Allende was systematically trampling the law and constitution. By August 1973, more than a million Chileans -- half the work force -- were on strike, demanding that Allende go. Transport and industry were paralyzed. On Sept. 11, 1973, the armed forces acted to oust Allende, going into battle against his gunslingers. Six hours after the fighting erupted, Allende blew his head off in the presidential palace with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro."
Forty years of history have left us with this perspective on two regimes. Castro bankrupted his country, tyrannized its inhabitants and is now the longest ruling dictator in the world. Pinochet presided over his own ruthless dictatorship for 15 years, created a booming economy and restored democracy to Chile. If one had to choose between a Castro and a Pinochet, from the point of view of the poor, the victimized and the oppressed, the choice would not be difficult. As an American conservative, however, I don't even have to do that. It was Chileans, not Henry Kissinger or Richard Nixon, who made the real decision to put Pinochet in power. Unlike the American left, which passionately supported Fidel Castro and denied the realities of the oppressive state, the American right's sympathies for Pinochet were muted, and did not involve blindness to the stringencies of his rule. In short, Pinochet's dictatorship does not compromise any conservative expectations in the way that Castro's dictatorship compromises the visions of the left.
Imprisoning Pinochet on a foreign trip to seek medical help is one of those bad ideas of progressives that will come back to bite them. Consider the prospect for Castro when he ventures abroad for parallel reasons. Yet, on second thought, perhaps the idea does work from a partisan perspective. Because what made Pinochet vulnerable to this kind of arrest is that he had voluntarily retired from his dictatorial regime. There is no danger of Castro doing that.