The Economist, 30.1.99
The Pinochet affair: Blackwashing Allende
While the Law Lords in Britain pore over the disputed legalities of extraditing Augusto Pinochet, the allegations of atrocities by his regime are - unsurprisingly - little disputed there. So his supporters have adopted a new tactic: whitewash the general by blackening the president he overthrew in 1973, Salvador Allende.
General Pinochet's first notable British supporter was Margaret Thatcher. Soon after his arrest in October, she argued - indisputably - that he had been a good friend to Britain in its 1982 Falklands war with Argentina. But right-wing support, exemplified in a pamphlet by one of her former aides that was put out on the Internet last week, has since gone much further.
The Pinochet campaigners argue that Allende, who died (probably by his own hand) in the coup, was at least presiding over, and more likely conspiring in, preparations for a Marxist seizure of total power. A sub-text has Allende, in conspiracy with Fidel Castro, training terrorists for revolution not just in Chile but in Latin America. So General Pinochet, who seized power first, had to be tough, didn't he?
That's the mild version. There is a much fiercer one: as one apologist wrote to the conservative Daily Telegraph, the general's methods "were regrettably harsh, but no worse than Allende's". That is a big claim: in Chile, only the furthest right seriously questions the conclusions of the truth commission set up after the general left power in 1990 that under his regime - mainly in its early years - some 2,000 political opponents were killed and thousands more tortured. Was Allende really just as bad?
In law, neither version could exonerate General Pinochet. A regime fully in control - as his was within months of seizing power - cannot excuse its atrocities on the ground that its predecessors were equally ruthless. But politically such arguments carry weight. If they are true.
Are they? Is it true, for instance,
Allende, elected in 1970 with only 36.5% of the vote, and unable to impose total Marxism legally, was actively preparing a left-wing coup, conspiring to train guerrillas and letting them stockpile arms even in presidential buildings for the purpose?
He had set up terrorist training camps, under KGB, Cuban and North Korean experts, that would have made Chile "the major terrorist base for Latin America"?
There were - as a former minister under Lady Thatcher wrote last month in Britain's Times - 17,000 Cubans in Chile?
"As the media seem to have forgotten," according to the spin-doctor masterminding the pro-Pinochet campaign in Britain, "there were atrocities on both sides"? Were the torture and killing of opponents, certainly practised by the Pinochet regime, also used by Allende's government?
The main, though not only, source of the new pro-Pinochet pamphlet is a "white book on the change of government" rushed together by the general's regime in the weeks after his coup. Both works paint a Chile awash with foreign - notably, Cuban - extremists and their Marxist followers with large stocks of Soviet-block weaponry. (Not least in the presidential palace and residence. The white book details a veritable armoury, of everything up to anti-tank guns, allegedly found there. It is a fearsome list - if it is genuine.)
The book also includes "Plan Z ", a document supposedly found in the desk of a communist former under-secretary for the interior. It sets out a plan for the murder of the armed forces' high command at a presidential banquet, a left-wing seizure of power and then the elimination of opposition figures. But did "Plan Z " really exist? The pamphlet says "its authenticity has not been disputed." That is untrue.
A disenchanted ex-CIA agent, Philip Agee, was soon to argue that the document might have been a CIA fake. In Chile today many question it, even some admirers of the Pinochet regime. How come, they wonder, that little more was heard of such a monstrous conspiracy, once "Plan Z " had played its part in discrediting Allende?
The "terrorist training camps" - though, surprisingly, not their Soviet or North Korean instructors - figure large in the pamphlet. So they did in the white book. One such, allegedly, was sited at an out-of-town presidential residence. Chileans from the left of the spectrum this week told The Economist there were more than half-a-dozen camps, of varying quality: two run by the MIR, a revolutionary-left movement, were serious enough. Chile's ex-president (and the father of its present one), Eduardo Frei, thinking of these and the alleged weapons stocks, wrote, after the Pinochet coup, of "the creation of a parallel army". The training, says one ex-trainee, was less military (and pretty basic at that) than ideological. Whether "terrorist" is fair is uncertain; that the aim was to export terror not even the pamphlet claims.
The 17,000 Cubans - in one popular version, 17,000 armed Cubans - remind one of the soldiers allegedly sent by tsarist Russia to Britain during the first world war: no one saw them land, no one saw them sail away, but they were seen marching through Scotland, their Russian origin betrayed by the snow on their boots. Certainly these Cubans must have slid away craftily, their boots doubtless crusted with tobacco: the military regime just after seizing power claimed there had been 13,000 foreigners (by now they have become "foreign extremists") illegally in the country when it took over. Of that total, 9,600 were from Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay.
The real sting of the Pinochet-Allende comparison, though, is that of political torture and murder. Grant that people get beaten up in police stations, under all regimes, worldwide, did Allende's regime use political torture? The Economist has spoken to people who say it happened to them. But no records, or even claims, suggest anything like the scale proven against the military regime.
As to killings, any comparison of Allende to that regime is quite simply false. The new pamphlet, citing the old white book, records 96 "political" deaths, on right and left, during the Allende years. Hardly any, except a few during a minor mutiny in mid-1973, can be (or were) blamed on the official forces. In contrast, the pamphlet admits 1,261 such deaths - 82 among the armed forces - in the few months after the coup. The pamphlet ascribes this to "bitter and brutal" fighting during a left-wing revolt. The 1,261 died, it says, "in the course of the struggle."
They did not. It would be an odd urban struggle in which "well trained, highly armed" extremists lose more than a dozen men for every one they kill. In fact, as many have related who were merely held or tortured there, most of the deaths occurred in the national stadium in Santiago, where real or alleged enemies of the new order were held, to be singled out by masked informers, often for immediate execution. And that still leaves at least 800 later deaths under the regime, when it was in total control, to be accounted for. Or whitewashed?
For further evidence, go to a source of the time: The Economist, non-Chilean but firmly critical of Allende and what its then Chile specialist was later to entitle his savagely critical book, "Chile's Marxist Experiment". That title was in fact overblown. Allende's economics were, approximately, Marxist and certainly disastrous. Not so the political system he ran. The opposition press and parties carried on. So did elections, and even in March 1973 the regime could win only 44% of the vote for Congress. Still, this paper was deeply suspicious, and the more so - in those days of raging cold war - because of Allende's friendship with Fidel Castro.
Twice it sent its specialist for long visits. He wrote a six-page report in March 1972, one of five pages in October 1973, a month after the coup. The second time, our man clearly had free access to the regime and its evidence against Allende. But even in 1972 he talked widely to enemies of the Allende government. Both his reports damned it. Both produced mild versions of some charges now laid against Allende: for instance (1973), of Cubans training his personal guard, or guerrillas "tolerated" by the government, (though the actual ones our reporter met were a fairly hopeless, partly Amerindian group, more like Mexico's Zapatists than the strike force of revolution). But what did this ferocious critic of Allende's regime say of its now alleged political tortures or killings? Not a word.