Commentary Magazine

What Happened in Chile?

To the Editor:

Elliott Abrams has written an engaging account of Chile’s transition to democracy [“‘The Gringos Are with Us,’” April]. But there is a crucial difference between what really happened from the Chilean side—and what the State Department believed happened from the Chilean side.

Mr. Abrams writes that General Augusto Pinochet was reluctant to give up power in 1988 after calling and losing a plebiscite wherein a “yes” vote would mean he stayed on as president for another eight years, with an elected Congress and reestablished civil and political liberties, and “no” would mean a new president would be elected. As the “no” votes rolled in, Mr. Abrams cited a U.S. embassy cable claiming that Pinochet had a plan to avoid giving up power. Mr. Abrams writes, however, that the pro-democracy Air Force commander General Fernando Matthei stopped him.

While I have no doubt that U.S. officials believed their informants, General Matthei himself has strongly denied this version of events. In a recent letter to Chile’s paper of record, El Mercurio, dated January 10, 2012, Matthei stated: “I can assure to my countrymen that there was never the slightest hesitation from President Pinochet or any member of the governing Junta to respect the results of the plebiscite and thus to comply strictly with what was commanded by the Constitution that we had proposed to the country.”

He further added: “I respect, regard, and appreciate all different opinions about such complex years, difficult and fraught with destiny for our country. But facts are facts, and I cannot but be true to my conscience and speak my truth.”

It should be noted that General Matthei, the only junta member still alive, remains highly regarded for his honesty in both the United States and Chile. (His daughter Evelyn Matthei is Chile’s minister of labor and a former senator.)

It is time to be fair to the exemplary Chilean transition process—established as of 1980 in that year’s constitution by President Pinochet, the junta, and the full Cabinet—and recognize that Pinochet did give up power willingly, quite contrary to the worried embassy reports cited by Mr. Abrams.

Monica Showalter
Los Angeles, California



To the Editor:

Elliott Abrams’s article “The Gringos Are with Us” contains a considerable number of errors.

To begin with, it must be made clear that General Pinochet did not take part in a “military coup.” Chile was, at that time, a Christian Democratic country, and Christian Democrats held a two-thirds majority. Unfortunately, in the 1970 elections for president, two Christian Democrat candidates split the vote, and, therefore, Salvador Allende, the left-wing candidate, won. Allende was the head of the Chile Communist Party, but because he had more charisma than the other candidates of the left, all the left-wing parties supported him. His rule was marked by repression, disappearances, torture, limits on freedom of speech and the press, and the destruction of the Chilean economy. Inflation reached 600 percent. Apart from this, gangs of Communist thugs roamed the country, grabbing land and killing people.

It is also untrue that the United States supported the coup. When Richard Nixon was president, White House conversations were taped, and a particularly noteworthy exchange was recorded between Nixon and Henry Kissinger. When Nixon asked Kissinger whether the Chilean coup had anything to do with the U.S., Kissinger said “no.” Pinochet not only destroyed the Communists, he transformed the Chilean economy from being weakened by inflation to the best and most admired economy in South America.

Then there is the question of the election in 1988. Mr. Abrams’s version of it is rather muddled. The fact is that in 1988 there was a free election, in which General Pinochet took part. By then, he had been in office for 15 years, and in the election he was asking for another term of eight years (against the opinion of his advisers), although the other candidates were only asking for a four-year term. Despite having been in power for 15 years, and asking for another eight, he received 43 percent of the vote. That is more than Mrs. Thatcher ever received. Since 1988, Chile has gone further and further to the left. That is no surprise.

D.P. Marchessini
London, England


Elliott Abrams writes:

I appreciate these comments but do not agree with them. Like Monica Showalter, I have a high regard for General Matthei, but I do not believe his 2012 statement that “there was never the slightest hesitation from President Pinochet…to respect the results.” Instead, I believe the contemporaneous accounts and believe that General Matthei (as my article recounts) told the press that night—before entering the presidential palace to see Pinochet—that the “No” vote had already won precisely because he understood he would face a man determined to prevent the “No” camp from winning. In other interviews, Matthei has claimed, “I was the man who stopped him” (see the Matthei interview in The General’s Slow Retreat: Chile After Pinochet by Mary Helen Spooner), and it is known that there was a good deal of resentment of Matthei in the Pinochet camp.

D.P. Marchessini is wrong on several counts. He writes that there really was no military coup in 1973 because Allende was a very bad guy. I agree that he was a very bad guy and think he should have been removed from office—by impeachment. It is obvious that very many Chileans supported the coup, but coup it was: Allende was not impeached, he was removed by the military. When I wrote that the United States “supported” the coup, I was correct: We were happy to accept it as a fait accompli. The United States did not stage the coup, but we certainly wanted Allende out.

Finally, in 1988 there was not a “free election” with Pinochet seeking another eight years and “other candidates” seeking four; Mr. Marchessini is not just “rather muddled” here but entirely incorrect. There was in 1988 a yes-or-no referendum on Pinochet’s continuing in office, and the free election came in 1989. As to Chile’s path thereafter, there have been two Christian Democrat presidents, two Socialists, and the incumbent Sebastian Pinera, a conservative and indeed the most conservative president since Pinochet. That’s called democratic politics, not going “further and further to the left.”

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