How Pinochet turned Chile into a globally admired model of authoritarian capitalism

Anti-Soviet, authoritarian, pro-market. The self-professed ‘father of the Chilean model’ as official guest in Deng Xiaoping’s China.

Tobias Rupprecht
University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @Tobepastpresent

Augusto Pinochet was an avid global traveller throughout the 1990s. A potent symbol of Cold War anti-Soviet authoritarianism and market radicalism, the former military ruler of Chile usually made a great stir during his trips across Latin America, East Asia, Southern Africa, continental Europe, and to the United Kingdom. In a recent article in Global Society, I assess the public reactions, political debates, and legal consequences that Pinochet’s appearances caused. Scholars of Pinochet’s international perception have for the most part focussed on his criminal reputation among human rights activists and the victims of military rule in Chile. Yet, many pro-market reformers and anti-Communists in countries transitioning from socialism to capitalism did not see Pinochet as a criminal dictator of the Cold War. Margaret Thatcher also had a soft spot for him. For them, his economically successful ‘Chilean model’ had become a source of legitimacy for an authoritarian path of modernisation.

Pinochet in Prague, invited to lunch by former dissidents in 1994: ‘the only democrat who was not weak is Pinochet’.

In several post-socialist countries, Pinochet triggered national public debates on the legacies of Communist rule. More than a few former dissidents spoke out in favour of Pinochet, who according to them had put Chile on a successful track of development by finishing off a Marxist government (that of Salvador Allende, who had been toppled in a military coup in 1973) and deregulating the economy. “If we had had a Pinochet in 1948”, a prominent Czech politician declared on TV, “everything would have developed for the better.”

Similar voices were commonly heard in post-Communist Russia. As I have expounded elsewhere, Pinochet was the declared reform hero for a motley bunch of radical liberal economists and nationalists ever since a 1991 pilgrimage of future Yeltsin advisors to Pinochet in Santiago. The Chilean ambassador to Moscow cabled back to Santiago: ‘The figure of Pinochet has acquired mythical proportions in this country. All across the Russian political spectrum people talk about him. Very often you can hear both communists and nationalists allude to the strong hand, personal integrity, and patriotism of the General, usually followed up by a few words in the line of ‘What Russia needs is a Pinochet.”’ Among them, the future Russian president Vladimir Putin argued for the emulation of a similar authoritarian path to a stable market-based economy

From Pinochet’s picture book: the often friendly reception abroad corroborated the general’s self-perception as successful moderniser.

In China, too, Pinochet had become a powerful symbol of efficient authoritarianism. Deng Xiaoping had violently suppressed a democratic awakening out of fear that chaos might endanger his economic market reforms. Pinochet’s combination of authoritarian rule, successful quelling of popular unrest, and the implementation of radical liberal economic reforms was just what Deng’s supporters wanted to achieve in China. From 1993, the year when Pinochet was invited the first time by the Chinese government, liberal reforms were resumed. China experienced fast growth rates, but also increasing discussions on social justice in the nominally socialist country. Internal critics and sceptics of Deng’s reforms could be pointed to the economic success story of Chile. Pinochet provided the reformers’ ideas with legitimacy. Thus, in 1997, they invited him again with even higher reverence. As Pinochet himself remembered: ‘the first time, they put me in a house, but the last time it was a palace.’

The message of reforms that combined an efficient deregulated globalised economy, conservative cultural values, and national sovereignty resonated in South-East-Asia: in 1995, Pinochet received the highest Malaysian state order from King Tuanku Ja’afar ibni Almarhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman.

Beyond the (post-)socialist world, the ‘Chilean model’ found its admirers amongst rulers of developmental states like Malaysia. Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia had created his own political amalgam of successful liberal market reforms, strong executive power, staunchly conservative cultural values, and a disdain for external meddling in domestic political affairs. He felt a spiritual kinship with Pinochet, whom he had met during a state visit to Chile in 1992. Three years later, Pinochet travelled to Kuala Lumpur to receive the Malaysian state order from the Malaysian king. He got along particularly well with the young education minister Najib Razak, who, as Prime Minister, would later radically liberalise the Malaysian economy while also embezzling large sums from the Malaysian state and putting political opponents in prison on trumped up charges.

‘An honourable soldier’. Pinochet’s had his supporter in the West, too.

On the one hand, as is well known, Pinochet’s visits to Western states in the 1990s drew public attention to his crimes and those of other dictators of the Cold War era; his arrest in London following the issuing of a Spanish arrest warrant challenged the status of national amnesties, instigated the investigation of crimes, empowered victims to speak up, and thus contributed to discourses of a criminalisation of the past amongst liberals and the left. On the other hand, as I argue in Global Society, Pinochet and his visits had the opposite effect in various countries in transition to market economies—and, based on earlier contacts from the Cold War era, on the anti-Communist right in the West. During Pinochet’s visits, some justified the harsh rule of Pinochet-type anti-communist regimes, among them the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The admiration and support that Pinochet received on his trips abroad indicates that not only democratic leaders, but economically successful authoritarian reformers, too, can be a source of inspiration, and provide illiberal modernisers with legitimacy in domestic politics.