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06 December 1998

Chile: still a laboratory for Western policy experiments

The detention of former Chilean dictator Pinochet has raised hopes of justice for his victims, but it still leaves Chile's future dictated outside of its borders, writes James Heartfield

The barbarism of the Pinochet regime in the 1970s left thousands dead, the elected premier Salvador Allende gunned down on the steps of the parliament building, machine gun in his hand, and diplomat Orlando Letelier murdered on US soil by Pinochet's henchmen. The policy of 'disappearing' opponents was the norm and alleged dissidents rounded up in football stadiums to be tortured, detained or killed.

Pinochet's military coup was openly supported by the Western powers, notably US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who recently made light of the killings on the grounds that 3000 dead only represents 10 a day. Pinochet took advantage of the stalled reform programme of the Allende regime. The proposed programme of taking industry out of private hands was stopped when business leaders threatened to take their capital out of the country. The popular movement behind Allende's self-avowedly Marxist government was demoralised by the faltering socialisation programme. And then the military struck.

Under the tutelage of Pinochet's military regime the country was opened up to Western policymakers. Milton Friedman's Chicago school of free-market economists turned Chile into a laboratory for their economic experiments. The 'monetarist' policies that became the norm in the developed world in the eighties were tested out in Chile - at gunpoint. With advice from Friedman and his colleagues Pinochet attacked organised labour on the grounds that it was a 'monopoly' that distorted the labour market, and cut back social programmes that were 'inflationary'. Under the niceties of economic theory, this was a programme of resolving the economic crisis at the expense of the working class, backed up by savage repression. Chile's business sector saw improvements, but only at the cost of impoverishing the mass of ordinary Chileans. Experiment successful, concluded the economists, and introduced the policy in America and Britain, though without the full-blown military dictatorship.

Chile's status as a laboratory for Western policymakers was not exhausted with the experiments of the Chicago school of free-market economists.

In the 1990s Pinochet's US advisers used Chile as a model for the transition from military dictatorship to civilian government. With the liquidation of the working class opposition to the military, America felt confident that it could ease off the pressure, and allow a more middle class opposition to emerge. US foreign policy was experimenting with 'people's power' - the use of a carefully regulated public pressure to reform its military puppet regimes. The USA renegotiated its relations with most of its former allies, overthrowing General Noriega in Panama, criminalising Saddam Hussein in Iraq, easing Marcos out of power in the Phillipines and supporting the handover of power to Mandela in South Africa. Each of these transitions was accompanied by greater or lesser popular mobilisations against the old regimes. But throughout, the USA and its Western allies maintained the initiative, only allowing change where firm relations had been established with the incoming regime.

Pinochet, against his own inclinations, was persuaded to negotiate his way out of office, making way for a 'protected democracy'. With his own powers safeguarded as Life Senator, Pinochet handed over to a moderate civilian administration, with the warning that the military would step in if things got out of hand. Once again the policy was drawn up in Washington and London, and presented as a fait accompli to the Chilean people.

The detention of Pinochet in London during a 'diplomatic visit' on a warrant issued by a Spanish court has opened up a new stage in the Western dictation of Chilean policy. The charges against Pinochet brought to the Spanish court are based upon the testimony of surviving victims exiled in Europe. But the impetus behind the detention lies more in the changing assumptions of Western policy towards third world regimes.

In recent years Western diplomacy has manufactured a 'human rights' policy that favours the trial of former dictators and other third world leaders before international tribunals. War Crimes Tribunals at The Hague and elsewhere have been set up by the USA and its Western allies to criminalise opponents and former allies alike. In many cases there is no shortage of evidence of atrocities to put before these courts. After all, their former CIA handlers have an intimate knowledge of the methods by US agents like Noriega and Saddam: they wrote the manual. But an absence of hard evidence has proved no barrier either, as kangaroo courts in The Hague and in Rwanda have manufactured evidence against military and civilian leaders alike. Western propaganda has demonised third world dictators that yesterday it was arming and advising. The West's pretended role as arbiter of truth and justice has succeeded in increasing its moral authority to intervene in third world nations. Western policymakers have warned that there can be no 'culture of impunity' in the third world.

It is that shift in policy that led the British law lords to rule in favour of the Spanish warrant against Pinochet. The law lords, as establishment insiders, know full well that the American and British governments are moving towards an open-ended policy of trying third world leaders before human rights courts made in the West. Chilean political realities are once again being decided in the West, with Pinochet now being the target of the experiment in human rights diplomacy.

The detention of Pinochet by his former allies is rich with poetic justice, but it falls short of the justice that the dictator deserves: justice at the hands of the Chilean people. No doubt the victims are relieved to see any action against Pinochet. But the tragedy is that the former dictator's detention and potential trial will lead to a more resolute grip on the part of the West over Chile and other third world nations. The failure of the Chilean civilian administration to try Pinochet was dictated by the West in the compromise imposed in the early 1990s. Now Western leaders are using that failure as an excuse to take the initiative.

The campaigners demanding Pinochet's trial have the moral authority of thousands of victims murdered on their side. But by pressing the British and Spanish courts to realise their aims they are making a tragic mistake, that will reinforce the authority of the very powers that imposed Pinochet on Chile in the first place. By placing their trust in the European courts, they have side-stepped the need to build support in Chile for a proper resolution to the struggles of the 1970s. The sight of the dictators' supporters claiming to stand up for Chilean independence is sickening, given the real meaning of the dictatorship. But in turning to the Western courts the left has made itself an adjunct of Western diplomacy instead of a real opposition.

In Britain David Aaronovitch summed up the feelings of the one-time radicals who are becoming establishment players. He said that the detention of Pinochet meant that his generation, alienated by the government's support for the dictator, could at last come in from the cold. Doubtless such thoughts weighed upon the industry minister Peter Mandelson, when he broke government ranks to welcome the initial decision to detain. But in distancing themselves from the interventionist policy of their right-wing predecessors, the government is formulating a new policy of intervention in the third world, with a more 'humanitarian' gloss.

Already the British government is drawing up human rights charges against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that will justify direct intervention into that country. Already the UN has detained Bosnian Serb commander Radislav Krstic. Already the United States has initiated legal charges against Islamic 'terrorist' Mohammed Bin Laden - to justify the bombing raids against his supporters in the Sudan. The human rights diplomacy under which Pinochet is being detained establishes a precedent for Western intervention throughout the third world, that leaves small nations like Chile at the mercy of Western experiments, while that nation's political life is still determined outside its borders.

For more on the new forms of Western intervention in the third world, see Frank Furedi's The New Ideology of Imperialism, available from the bookshop

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