It is a truism that all evaluations of
history are tainted by one’s vision of how the world should work.
Another truism is that a lack of primary sources can often leave
certain grey areas in the historical record.
Sometimes, however, events or eras are roughly clear and some degree of consensus is achieved.
Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile (1973–1990) is one such case.
In particular, the illegitimacy of his regime and its vast human rights
violations against anyone broadly on the political Left or who opposed
his regime. Most serious Latin American studies scholars and
journalists would agree that Pinochet brutally overthrew a government
which, despite many faults, was democratically and legitimately
Dissent from a consensus, of course, always exists and on 15 December, The Australian published a strange article
by James Whelan, a neo-conservative journalist who for many years has
written works which present the Pinochet era in a favourable light.
Whelan’s piece was revisionism of the worst kind.
reaction to Whelan’s article was that it was not worthy of a reply. Not
only was it the voice of a vociferous neo-con (Whelan occasionally
writes on Latin America for Online Human Events which comes
recommended by the likes of ex-US President Ronald Regan and the
corrupt Colonel Oliver North), his piece was filled with many factual
errors and omissions.
Given that a minimal amount of research
could have discovered these errors, the publication of such a piece led
me to two conclusions: either the editorial standards at The Australian are rather poor or it believes in publishing apologists for State terror who have fertile imaginations.
arguments are quite simple: President Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity
(UP) Government which was overthrown by Pinochet’s military coup on 11
September 1973 was committed to "ending the bourgeois democratic
State", it "plunged Chile into a hell-on-earth chaos", and it was
General Pinochet and his policies who saved the country.
he concedes without "the slightest doubt" that there were "abuses"
under the General’s rule, the "overwhelming majority of the dead and
missing were, in fact, either outright terrorists or those who were
sheltering, financing and supporting them".
"A war on terror tends to be a dirty war", comments Whelan.
first point is quite simple to disprove. The Allende Government acted
within the Chilean Constitution and there was no real indication that
it wanted to replace Chile’s multi-party system with a Soviet, Cuban or
any other totalitarian style of government. In Valparaíso on 4 February
1971, in a challenge to Socialist Party Secretary Carlos Altamirano
Ortega, Allende stated that:
have said that the transformation and changes are going to be made
within bourgeois democracy. And if comrade Altamirano reckons that we
ought to go faster, I say to him that we are not going to go faster.
James Levy — honorary fellow at the Department of Spanish and Latin
American Studies at the University of New South Wales — argues that
Allende’s UP Government acted within the Constitution and that, "No one
has ever proved anything to the contrary."
He adds that many of
the Allende Administration’s programs were, in fact, a continuation of
the policies of the previous Christian Democrat Government of Eduardo
Freí (1964–1970). Levy states:
nationalisation of Chilean copper, for example, followed on Frei’s
‘Chileanisation’ of copper; the agrarian reform program was initiated
under the Christian Democrats and the Minister responsible was retained
by the Allende regime to push it forward; the mobilisation of the
impoverished barrios [slums]likewise began under the Christian Democrats — and I could go on.
the various successes of the Allende Government in improving the lives
of the poor, it was the Chilean Right (with a little help from their
friends at the Central Intelligence Agency) who created an atmosphere
of turmoil. This ranged from pursuing the impeachment of Allende by
legal means, hoarding food and funding strikes which stopped production,
to assassinating members of the military who were loyal to the
Constitution and were not willing to be Washington’s lackeys.
article mentions none of these facts. Likewise, it was inconvenient for
him to recall that, after more than two years in power, the UP won 44
per cent of the popular vote in the March 1973 Chilean Congressional
elections — up from 36 per cent in 1970 and one of the largest
increases by an incumbent government in Chilean history.
had literally declared an economic war on Chile which had devastating
consequences but, once Chile’s political right and the US’s Nixon
Administration realised that the Allende Government was not going to
crumble, nothing was left but to find a man willing to betray the
Constitution and carry out a coup.
One of Whelan’s biggest
errors was to say that the Pinochet regime was engaged in a war against
terrorists thus de-legitimising the majority of victims of the Pinochet
era. In the majority of cases, these victims’ only crime was belonging
to a trade union, a left-wing political party or simply having voted
Picture of a dictator, General Augusto Pinochet
According to Associate Professor Barry
Carr, Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at La Trobe
University, Whelan’s arguments are "typical of [those run during]the
dictatorship" — noting that he hasn’t heard them for "20 years". Carr,
who is one of Australia’s most internationally respected scholars on
Latin America, agrees that there were terrorists in Chile at the time
but, he says, they "worked for a vast network of State terrorism which
was created by the Pinochet Government".
In 2005, the National
Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture appointed by Chilean
President Ricardo Lagos handed down the second part of its report.
Whelan claims that the Commission’s figures on torture were "frivolous"
— as if that Commission was the only one to have recorded the
testimonies of the dictatorship’s victims. Giving a gross figure for
the current Chilean Government’s annual reparations to victims of the
military regime of $254 million, Whelan ignores that for most victims
this boils down to a pension of 112,000 Chilean Pesos ($230–260) a
month, which is less than Chile’s minimum wage of 135,000 pesos per
And according to Margarita Durán Gajardo — a Chilean
human rights activist based in Santiago with the Committee of Human
Rights — there are many tens of thousands of people whose claims are
still being processed by the judicial system.
In Carr’s view,
one of the only reasons why an article like Whelan’s would attempt to "seriously re-write history", is that "in the past few years the
neo-cons have not been doing too well in Latin America — hence this
vilification of a moderate government like that of Allende". Whelan,
according to Carr, is also attempting to present Pinochet as one of the
first warriors against terrorism — merging the Cold War into the War on
When asked to comment on Whelan’s article, a
long-time human rights activist in the Chilean community, Gonzalo Parra
— co-ordinator of the Chilean Popular and Indigenous Network — said it
was a distasteful piece. He added:
to the economic growth mentioned by Whelan, the reality is that the
majority of Chileans continue to struggle on a daily basis against that
very political and economic system that is the legacy of the Dictator —
a system that puts Chile in the top 10 countries of drug abuse, child
abuse, domestic violence, delinquency and unequal distribution of
Pinochet supporters have long felt proud
that the General, unlike his regional counterparts, was not corrupt.
Some concede that he was brutal but at least he was ‘clean’. Whelan
goes as so far as to say that Pinochet’s opponents have proven ‘nothing’ in terms of his embezzling State funds.
view, the scholarship on this issue also proves the contrary — pointing
to embarrassing documents, where Pinochet’s wife Lucía rebukes her
husband for not having swindled enough on a particular deal. In March
2005, a US Senate investigation found that the General concealed more
than $US13 million in dozens of secret bank accounts. The fact that
Pinochet was not brought to trial on this issue, like his human rights
record, is more a reflection of the poor state of judicial
neutrality in Chile rather than the General’s innocence.
of the points I have made are really new. The scholarship on the
Allende Government, on Pinochet’s coup and his regime’s gross human
rights violations is voluminous. A simple telephone call by The Australian to any of Australia’s respected Latin American Studies Departments could have de-legitimised Whelan’s claims.
I called Tom Switzer — Opinion Editor at The Australian
— and asked him about his paper’s decision to run the Whelan article.
He said that he had commissioned the piece, having run an article by Ariel Dorfman
a few days earlier. The logic is, of course, simple: since Dorfman is a
progressive Chilean writer and an ex-member of the Allende Government, The Australian
has the right to publish someone like Whelan? Switzer conceded that
Whelan’s views were a minority, outside of the scholarly consensus.
However, according to Switzer, this has not stopped the paper from
publishing in the past.
This is not an example of setting up a
balanced debate, it’s a case of pretending a debate about the facts
exists when it really doesn’t.
On 20 February, 2003, then US
Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked to comment on the morality of
the United States’s role in the overthrow of the Allende Government. In
a rare moment of honesty, Powell responded: "It is not a part of
American history that we are proud of".
Likewise, The Australian should not be proud of publishing commentators like James Whelan who refuse to accept the existence of State terrorism.
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