Chile: The Moral Limits of Self-Interest

Chile’s middle classes are turning against the Pinochet regime because of a bad economy, not revulsion against torture

THE REGIME OF General Augusto Pinochet has ruled Chile since 1973 by a canny mixture of terror and progress. It can still unleash terror: witness the burning of Rodrigo Rojas, a nineteen-year-old American national, and his eighteen-year-old Chilean companion during last July’s anti-Pinochet general strike, as well as the wave of killings and arrests that followed the assassination attempt on Pinochet in September. But economic progress is becoming harder and harder for Pinochet to arrange. The Chilean economy has been in a deep slump for more than three years. The poor have suffered near-depression-level rates of unemployment during this slump. The middle classes—the doctors and small businessmen and truck drivers who played so large a part in the July strike—are also feeling the pinch, and they are abandoning their support of Pinochet largely as a result.

The growing disillusionment of the middle classes, who make up 40 percent of the population, may or may not lead to a Philippine-style political earthquake. But morally it is already having a profound effect on many Chileans. The middle-class Chileans I talked to on a recent visit—law-abiding, sophisticated, educated people—are having to confront their complicity in Pinochet’s crimes. When I asked one of the leaders of the July strikes, a clothing-store owner named Jaime Pérez, why he and many like him have joined the anti-Pinochet opposition, he replied with a version of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s dark parable: When they came to look for my neighbor, I was silent, because I am not my neighbor. When they took my friend, I was still silent. When they came to take my son, I became uneasy. Now they have come for me, and it is too late.

What members of the Chilean middle class do not like to discuss is that for many of those who oppose Pinochet today. Niemöller’s anti-Nazi parable accurately describes their behavior. Although opposition to Pinochet among the middle and upper classes is now widespread, for the first nine years after the military coup against the regime of Salvador Allende, which brought Pinochet to power, it was practically nonexistent.

“When I quit the government, in 1974,” said Orlando Sáenz, a wealthy businessman who was the president of the national manufacturers’ association before becoming Pinochet’s first economic adviser, “critics were so rare that my friends thought it was arranged by the government to provide some type of criticism. No one believed I left because I was against what was happening.”

Those who did protest human-rights abuses in the early days had to be careful. “We confined ourselves to the inner core of the utmost legitimacy,”said José Zalaquett, a member of the Allende government who was exiled in 1976 for his human-rights work, and who has recently returned to Chile. “If we concentrated on fighting the torture and killing, no one could openly dispute the legitimacy of that. But we could not openly oppose the government.”

In 1980 more than 67 percent of Chile’s voters ratified a Pinochet-backed constitution that allowed him to stay in office until 1989 and to run for another eight-year term after that if he chose. The constitution gave legal backing to many of Pinochet’s abuses: press censorship, limits on free assembly, recess of political parties and congress, the jailing of people without charges, and the internal banishment or exile of political enemies.

The reason for the middle class’s past poor vision and present bad memory is that their support for Pinochet lasted exactly as long as an economic boom that brought them unprecedented luxury.

ALMOST AS SOON as Allende was out of the way, a group of Chilean disciples of Milton Friedman—whom Chileans called “los Chicago boys"—quickly transformed the socialist economy into a laboratory for the free market. Foreign investment and credit soared. “Anyone could buy a TV, a Japanese or American car, or a house, completely on credit, without one peso,” said Luis Sánchez, a lawyer who heads the Federation of Housing Debtors, an organization of those now impossibly indebted from their earlier borrowing.

In 1979 Jaime Pérez, then twentyeight and the owner of four importclothing stores, bought his family a color television. Between then and late 1981 he bought three more TVs and three video-cassette recorders, one with a movie camera. He traded in his car for a new one every year. “You could buy anything on credit and everyone went into debt to grow and expand,” he told me.

The economy collapsed in 1982. Los Chicago boys had fixed the peso at an artificially high thirty-nine to the dollar, making imports cheap but business impossible for Chilean exporters. The boom was a mirage based on credit; only the financial sector was really doing well. In 1982, with the sudden devaluation of the peso, rises in world interest rates and in the price of oil, and a drop in the price of Chile’s main export, copper, the boom vanished. The gross domestic product fell by 14 percent that year.

Pérez told me, “The government kept telling us, ‘We don’t need much time to recover,’ and yet things didn’t recover. We lost confidence in the people making economic policy.”

I asked Pérez how he felt now, looking back on his support for Pinochet during the good years. He was silent for a long time. “That’s why I’ve gotten my association so involved,” he said. “I feel complicit.”

“It was like the opposition was sleeping and they woke up when the economic problems came,” Carmen Sáenz de Phillips, the president of the conservative National Party, told me. A November, 1984, poll by the firm Diagnos found that only 5.8 percent of Chileans named Pinochet as the best leader to solve Chile’s problems. Today about 15 percent of Chileans support Pinochet, and about 18 percent support the Communists. But the now widespread opposition to Pinochet stems from the same self-interest that gave him his support during the 1970s. A recent survey by the think tank FLACSO, the Latin American Social Science Faculty, showed that, as could be expected, Chileans consider the economy to be the country’s most important problem. Named eleventh on the list of twelve possible problems, by two percent of those polled—fewer than named “delinquency, drug addiction, prostitution" and “lack of communication, moral crisis"—was “human rights, torture.”

It would be easy to understand Chileans’ tolerance for the Pinochet regime if their society were more like that of Haiti, with a relatively unsophisticated and uninformed people and a long tradition of repressive government. But Chile is quite different. Before 1973 Chile was a democracy for 150 years, with only a few short interruptions by authoritarian rule—one of the longest democratic traditions in the world. Chilean respect for law is so deeply etched that on almost every downtown street, peddlers sell legal pamphlets, yelling, “Transit law, renters’ law, get your credit law!” The rate of literacy is 94 percent. The middle class is strong, and the upper middle class is sophisticated and cultured. The violence of the government is as alien to Chile as it would be to the United States. Yet thirteen years after the coup that ousted Allende, Pinochet is still in power. The very civility of the Chileans, instead of driving them to stop the violence, made it easy for them to close their eyes to the repression and fall into a ten-year political sleep.

PINOCUET’S SUCCESS has its roots in the last days of the Allende regime. By the end of Allende’s three years in office it was impossible to tell what was responsible for the problems—mismanagement, economic pressure from the United States, or constant sabotage by the regime’s opponents, who were determined to create shortages. Clearly, though, while the poor had more money and influence than before, all the middle and upper classes saw was chaos. “If I told you as you went out that when you came home your house would be taken over by somebody else, it was perfectly possible,” said Miguel Schweitzer, a lawyer and formerly Pinochet’s Foreign Minister, echoing what many Chileans had told me. “If you went to the supermarket, it was as if they were renewing the stocks every day—completely empty. You never knew if your sons were going to arrive at school, or if there would be no classes at all.”

“The coup was probably received with relief by the majority of the Chilean people,” Zalaquett, the former Allende official, said. “It gives me a bellyache when I admit it, but it’s true.” The chaos vanished with the coup. When stores reopened two days later, on September 13, 1973, there were no more shortages—a good indication that they had been manufactured. For most people, life became stable and orderly.

The relief of living a normal life again pushed all thoughts of the price paid for order out of most Chileans’ minds. “People didn’t want to hear about politics,”Carmen Sáenz said. “There was no uneasiness about the violence. The passion to be political wasn’t there.” Thousands of people were killed, their bodies occasionally left in the street as a warning to other political activists, but the heavily censored newspapers and television said nothing. As a result, although many people knew of the violence, they did not have to confront it every day over their morning toast, and many others could simply choose not to know. “Those who knew what was going on tended to disqualify it,” Lucia Sant Cruz, an editorial writer for the progovernment newspaper El Mercurio, told me. “They felt there was a war going on, or they believed it was all Communists.”

Chileans say that they thought of Pinochet’s rule as an interlude that would soon give way to democracy. But Pinochet still defines Chile’s choice as “order or chaos” in practically every speech; and the political appeal of “order” is likely to grow, at least temporarily, in the wake of the September 7 assassination attempt on Pinochet attributed to members of the leftist revolutionary movement, and the government’s discovery of large arms caches hidden at sites in the Altacama Desert.

Pinochet’s strategy is greatly helped by the circumstances of the political opposition today in Chile. Without access to television or elections, the parties cannot speak to Chileans and Chileans cannot speak to them. Partially as a result, they are weak and divided. There are currently about fourteen opposition parties—the number changes each month — and their bickering is selfdestructive.

A second reason for Pinochet’s strength today is that he has been very shrewd in gauging exactly how much the people will tolerate. Corruption was never permitted in Chile, and the Pinochet regime is not corrupt. Congress is in permanent recess, habeas corpus is routinely ignored, dissidents are jailed and exiled, but, as Chileans demand, it’s all legal— right there in the constitution. On human rights the regime has walked a thin tightrope: just enough repression to terrorize the politically active into quiescence, but not enough to set off alarms among nonpolitical Chileans and observers abroad.

“From 1973 to 1976 repression was massive and indiscriminate,” Gonzalo Taborga, a founder and officer of the Chilean Human Rights Commission, said. “It was as if we were in a period of war, with indiscriminate repression. Then, in 1977 and 1978, a new line began: massive, but more discriminating. Assassinations, summary executions, disappearances, exile, and torture characterize this period. In 1978 it began to get more sophisticated. Instead of disappearances, people began to die in supposed confrontations with the police— they needed scenarios for the press.”

As people’s tolerance for abuses lessened, so did the abuses themselves. According to the commission, since 1981 there have been 306 political killings, 1,119 reports of torture, and 3,547 reports of cruel and inhuman treatment. In 1985 there were sixty-five political murders—sixty-five too many, of course, but nothing like the thousands that occurred in each year of the early seventies.

Today the regime enforces order with mass arrests. Each demonstration ends in a ritual: carabineros with tear-gas bombs and water cannons break up the crowd, arrest hundreds of marchers, and release them a few hours later. There are roundups in the slums: soldiers with their faces painted black for anonymity and to make them more terrifying sweep through the slums in the middle of the night, frequently with helicopters and searchlights. They wake every household and take the men—still in pajamas—to a sports stadium. In one twoweek period last spring 15,000 people were detained in this manner. The roundups, combined with the occasional exemplary killing, to remind the opposition of what could always happen, are enough to keep most Chileans out of politics. Mass killings and their attendant publicity are no longer necessary. “If I put my knife to your throat once, the next time I just need to bring it out of my coat and show it to you,” Taborga said.

The regime concentrates the repression on Chile’s slums for two reasons. First, the slums are strongholds of the Communist Party and terrorist groups— although the sweeps manage to uncover terrorists so infrequently that this is obviously secondary to the goal of quieting conventional political activities. The other reason is that Pinochet has been unwilling to win the support of Chile’s poor with the method he has used on more powerful groups: courting them with money.

THE POOR, WHO did not share fully in the economic boom, were hit hardest by the crash. During Pinochet’s regime consumption by those in the poorest fifth of Santiago’s population has dropped 30 percent, while that by the top fifth has risen 15 percent. Pinochet’s regime has reduced its per capita expenditures for social welfare by 15 percent and concentrates on aid for children. One of the principal remaining welfare programs for the adult poor is a makework jobs program that currently employs 5.4 percent of the population at salaries of $25 to $50 a month. Unemployment is around 16 percent. The slums are filled with unemployed construction workers and factory foremen, many of whom now sell chocolate bars or coat hangers on the streets downtown. In many slums, residents eat at communal soup kitchens—groups of, usually, twenty-four families who take turns cooking meals, with the Catholic Church donating most of the food. The kitchens serve only lunch, and that only six days a week. In the evenings the families get milk for the next day’s breakfast. “We have to serve a big meal on Saturday, because many people don’t have anything all day Sunday,” the head of the soup kitchen in the Lo Hermida slum told me not long ago. There are families in Lo Hermida who have TVs bought during the boom years which now sit idle in the corner, because they cannot afford electricity.

Unwilling to sully the purity of its free-market policy with help for the poor, the government has intervened forcefully to help more politically influential sectors. In the years after the crash the level of state intervention in the economy was higher than it had been during the Allende years. The state-owned banks bought the junk loans of Chile’s failing private banks; now the government runs the banks and controls the debts of some of Chile’s largest businesses (although lately it has been reprivatizing some of them). One of these is El Mercurio, Chile’s most influential newspaper. According to El Mercurio’s internal records, it has run up debts during the boom which exceed $100 million. By keeping El Mercurio afloat the government has gained the power to turn off the spigot at any moment, reinforcing El Mercurio’s historical tendency to print only pro-Pinochet news.

Truck owners, taxi drivers, and bus owmers—all groups with the power to shut down the economy—have also been well cared for. In 1983 the truckers decided not to support a strike after the Interior Minister offered to help with their debts. One day before last July’s strike El Mercurio announced that the taxi drivers had reached an accord with the government on their debts. “You can follow the cycle,” said Alejandro Foxley, the president of the think tank CIEPLAN. “A few weeks before a national protest truckers will be invited to talk. They discuss rescheduling of debts, lower interest rates, access to goodies like tires. The only reports you see say that they left very happy after the meeting.”

The branches of the armed forces that maintain internal order have gotten large salary hikes and increases in personnel. The salary budget of the investigations unit—the dreaded secret police—rose 270 percent (after adjustment for inflation) from 1973 to 1981, according to a study by the Instituto de Ciencias Alejandro Lipshutz, another think tank. The carabineros got a 109 percent increase, while the Navy, which plays no political role, saw its personnel budget go up by only 32 percent. The same study concluded that armed-forces pensions average almost ten times those of civilians.

IF CHILE WERE a less developed society, its response to Pinochet’s regime could be attributed to a rational, if coldhearted, calculus in which human-rights violations are a necessary price to pay for order and prosperity. But Chileans, too cultured and democratic to face such a decision, are left only with denial: torture and political murder don’t happen. This blindness continues in Pinochet’s supporters today.

“I think most of these things are exaggerated,” Patricia Matte, a sociologist who heads the government’s Extreme Poverty program, told me about humanrights violations. “It’s constantly in the mouths of people in other countries that things are bad here, but they haven’t been able to prove anything.” About the Rojas burning Matte said, “For whom is it best? I think it’s strategic—as strategic as the killing of [Philippine opposition leader Benigno] Aquino. Two years afterward his wife is President. We still don’t know who killed him.”

“It’s so out of our habit to believe that someone would have ordered a burning,”Fernando Léniz, Pinochet’s first Economic Minister and a former chairman of El Mercurio, said. He added that while he supports Pinochet today, he thinks Chile must return to democracy in 1989. “You see these things in other areas of the world, where violence is common, but it was never common here. They may have been burned by soldiers or by people disguised as soldiers. It may have been an accident. I don’t really know. The revolutionary left here openly says it uses violence as an instrument. But the government is responsible for law and order. The government does not kill innocent people on purpose—I must believe that.”

“I asked myself, to what extent are they a little bit provoked? Aren’t they a little bit deserved?” Miguel Schweitzer, the former Foreign Minister, said about human-rights violations. “Some excesses might occur, but the assessment you were given is exaggerated and doesn’t happen in Chile.”

Matte, Léniz, and Schweitzer belong to Chile’s upper class. Thev and their friends who share their views are charming, gracious, fluent in English, well educated and well dressed. They go to the opera and take their children to Saturday soccer practice. Many have spent years living in the United States. It startled me how comfortable I felt with these people, how much they were like well-bred people back home. I came to Chile thinking that if only we could help Latins become more American—in a culturally sensitive way, of course—we could prevent future Pinochets. I was wrong. Chileans have been terrorized, but mostly they have been enticed to avert their eyes. Sophistication is not the solution, it is the problem. With most of the Chileans I met, the closer they came to my concept of American sophistication, the more willing was their complicity. The Mattes, Lénizes, and Schweitzers are people like us: so civilized, and because of that, so terrifying.

Tina Rosenberg