The Best of Both Dictators

By Michael Shifter
Sunday, December 10, 2006

The parallels are striking: Two ruthless dictators who sacrificed human rights for political aims. Two men idolized by their followers and despised by the exiles they drove away. Two archetypes of the Latin American strongman, one in dark sunglasses, the other with that ever-present cigar. For the past half-century, no two leaders have so defined Latin America's political scene as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

They ruled from opposite ends of the spectrum -- Castro on the far left, Pinochet on the hard right -- their regimes similar only in their harshness and in the intense passions they evoked. Today, as the two ailing men take their final bows, their repressive political models are rightfully repudiated in most of Latin America, giving way to more democratic governments. Yet the legacies of Castro and Pinochet will loom large, and will long outlive them. They have been tyrants in life, but after their deaths, they will still shape the Latin America they leave behind.

For all their faults, both men tapped into the basic reality of the region and forged responses that will mold Latin America's political and social agenda for generations. Castro recognized the fundamental social inequities that mar the region, the most unequal in the world; Pinochet embraced the market and its power to lift an economy. And the new governments of the region are drawing on both those veins in their quest to better their citizens' political and economic futures.

The human rights records of both men are undeniably dismal. Since the Cuban revolution of 1959, Castro, now 80, has overseen extensive human rights violations, including thousands of executions, especially in the first years after he took power. Repression and tight government control continue to this day. Castro has long justified the tyranny on grounds that it was essential to creating a communist Cuba that emphasizes universal education and free health care, as well as to shielding the island from the constant threat of Washington-engineered regime change. Because of his self-styled image as a defender of the downtrodden and as an underdog standing up to the United States, he remains a hero to many not only throughout Latin America, but worldwide.

Pinochet, in contrast, has few fans outside Chile -- and even there the number of supporters has substantially dropped off. He upended Chile's democratic tradition with a military coup in 1973 and ruled for 17 years before leaving office in 1990. With the abduction, torture and killing of thousands of opponents -- in the name of ridding the country of Marxist influence and creating order out of chaos -- his regime helped turn the word "disappear" into a transitive verb. Only now, at 91, has Pinochet accepted responsibility for what happened during his rule. Small consolation for the families of all those victims.

Fortunately, no government in Latin America today practices the sort of politics that will be forever linked to Castro and Pinochet. The closest heir to either is newly re-elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who would like to assume the mantle of leader of Latin America's left when Castro dies. Some Venezuelans fear that, emboldened by his recent landslide victory, Chávez will now make a strong push to implant the Cuba model in their country. But circumstances have changed too dramatically since the 1960s for that to happen.

Castro put his finger on Latin America's fundamental grievance -- the social injustice and inequality that prevails there. Recent elections in Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru have highlighted the renewed importance and urgency of the social agenda. Over the next year, incoming governments of varying ideological hues are likely to put even more emphasis on social programs that respond to widespread frustration and mounting expectations. New leaders will thus sound many of the same egalitarian notes long sounded by Castro.

Yet in practice, many of these governments will carry out some of the same economic policies espoused by Pinochet, relying primarily on the market in pursuit of their social goals. Even Chávez relies on the oil market to finance his social programs. In the 1970s, the Pinochet regime, influenced by the late economist Milton Friedman, pioneered the embrace of market reforms in Latin America, including privatizing state enterprises and liberalizing trade. The country went through a tough period in the early 1980s, but Pinochet's economic prescriptions eventually set it on a path that has made it Latin America's best economic performer in recent decades.

Despite the meager fruits of market reform elsewhere, and the corruption wrought by privatization efforts (recent revelations that Pinochet stashed millions of dollars in secret accounts in the former Riggs Bank in Washington have further tarnished his reputation), polls show that most Latin Americans still favor such changes-- albeit carried out honestly, and accompanied by stronger social support programs. Today's ruling coalition government in Chile exemplifies this new current in Latin American politics. Economic performance in the 17 years of democratic rule has been superior to that under Pinochet. And poverty levels have declined from more than 40 percent in 1990 to below 18 percent in 2005.

In Latin America today, the public wants the market-driven growth that draws on the Pinochet experience and the focus on social equality inspired by Castro -- but in a democratic context, without the terror and autocratic rule that marked the two regimes.

It wants, in short, the best of both.

Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University.

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