When I told my mother that Augusto Pinochet, died earlier this afternoon, she replied:
"I'm Sorry," in a very regretful tone of voice.
I was more than a bit surprised at her sympathetic tone. My mother at 91 is the same age as Pinochet, and grew up in Santiago, Chile until she won a Rockefeller fellowship in her twenties to do postgraduate studies at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
"I was hoping that they would put him in jail," she elaborated.
Indeed, she was not a fan of Pinochet -- although many in her upper class family supported him. She had known Dr. Salvador Allende in medical school and strongly supported his election as President in 1970 -- even though by that time, she was teaching at Cornell Medical School.
An interesting aside, when she was applying for a U.S. citizenship in the late 1940's, she put down on her application that she had once been a member of a Communist youth group.
Two black suited FBI agents wanted to know if she was still a Communist. She replied, "I hate the Communists. They are very doctrinaire and authoritarian."
"The Communists accused me of having Trotskyite tendencies and threw me out," replied the honest, intelligent and beautiful young doctor.
They could see the fire in her eyes and could tell she was telling the truth. The two gumshoes nodded approvingly, and repeated, "You hate the Communists right?"
"Absolutely," she reiterated.
They wrote down "Hates Communists" and told her that she would have no further problems.
I tell this story to illustrate how clever our intelligence agencies were -- and probably still are -- about Latin American politics. The Chilean Communist party was a conservative, moderate, democratically minded institution.
The Trotskyites were something else, but the agents hadn't heard about them and were mainly focused on my mother's hatred of Communists, which they applauded.
You cannot understand my mother's hatred of Pinochet without understanding the election of Salvador Allende. It was an historic event in Latin American history. Allende was the first democratically elected Marxist President in the world.
But Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were apoplectic.
They were determined not to have another Fidel Castro Communist on "American" soil.
I was there in 1973 and watched the handiwork of the CIA.... First they succeeded in getting the support of the armed services, including some of my relatives. Earlier they helped kill the Army Commander-in-Chief Rene Schneider, who promised to be loyal to the democratic process and Allende.
But most importantly the CIA destabilized the economy with an embargo, and used US dollars to create a currency collapse. Imports tripled in price. In 1971 the CIA organized a woman's demonstration of banging pots.
Fidel Castro happened to be there at the time and saw the women marching in the streets. Castro told Allende that he was crazy for allowing free speech and the right to demonstrate. He told Allende, "If this continues, the CIA is going to have you murdered."
Allende brushed him off saying that the people had elected him and would stand behind him. But Castro, who had his own experiences with CIA meddling and murder, was prescient.
Within two years the military revolted, using as an excuse, the CIA-Kissinger inspired economic collapse during a trucker's strike. Augusto Pinochet began a 17-year brutal and bloody dictatorship, cruelly murdering Allende and thousands of his supporters.
Chile's current President, Michelle Bachelet, was imprisoned and mistreated by Pinochet forces. Her father, an army general loyal to Allende, was killed.
But as far as dictators go, General Pinochet was different from the run-of-the-mill strongmen. Mostly, he did not hobble the economy with crony capitalism. With the help of Milton Friedman's Chicago free market theories, Chile created an economic miracle that lifted millions of poor people across the poverty line.
Gross national product grew at the rate of 10% during much of his reign, the highest growth rate in the region -- although the Chileans are industrious people and might have achieved this same growth under Allende.
Even today, the Chilean economy is the most admired and developed in South America. Other South Americans call the energetic and entrepreneurial Chileans, the "Nort Americanos" of South America, as a term of derision.
Pinochet's regime was relatively uncorrupt and, most important of all, toward the end of his rule, he allowed free elections and a free press. And when he was voted out, he stepped down peacefully.
Dictators don't do this normally.
With Fidel Castro on his deathbed, the question for the US is: how will we deal with this continent of 520 million people, which has lately elected leftists governments in nine out of the last twelve elections?
All too often in the past, Washington has responded to nascent left wing democracies with hysteria and hostility.
Hugo Chavez hopes that Washington will do this again, so that he can unite all of the progressive countries in Latin America into an anti-American bloc.
But in South America today, according to the most recent polls, the most popular leader by far is Chile's Michelle Bachelet, whose leftist-socialist proclivities are tempered by a respect for the free market practices that have made Chile so successful.
(Note:Michelle Bachelet is most popular with 71% and Hugo Chavez is fifth at 57%.)
If Washington can learn to live with and support the democratically elected, progressive Latin American governments, then Chavez's militant anti-Americanism will be isolated.
If not, then we may lose the support and good will of 520 million people to chaos and violence and bloody caudillo populists.