Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet did one thing right. He opened up the Chilean economy to relatively free trade, privatized state enterprises and reformed the Chilean social security system with individual accounts.
Even that accomplishment, which helped to make Chile the most economically robust economy in South America, by Pinochet, who died Sunday at age 91, was tainted. It helped to perpetuate a myth that free-market economic policies can be instituted only under the aegis of an authoritarian government. (That myth was punctured when free elections in 1989 brought Pinochet’s political opposition to power and foreign investment increased, but the myth is still heard from time to time.)
On almost every other count, Pinochet was an unmitigated disaster. After the armyled coup in 1973 against Marxist president Salvador Allende (who had squeaked into office with a 36 percent plurality) that eventually brought him to power, Pinochet suspended the constitution and then suspended political parties. His minions engaged in brutal repression, leading to the execution or “disappearances” of more then 3,000 Chileans and the imprisonment and torture of thousands more.
Pinochet did give up the presidency in 1990 (after a referendum that surprised him when a majority rejected his desire to be president another eight years) but retained considerable power as head of the military and later as senator-for-life. As investigations showed that he had not only been personally involved in atrocities by the regime but had as much as $28 million squirreled away in foreign bank accounts, he became a figure of derision, even among former supporters in Chile.
Augusto Pinochet was never brought to justice in a court of law; his recurring illnesses prevented that. But he ended his life almost universally reviled, as dictators deserve to be.