The Death of the Defense of Dictators

Three icons of U.S.-Latin American foreign policy died this month. Milton Friedman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Augusto Pinochet may not have met in the same room, but together they helped construct the architecture of hemispheric relations that has endured well into the current Bush government.

September 4, 2007

Three icons of U.S.-Latin American foreign policy died this month. Milton Friedman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Augusto Pinochet may not have met in the same room, but together they helped construct the architecture of hemispheric relations that has endured well into the current Bush government.

A U.S. conservative economist, a political scientist-turned-diplomat, and a South American dictator may on the surface appear to have little in common. But they left a common legacy in Latin America. Their theories, their actions, and their protégés profoundly undermined democracy in the region, and left a trail of blood that runs from Patagonia to Mexico.

Free Markets, Double Standards, and Dictators

In the seventies, Milton Friedman—a professor at the University of Chicago—posited that free markets would lead to free people and economic well-being. Friedman's economic theories found a perfect laboratory in post-Allende Chile. Rarely does an academic economist have the chance to try out theories on an entire nation of people controlled under military rule.

Friedman traveled to Chile and met with dictator Augusto Pinochet after the U.S.-assisted coup that brought him to power. Pinochet adopted Friedman's free market theory and applied it on a literally captive audience. Friedman's department at the University of Chicago became the training ground for a generation of Chilean economists known as the “Chicago Boys.”

As Walden Bello put in a recent article: “The irony that the bayonets of one of Latin America's most bloodstained dictatorships imposed a free market paradise in Chile could not have escaped the guru.” Over 3,000 people were killed or permanently “disappeared” under the Pinochet dictatorship; 30,000 tortured or wounded; and thousands fled the country.

Friedman is also credited with creating the theoretical underpinnings—some would say justification—for the Structural Adjustment Programs enforced by the multilateral lending institutions on third world countries to access development loans.

Jeane Kirkpatrick's essay that catapulted her into the Reagan administration, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” argues that right-wing dictators should be our allies in cases where the alternative is popular insurrection. “Only intellectual fashion and the tyranny of Right/Left thinking prevent intelligent men [sic] of good will from perceiving the facts that traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies, that they are more susceptible of liberalization, and that they are more compatible with U.S. interests.”

Her later work on the National Security Council of designing and implementing the dirty wars in Central America demonstrated that her commitment to this idea was more than academic. She supported the contra wars wholeheartedly and later was drafted as an envoy to prepare the ground for the invasion of Iraq.

As the exception to rule, her hard-edged politics—devoid of a gender perspective—demonstrated that conservatives had nothing against women playing the politics game as long as they played by men's rules. And at that game in the context of the Reagan foreign policy team, Kirkpatrick proved exemplary.

The End of an Era?

It's tempting to believe that these three deaths mark the end of an era.

With the death of Pinochet, preceded by Paraguay's Stroessner this year, military rule in the Southern Cone seems to have passed definitively, albeit with disturbing impunity. Latin America has emerged from its dark night of military dictatorships into vibrant, if imperfect, democracies.

The region's rebellion against the maxims of the “Chicago Boys” has brought new leaders into office, forcing a re-examination of economic orthodoxy. Chile, followed by Argentina, Brazil, and others, have challenged and modified the Washington Consensus that was forged on the basis of Friedman's theories.

The Cold War pragmatism that Kirkpatrick defended and embodied has also become a thing of the past. The strategy of calling anything non-communist “the lesser of evils”—no matter how evil it was—has given way to a broader respect for human rights and national sovereignty.

And yet the seduction of progressivism fades before the reality of a region in flux, assaulted by contradictions, regressions, and uncertainties.

Free market economics is far from dead: Mexico's new secretary of the economy, Augustin Carstens, is a latter-day Chicago Boy and has unabashedly stated his commitment to adhere to strict neoliberal policies, even as Mexico's poor protest in the streets and in the Congress. Structural adjustment programs have merely changed name, and moved on to new arenas of privatization, trade liberalization, and social welfare cutbacks. The U.S. free trade agreements seek to lock in free-market strategies that have been widely shown to benefit U.S. companies and local elites, to the detriment of most of the population.

The myth that free markets lead to free people, is belied by the inequality created over the past three decades. Grassroots movements throughout the continent identify the combined economic and political power of economic oligarchies—born or consolidated under these policies—as their major obstacle to democratization and improved standards of living.

The Bush administration has played a major role in assuring that the work of these three defenders of dictators will live on after their death. Although the Cold War is over, the national security doctrine replaces the communist threat with the terrorist threat, in a new version of defense of dictators. Allies are not submitted to human rights tests; enemies are treated without regard to those standards. The principle of self-determination disparaged by Kirkpatrick is once again openly disdained.

Even in Latin America, it would be difficult to claim an irrevocable evolution beyond authoritarian rule. Pinochet supporters lined up to kiss his coffin and issued public statements attributing what they consider the success of Chile's free-market economy to enlightened authoritarian rule. Their sentiment for the military ruler ran so deep as to spark skirmishes with protesters at the funeral.

The tragedy of history is that one can never compare what is to what could have been.

U.S. intervention through free trade policies or covert military action, and supported by “friendly dictators,” set the region on a course that continues to take a heavy toll on human and economic development.

What could Chile have become if over three thousand of its idealists and socially committed citizens had not been assassinated or disappeared? Would Central America look different if thousands had lived long lives instead of being tortured, killed, or forced into exile? Would the inequality that mars the region's economic development be less today if Allende's experiment had been forged in an open sovereign society, instead of quelled by a bloody coup?

We will never know. And the three obituaries written this past month reveal important reasons why we will never know.

Laura Carlsen is director of the IRC Americas Program in Mexico City, where she has worked as a writer and political analyst for the past two decades. The Americas Program is online at


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