For the past week the world has held its breath, exhilarated, as thousands of Egyptians take to the Cairo streets to demand the ouster of thirty-year strongman Hosni Mubarak. Heady as the demonstrations are, Washington insiders know that an Egyptian democracy is only preferable so long as it produces a cadre of America-friendly lawmakers. As Senior Staff Writer from the International Affairs Review, Amanda Kadlec has already noted, the United States has supported Mubarak not because he jibed with the American value system but because he was deemed a reliable, stable force in an otherwise unfriendly, unpredictable region.
No doubt about it, the choice is a tricky one for the United States. Does it sanction authoritarian, distinctly un-American regimes in exchange for their support, or does it take a gamble with democracy, truer to its creed but possible of producing the likes of Hamas, Chavez, or Ahmadinejad?
In a bizarre bit of karma, a helpful reminder comes from beyond the grave, a hemisphere away. Last week, a judge in Chile ordered an investigation into the death of Salvador Allende, the country’s democratically elected, socialist president who died in a military coup in 1973. For years afterward, during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, Chileans debated privately whether Allende had committed suicide, as reported by the military, or had been murdered during the siege of the presidential palace in Santiago.
As the United States tries to calculate its best course of action in a post-Mubarak Egypt, it would do well to remember what it did in Chile. In what former Secretary of State Colin Powell has called “not a part of American history that we’re proud of,” the CIA took an active hand in supporting the coup. So great was the fear in Washington of a credible socialist regime in Chile that the Nixon administration thought it preferable to neutralize its functioning democracy. “I don’t see,” said Henry Kissinger at the time, “why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
The consequences of the coup have divided Chile to this day. Though many view Pinochet’s presidency as a regenerative period after Allende’s unsuccessful economic reforms, the bloody coup and subsequent disappearance of over three thousand political opponents have made the general’s time in office a dark, painful period of Chilean history. Ironically, the peaceful transition back to democracy in 1990 — when Pinochet lost a plebiscite to determine his continued rule — probably hindered reconciliation as many pro-Pinochet lawmakers and judges continued to serve in government. Since the 1973 coup, it took years for the courts to regain their legitimacy.
“The Chilean Supreme Court emerged as an opponent of Allende during the Popular Unity government,” says Alexander Wilde, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. But the court “went on to become a supine supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship. With a few honorable exceptions, judges brushed aside the thousands of petitions filed by the human rights movement.”
Since the late nineties, however, trials investigating human rights abuses under Pinochet have attempted to “redeem the tattered honor” of the courts and “have kept the facts of that period of history constantly before the public,” wrote Wilde in an e-mail.
In its macabre way, the soon-to-be-exhumed body of Allende should keep the Chilean coup in the minds of American policymakers as well. The lesson? There are repercussions for supporting repressive regimes. In Chile, the tragic result was the murder of thousands and the dismantling of the country’s strong democratic tradition. As the pendulum swings toward representative rule in Egypt and the broader Middle East, the United States should not be surprised if what emerges is a political landscape hostile toward Washington, a price paid for years of supporting authoritarian governments.
In terms of getting what it wants, today the United States holds a weaker hand than it did in Chile in 1973. After the debilitating lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and facing a Middle East with a list of alternative, rising powers to which it can turn, America must concentrate hard on playing its cards right. That means reconciling as best it can its stated democratic ideals and often-contrary foreign policy.
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