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The Chilean Heroes of Social Security Privatizers

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As President Bush and his right-wing congressional allies attempt to destroy the bedrock of retirement security for this and future generations, they will undoubtedly point to the 1981 privatization of Chile's public pension system as a shining example of the possible as President Bush did late last month in a visit to Chile.

President Bush is not the only one on the right wing to hail Chilean reform. In fact, the intellectual authors of social security privatization at the CATO Institute, whose ranks include Jose Piñera, an architect of the Chilean reform, regularly tout the Chilean experience to paint a rosy picture of what "reform" would mean here at home. In last week's New York Times, for example, Piñera extolled the virtues of the Chilean model to argue the United States would be foolhardy not to follow Chile's lead.

It is telling that these privatization advocates embrace a reform carried out by one of the most morally bankrupt regimes – that of General Augusto Pinochet – in the history of the Western Hemisphere and ignore what preceded the Chilean privatization experience and made it possible.

To fully understand the Chilean experience and appreciate the origins of the social re-engineering being championed by the right-wing today, one must look further back than 1981 to another September 11 – September 11, 1973, the day on which the brutal, repressive, anti-democratic Pinochet regime sprang to life.

On that day, Chile's democratically-elected President Salvador Allende was violently overthrown by the Chilean military and replaced by Pinochet. To consolidate its power, the Pinochet regime set upon one of the most repressive sprees in the repression-filled history of the Western Hemisphere.

According to a 1994 report from Chile's National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, 3,129 Chileans were either killed or "disappeared" by the Pinochet regime in its consolidation of power. The regime's political killings, however, were not limited to Chile. On September 26, 1976, right here in Washington, DC, members of Pinochet's secret police bombed and assassinated Allende's former Foreign Minister, Orlando Letelier, and U.S. citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt. A similar extraterritorial car-bombing assassination was conducted against a leading Pinochet opponent – General Carlos Prats – in Buenos Aires , Argentina in 1974.

As the Chilean government recently recognized for the first time, the tyranny of Pinochet and his regime extended well beyond political killings and into a systematic reliance on torture. The National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture Report, publicly released on November 29, 2004, concluded that more than 28,000 Chileans were subjected to state-sponsored torture during the Pinochet regime. Included in the ranks of the tortured were 3,399 women, almost all of whom were subjected to sexual torture, including 316 who were raped by Pinochet-regime henchmen. Also included were 88 children under the age of 13.

The recent recognition of Chile's blood-soaked past has prompted a new proposal for pension reform in Chile, one that is far less likely to be touted by the right-wing supporters of social security privatization. In revealing the results of the torture commission, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos announced that he would seek approval of legislation through which the Chilean government would begin contributing approximately $190 per month to the private savings accounts held by victims of Pinochet's torture campaign.

People should not be fooled by those like Piñera who speak of the Chilean privatization process in terms that wholly ignore the brutal regime that brought it about and suggest it was the product of a legitimate, democratic, legislative process. The same legislative body that imposed Chile's privatization regime – interestingly, exempting the military pension system from the ballyhooed reform – had two years before granted a blanket amnesty to those in the Pinochet regime who had waged war upon the Chilean people.

It is no surprise that the right wing today fails to acknowledge the sordid nature of their Chilean privatization heroes. Although the precise level of U.S. involvement in the overthrow and death of Allende and the subsequent Pinochet terror campaign has been long debated, the right's affinity for Pinochet's authoritarian regime has been clear from the outset. A mere five days after the coup, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon enjoyed a self-congratulatory telephone conversation (thankfully recorded for posterity) regarding the removal of what they perceived to be the pro-communist, anti-American Allende government. Later, the Pinochet regime was exactly the kind of regime embraced by the Reagan administration in its application of the so-called Kirkpatrick Doctrine that drew a distinction between communist totalitarian regimes and pro-Western, anti-communist authoritarian regimes, leading, in the case of Chile, to an abandonment of a number of Carter administration-era sanctions against the regime.

In the coming months, when the right wing speaks of the Chilean privatization dream, we should not lose site of the moral bankruptcy of the regime the right wing is extolling. No one should forget or ignore the nightmare wrought upon the Chilean people by the Pinochet regime.

Dan Restrepo has worked on Western Hemisphere issues for the past decade and is the director of congressional affairs at the Center for American Progress.

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