Watching 2001’s “I Love Pinochet” Documentary, in Trump’s 2020
In August 2020, in the last months of the Trump presidency (one can only hope), I watched the 2001 documentary “I Love Pinochet.” Released nearly two decades ago, this film compiles interviews with Chileans from various socioeconomic classes as they share their fervent support for ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
As a child of Chilean immigrants to the States, I’ve always wondered:
How could the people of democratic Chile allow a military regime to rule for nearly two decades?
After it ended, why did so many Chileans believe that the dictatorship was good for their country? Why did some Chileans even want to extend the dictator’s rule?
“I Love Pinochet” contains minimal voiceover from Franco-Chilean filmmaker Marcela Said. Instead, Said asks Pinochet’s supporters to speak for themselves.
As we come upon the 2020 presidential election in the United States, I have become more sensitive to the striking similarities between the language used by Pinochet and Trump supporters. Here I am, in 2020 USA, watching our president “joke” about 12 years in power, celebrate armed right-wingers, dismantle the USPS, and undermine our trust in the electoral process.
After watching this film, I was floored by the historical echoes. It was startling to recognize the tactics Pinochet’s supporters used to confound, confuse, and derail arguments against “mi general.”
First, Some Historical Context
On September 11, 1973, Chile’s armed forces toppled democratically elected President Salvador Allende and installed a four-man junta to govern the country. The members of this junta included the leaders of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Carabineros (Chile’s national police force). Although these men initially planned to rotate power among them, that didn’t pan out. General Augusto Pinochet held power until the end. Under his rule, the junta protected its own with an amnesty law (1978) and a new constitution (1980).
Per the new constitution, the country voted in the 1988 plebiscite regarding whether to extend Pinochet’s tenure. To his shock (I’m sure), the dictator was essentially voted out: 56% voted against extending his rule — an astonishingly close call, IMHO. In 1990, he stepped down from the presidency. And yet, he held onto power. Pinochet held the role of commander-in-chief until 1998. He was senator-for-life until 2002. He died in 2006.
1998 was critical for Pinochet. That year, he was arrested in London in response to an extradition order from a Spanish judge. After a protracted legal battle in the UK, he was released back to Chile in 2000. In “I Love Pinochet,” interviewees are still reeling over the grand injustice done to their leader, and are celebrating his return to la patria.
When Said began filming, the abuses of Pinochet’s regime were well-documented. For example, the 1990 Rettig Report (.pdf) documented thousands of cases of torture, murder, and disappearances. (And, note, the 1975 Church Committee report (.pdf) outlined the U.S. government’s covert material support of the military coup in Chile.) “I Love Pinochet” is set before later reports, such as the Valech Report (2004), were released. It’s also set before the public learned that Pinochet had stolen millions from the Chilean people.
Whataboutism Meets Pinochetism
In “I Love Pinochet,” we visit the home of the working-class Arcos family and join them as they watch Father Raúl Hasbún Zaror, a priest and pro-Pinochet TV personality.
Hasbún is asked, Were human rights abuses committed under the Pinochet regime? He responds vehemently (timestamp: 9:30):
Original Spanish: “Oiga pero que pregunta más necia.
“¿Usted me podría numerar un solo gobierno militar o democrático bajo el cual no se hayan cometido o no se estén cometiendo centenares, miles de violaciones a los derechos humanos? ¿Ustedes tienen alguna policía, algún cuerpo de seguridad, alguna CIA, algún FBI, tienen algunas fuerzas armadas a las cuales nunca se les haya podido probar que se excedieron en la manera de reprimir una manifestación, que trataron de arrancar mediante la tortura confesiones de sus detenidos o sospechosos, o que verdaderamente ejercieron malos tratos y hasta violencia brutal sobre los sometidos a su imperio?
“Oiga no sean hipócritas!”
English translation: “What a foolish question!
“Could you name me one single government, military or democratic, under which there aren’t hundreds, thousands of human rights abuses being committed? Do you have any police, any security force, any CIA, any FBI, any armed force that has never been found guilty of excesses in suppressing a protest, that didn’t use torture to get confessions out of prisoners or suspects, or that never exercised poor treatment or even brutal violence against those under its rule?
“Don’t be such hypocrites!”
Hasbún does not deny that the Pinochet regime was guilty of atrocities. Instead, he asks: “What about the rest of the world?”
Ah, yes, “whataboutism.” That rhetorical tactic comes up often in online arguments, where it’s regularly abused to discredit critics and devolve conversation into an endless tit-for-tat.
Professor and journalist Ben Yagoda explains in the New York Times when “what about” questions can be used to further discourse, and how they can also be abused to distract and create false analogies.
As Yagoda points out, any question that begins with “what about” is not necessarily suspect. If I say that New York-style pizza is the best in the United States, and you say “what about Chicago-style pizza,” we are clearly talking about the same category of thing. We can address your question without straying from the premise of our conversation: the best pizza in the States. And if you say New York-style is the best, but last week I heard you singing praises for Chicago-style, I can totally ask why your behavior has been inconsistent.
But whataboutism can also stymie conversation, and for that reason, it was a favorite tactic of the Soviets during the Cold War. Per this breakdown over at Merriam-Webster: “As the regimes of Josef Stalin and his successors were criticized by the West for human rights atrocities, the Soviet propaganda machine would be ready with a comeback alleging atrocities of equal reprehensibility for which the West was guilty.” Certainly, both the West and the Soviets should have answered for human rights atrocities. But the sins of the West should not absolve the Soviets’ crimes, nor end the conversation.
NPR shared this insight from journalist and Russia analyst Vadim Nikitin:
Whataboutism flattens moral nuances into a black-and-white worldview. But in this worldview, it’s very difficult to be the good guy; idealism is the ultimate naïveté, and anyone who dares to criticize another can be “unmasked” as a hypocrite. This creates a useful moral equivalency, as Nikitin added: if nobody is perfect, there’s license to do all sorts of imperfect things.
The idea, he said, is that “you’ve got to be practical and kind of bloody-minded and get your hands dirty. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying.”
Taken to its extreme, whataboutism presents a fundamentally cynical view of humanity: that none of us are angels and the world is naturally brutal; if you are complaining about a single wrong, you are ignoring a million others, and thus, you are either a hypocrite or laughably naive about the true nature of the world.
Back to Father Hasbún, the “what about”-er
Hasbún argues that every country is guilty of human rights abuses. He implies that governments can’t run the world without “getting their hands dirty.”
Could our global community stand to hold more corrupt leaders accountable? Yes, absolutely. But Hasbún isn’t arguing that all corrupt leaders should face justice. Instead, he’s dismissing calls for justice. The ubiquity of human rights abuses makes focusing on one country pointless, ridiculous, hypocritical.
Instead of calling out these global injustices, he normalizes the violence. Essentially: No country is innocent of these crimes, so why are we demanding justice from Chile?
Whataboutism isn’t necessarily a “left-” or “right-wing” tactic, but Trump has made a vibrant practice of using it, as have his supporters (e.g. a common refrain, “what about when Obama did etc. etc.”). So I’ll simply include one example below. Trump addressed the violence of white supremacists by inquiring why the media hadn’t yet condemned the “alt-left”:
Trump Asks, ‘What About the Alt-Left?’ Here’s an Answer
Fact Check President Trump defended his belated condemnation of white supremacists who engaged in violence in…
Ad hominem sidebar: Hasbún has a pattern of supporting authority to the detriment of human rights. In 2017, Hasbún was accused of cooperating with the right-wing militant group Patria y Libertad in murdering a laborer after the 1973 military coup. In a separate incident, Hasbún appears to have helped bury accusations of sexual abuse against a priest of the Catholic Church.
Whataboutism and Fairness
Thirty minutes into “I Love Pinochet,” we enter a well-appointed dining room. A chandelier hangs over a table set for la once, the Chilean version of afternoon tea. We watch two nanas deliver bread to the guests, several upper-middle-class women. The enclosed space and likeminded company create the perfect echo chamber for pro-Pinochet opinions.
The context for this quote is that the speakers believe that a powerful part of the international community sympathizes with communists, and those pro-communist countries are trying to destroy Pinochet (timestamp: 30:30):
Original (drawn from three overlapping voices): “El destruyó el comunismo en un día…no se lo van a perdonar jamás…el único hombre capaz de destruir el comunismo en el mundo…y él sólo entregó un país floreciente…y es un ejemplo para el mundo y al mundo no les gusta…el primer lugar en latinoamerica…y eso es lo que tienen que destruir, y les queda poco tiempo porque se están dando cuenta en el resto del mundo, entonces tienen que destruirlo ahora.”
Translation: “He destroyed communism in one day…he’ll never be forgiven for that…The only man in the world capable of destroying communism… and he alone delivered a flourishing country…he is an example to the world and the world doesn’t like it…this is the top country in Latin America…and that is what they need to destroy, and they’re running out of time because the rest of the world is recognizing it [i.e. that Chile flourished under Pinochet’s strongman rule], so they have to destroy him now.”
Throughout “I Love Pinochet,” his supporters hold this exceptionalist view: that their leader is uniquely admirable and powerful (the only man able to destroy communism, in a single day, single-handedly!), and that for this reason, the international community has singled him out as a target (the world is being unfair to him).
Our 45th president has stated his exceptionalism in various ways. For example, in 2020: “I’m the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos.” And his frequent claim that “no politician in history has been treated more unfairly.”
But maybe Pinochet’s supporters weren’t totally wrong?
Well, Pinochet’s supporters were right about one thing. There was something unique about Pinochet’s legal battle in the UK.
Spanish lawyers argued that under international law, Spain could try Pinochet for serious crimes against humanity (genocide and terrorism) outside his home country. Pinochet claimed he had sovereign immunity. The Law Lords ultimately ruled that Pinochet was not immune and should be extradited to Spain, although the case was ultimately dismissed due to Pinochet’s “failing health.”(See BBC’s timeline of the legal proceedings.)
As legal scholar Geoffrey Robertson commented:
“[T]he Pinochet Case was momentous because — for the first time — sovereign immunity was not allowed to become sovereign impunity”. (qtd. in Evans)
Pinochet was the first — a precedent that changed global justice. Trump is also the first wildcard president. It seems exceptional behavior demands exceptional treatment.
One Final “What About”
Later in the documentary, Fernando Barros Tocornal, a lawyer and now a partner at a Las Condes-based law firm, argues that Europe has no right to hold Chile accountable for its history. Although he is a lawyer, he isn’t offering a legal argument but rather a “what about” argument. He cites the world wars and violence in Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, and Russia, and Europe’s inaction regarding violence against Palestinians as he claims that European nations have no right to judge Chile’s history. (He conveniently ignores that Spanish citizens were also murdered during the Pinochet regime and that many Chilean exiles fled to Spain, where their children would become Spanish citizens.)
Original: “Yo entiendo que hay valores que hoy día son universales, pero eso no da pie para que un pais pretenda poner su pie—no es cierto, su sobrepotencia — sobre una nación pequeña cómo nosotros y nos venga a exigir explicaciones.”
Translation: “I understand that there are values that today are universal¹, but that doesn’t give a country the right to place its foot — its overwhelming power — over a little nation² like ours and to demand explanations from us.”
I had to quote this for two reasons:
¹ Although the concept of human rights has certainly evolved, it wasn’t new at the time of the regime. Chile signed the 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1950, though it conveniently delayed signing the 1977 protocols until 1991. (Chile signed the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1988.) The regime passed the 1978 Amnesty Law precisely because it knew that one day, the Chilean community would try to hold officials accountable for their crimes.
² Barros alluded to the fact that greater powers have a history of interfering with Latin American nations. So I think asking a “what about” question here is appropriate. Ahem, “what about when an ‘overwhelming power’ interfered with Chile in the 1970s?” While Barros is incensed that Europe interfered in Chilean affairs by arresting Pinochet, he does not reflect on the irony that it was the United States’s covert interference in Chilean affairs that supported the coup.
I think it’s a bit hypocritical to accept the U.S. aid (financial, political, and otherwise) that helped establish the dictatorship but to reject European aid in seeking justice.
So where does that leave us, in Trump’s America?
In an interview with UC Davis professor Michael Lazzarra, documentarian Marcela Said explains that she visited Universidad Gabriela Mistral, a private university known to cater to a particular elite, expecting to find pro-Pinochet opinions. To her surprise, the three students she approached presented her with “la radiografía de la sociedad chilena” — an X-ray of Chilean society.
The clip is below in Spanish (timestamp: 18:36):
I’ll summarize each student’s position here: The young woman defends Pinochet by explaining the coup’s inevitability and bringing up confirmed lies about Cuban infiltration and armed insurgents. The first young man is against Pinochet; his own father was tortured despite having no weapons. The second young man isn’t interested in the conversation. He styles himself as “apolitical.”
The young woman’s words have stayed with me:
Original: “Se desconoce la verdad absolutamente. O sea, uno lo que ha leído, lo que ha sido informado, dependiendo del programa que viste, la posición que te dio … A mí me toco estar en una familia en que nadie fue detenido-desaparecido, en que no torturaron a nadie. Me toco estar ahí y yo vi la política desde ese punto de vista.”
Translation: “We don’t know the real truth [of what happened during the regime]. I mean, based on what you’ve read, what you’ve been told, depending on the program you’ve seen, that’s the position you’ve taken… It was my fate to be in a family in which no one was detained-disappeared, in which no one was tortured. It was my fate to be there and I saw politics from that perspective.”
At the end of the day, this young woman suggests, there is no truth, only a collection of perspectives. She may not realize it, but she’s arguing for relativism, the idea that there is no absolute truth.
Furthermore, she implies that one’s perspective comes not from reasoning or evidence but from what has been presented to you — received wisdom. As the passive recipient of her family’s perspective, she absolves herself of the responsibility of researching and defending her opinions. And her opinions are not innocuous. They have real consequences in a Chile grappling with how and whether to prosecute those who committed atrocities during the regime. For that same reason, the young man who claims to be “apolitical” is actually passively supporting a status quo.
This young woman’s words dovetail hauntingly with the opinions of today’s science skeptics, the climate-change deniers, the COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, even the “I don’t see color” folks who deny the existence of racism. Truth has two sides, they suggest. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
Moments later, Said wryly shares her own opinion as she brings our attention to a flyer taped to the university wall.
Original: Si dices que no existe la verdad… ¿a qué vienes a la universidad?
Translation: If you don’t believe that truth exists, why did you come to college?
The Pinochet regime lasted nearly two decades thanks to the Chileans who actively supported him while aware of his crimes; thanks to those who believed without question the government propaganda spread through the TV, newspaper, and radio; and thanks to those who preferred to keep their heads down and not get involved.
After the regime ended, support for Pinochet came from those who benefited from his rule, those who twisted facts, who fell into rhetorical traps, who followed the guidance of authority figures such as parents and religious authorities, and who became disenchanted with the entire concept of political discourse.
I hope my fellow Americans can take some lessons from Chilean history. We have choices that lead us further from or closer to a humane society. May we choose wisely.
Evans, Rebecca. “Pinochet in London: Pinochet in Chile: International and Domestic Politics in Human Rights Policy.” Human Rights Quarterly, Feb., 2006, Vol. 28, №1pp. 207–244. Available on JSTOR.
Lazzara, Michael J. “Radiografía del pinochetismo: una conversación con la documentalista Marcela Said.” Chasqui, May 2013, Vol. 42, №1 (Mayo 2013), pp. 249–256. Available on JSTOR.