Why Pinochet is the dictator who never dies

Why is there still support in Chile for a man considered a ruthless dictator by most of the democratic world? Pinochet’s sympathisers say his poor reputation is the result of a manipulation of history.

Thousands were tortured, killed or “disappeared” during the rule of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990 and yet even today many believe the late general was the best president Chile has ever had. They are hoping that the presidential and parliamentary elections on 17 November will lead to a revival of his ideals.

There’s plenty of evidence online of nostalgia for Pinochet. Facebook pages such as the Fundación Pdte Pinochet (Foundation President Pinochet) have achieved tens of thousands of likes and some Twitter users call him “tata” (daddy) or “mi general”.

The pro-Pinochet movement isn’t limited to the internet. There have also been moves to bring back Pinochet’s political party, Avanzada Nacional. The party’s aim is to represent the 44 per cent of Chileans who backed the military regime in the 1988 referendum. The leadership has postponed registering Avanzada Nacional until 2014, probably because they weren’t able to collect the signatures needed (according to their most recent statement they collected 20,000 but they need 30,000 to register). Its leader, Roberto Francesconi, is running as an independent candidate instead.

Similarly, hardcore Pinochetistas tried to put forward their own candidate for the presidential election but the man they had in mind, the retired colonel Cristián Labbé, declined to run.

Why is there still support for a man considered a ruthless dictator by most of the democratic world? Pinochet’s sympathisers say his poor reputation is the result of a manipulation of history. To show “who he really was”, a group of retired military officials – who are among his most ardent supporters – made a documentary, entitled Pinochet, last year.

They argue two points. First, that Pinochet saved Chile from Cuban-style communism, a handy argument against those who highlight the human-rights abuses during his rule. Second, they maintain he transformed a bankrupt economy into the most prosperous in Latin America. As for political killings, they reason that the 1973 coup prevented many more deaths by averting a civil war and that, in any case, those killed were “Marxist terrorists”.

Many Pinochet supporters have accused the current rightwing administration of betrayal. When Sebastián Piñera won the top office in 2010, after 20 years of left-wing government, they deemed it the resurgence of Pinochetism. But the president has disappointed their hopes of ending investigations into human-rights abuses and moved towards the left.

“This government, and the political right in general, want to get rid of the figure of my father. Many were his close allies but now they want to get rid of him,” the dictator’s daughter Lucia Pinochet told the Chilean newspaper La Segunda last year.

Avanzada Nacional are pinning their hopes on the rightwing presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei. As much as Matthei might like to please Pinochetistas, she also needs support from those who reject the Pinochet years as a dark period in the country’s history. She seems uncomfortable every time a journalist asks about her links with Pinochet: her father was part of his military junta.

It looks unlikely, however, that Matthei will win. According to opinion polls, she is currently achieving around 22 per cent of the vote, while the left-wing candidate Michelle Bachelet is polling at between 36 and 47 per cent. It seems Pinochetistas will have to wait to advance their beliefs beyond internet forums.

Some Chileans don't want to forget Augusto Pinochet. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.