At the beginning of a new Chilean movie called NO, set in 1988, two men are discussing their country's upcoming plebiscite on whether to give General Augusto Pinochet another eight years as president. One is a young advertising whiz who has agreed to consult with the NO campaign to oust Pinochet. The other, his colleague, is a Pinochet supporter. When the Pinochet man claims America is supporting the dictator and his YES campaign, the young man contradicts him: "The Gringos are with us."
And thereby hangs a tale that has largely gone untold in the quarter century since the end of Pinochet's regime—the role the United States played in that signal event in the advancement of democratic values in the Western Hemisphere. It was, moreover, a tale in which I was intimately involved as the senior State Department official in charge of Latin America during the Reagan years.
Pinochet took power in a 1973 military coup that the United States supported. His rule was marked by repression—disappearances, torture, limits on freedom of speech and the press—and by the end of Chilean democracy. But it was also marked by economic progress, for Pinochet listened to his free-market economic advisers and laid the foundation for what remains Latin America's best economy. Those advisers were known as the Chicago Boys because so many of them had studied economics at the University of Chicago. I asked one of them (long after Pinochet was gone) how the general had come to have such a terrific economic policy. "Well, he knew nothing about economics and didn't care much about it," the man told me. "But we explained that the left hated the free market, so then he was for it."