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Review: Reagan and Pinochet

24 Jun 2016
Reviewed by Dr Sean Burges

The role and influence of the US in Chilean politics over the last 30 years of the 20th century is a fraught and complicated terrain, deeply complicated by the ideological convictions of those taking up the subject. Was Chile simply a plaything of the CIA, or were Chileans responsible for initiating and perpetuating their own military dictatorship? Setting aside the question of how Chile turned to authoritarianism as a question copiously addressed by the scholarly literature, the book under review turns its attention to the role played by the Ronald Reagan White House in either perpetuating or ending the military rule of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

Morley and McGillion make extensive use of the newly released archival files in the US as well as interviews with nearly all of the key players involved in managing the bilateral relationship in the 1980s. The result is a masterful account of the Reagan White House’s attempt to push Pinochet towards a less repressive form of governance with an end point of a democratic transition. Within this framework, five lessons emerge as deeply insightful in their account. First, Reagan’s foreign policy team was deeply uncomfortable with the human rights abuses that Pinochet continued to perpetrate in the 1980s. Second, there was nothing close to agreement on how the US should react. The story woven through the pages is one of tension between officials on the National Security Council and those in the State Department, with the former prioritising anti-communism over larger concerns about the potential reputational damage the US was suffering by continuing to side with Pinochet. For their part, officials in the State Department continued to push for more pressure on Chile to reform its ways. Bolstering the State Department’s position was the third factor, namely, sustained pressure from Congress on the White House to bring about change in Chile, which sometimes took the form of threats to withhold appropriations for other Reagan foreign policy priorities. The fourth factor, which became increasingly important as Chile inched towards its transition at the end of the 1980s, was US insistence that Pinochet take meaningful steps to bring those responsible for the 1976 car bomb killing of Orlando Letellier in Washington to justice, preferably in the US.

For those clinging to the belief that the US has near-omnipotent power to dictate events in the Americas, the fifth major lesson is particularly troubling: during the Reagan years, the United States had remarkably little ability to influence Pinochet. Indeed, the Chilean dictator frequently told his US interlocutors bluntly to butt out of his country’s internal affairs. Much of the book is consequently devoted to the internal debates Reagan’s foreign policy team had while they sought some way of reigning in the General and pushing him to follow the regional zeitgeist of transiting to democracy. The central point here is that it was only when Chilean elites with real power and influence decided that change was needed that the US was able to successfully exert pressure. Much of the US action across the second half of the 1980s was consequently devoted to helping the democratic opposition unite and avoid falling into the traps Pinochet was setting to justify his continued hold on power. Not surprisingly, much of this US advice involved counsel that the far left and communists should be excluded from the pro-democracy coalition. Nevertheless, the clear picture is one of concerted attempts to encourage the rise of a Chilean type of politics capable of bridging the distrust the security forces had in the inherent instability of democracy.

The story in this book of US attempts to push Chile towards democracy will become a benchmark study for scholars examining bilateral relations in this area. The book is equally important reading for those less interested in US-Chile relations than wider foreign policy questions. Through exceptionally well-crafted and detailed use of archival materials and interviews, the authors paint a detailed and penetrating picture of how different segments of the Reagan-era foreign policy establishment interacted, what priorities they sought to advance and how they balanced and bolstered their respective positions with links in other parts of the executive such as the treasury as well as other organs such as Congress. The evidence presented to tell this story is overwhelming, with nearly every paragraph in the book carefully built around direct quotations from key documents only recently declassified or interviews with the decision-makers at the heart of the process.

Morley and McGillion have written an enormously important book on US-Chile relations in the 1980s that has the potential to reframe our preconceptions of US bilateral relations in the region and our understanding of the tensions between anti-communism and democracy promotion that marked US foreign policy in the 1980s.

Morris Morley and Chris McGillion, Reagan and Pinochet: The Struggle Over U.S. Policy Toward Chile (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Dr Sean Burges, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, School of Politics & International Relations and Deputy Director, The Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies, Australian National University.