On Sunday, the BBC reported the death of right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, an autocratic general who presided over a 17-year regime known for its free market reforms and brutal state repression. A fervent anti-communist and militarist, Pinochet’s crushing of all suspected dissidents and prolonged stay in power left a lasting impact upon the economic and political structure of Chile. At the time of his death, Pinochet faced charges for myriad human rights violations, but the former ruler’s deteriorating health effectively killed the prosecution effort.


While diametrically opposed Chileans reacted to the news by celebrating, mourning, and marching in the country’s capital, their counterparts north of the equator decided to voice their opinions at a somewhat safer distance from one another.


“The most enduring historical offence committed by Pinochet — not that I wish by saying this to belittle the suffering of his victims — was a political one,” notes blogger Oliver Kamm. “Chile had been an exemplary democratic state. It was governed under the rule of law, with habeus corpus, free elections and a free press. [Salvador] Allende — a vain and incompetent president — had scant regard for the worth of these constitutional mechanisms. Pinochet went much further than that, and broke them altogether. It was historically apt, and much to be welcomed, that in the historic year of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, constitutional government was also restored in Chile, contrary to the wishes of Pinochet. Since then, Chile has once again become a free and well-governed society. The right thing to say on Pinochet’s death is this … The last thing any democratic politician should do is accept at face value Pinochet’s own estimation of himself and his political significance. His was a brutish life, and I do not mourn his passing.”


Majority opinion and historical judgment seems to presume that, whatever positive influence some feel Pinochet had on Chile through economic reform and technological advancement, his erosion of South America’s most deep-rooted democracy and execution of thousands of its citizens definitively cancel them out. Some, like National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, pointedly disagree.


“There are many important caveats and exceptions to be made here, and I don’t have the time for any of them,” writes Goldberg at his magazine’s blog, The Corner. “So I will skip to the end and simply note that working with S.O.B.’s is fundamental to foreign policy. It was yesterday, is now, and will be tomorrow and ever after. The relevant moral question will always be, Why? Why tolerate this S.O.B. and condemn that one? To what end? Why give X room to maneuver, a free pass, etc. when you’re trying to depose and contain Y? I think in the grand debate we can characterize as Pinochet V. Castro, Pinochet wins in a cakewalk, as the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick would surely agree. Indeed, what fascinates me is that so many people can disagree.”


With an editorial in today’s Washington Post raising comparisons between Pinochet and Latin America’s other long-lasting autocrat, Fidel Castro, many pundits could hardly resist engaging in talk of “who was the more disastrous dictator.” For at least one moderate commentator, however, an attempt to dissect who’s worse obscures a more important discussion.


Writes David Schraub at the Moderate Voice: “To the first, yes, Pinochet is likely better than Fidel Castro. Castro, for his part, is likely better than Adolph Hitler. The debate as to whether right-wing or left-wing dictators are ‘worse’ is tiresome and, I feel, puts the desire to score partisan points ahead of what should be a bipartisan and universal norm of condemning all of history’s murderous tyrants to the hell they belong. Moreover, I can’t be too impressed by Pinochet voluntarily stepping down and ‘pav[ing] the way for liberal democrac[y]’ after over a decade in office, given that he got there by overthrowing a democratically elected government in Salvador Allende [in 1973]. Allende may not have been ideal, but he was the elected leader (unlike Mr. Castro), and I think it’s an absurd attempt at counterfactual to assert that he, too, would have been a brutal thug. Democracy, at the very least, already existed in Chile. Pinochet replaced democracy with a particularly vicious tyranny.”


Of course, perhaps no tyranny is quite as frightening as hypothetical tyranny — something one blogger has no trouble imagining.


“Pinochet is probably directly or indirectly responsible for 10,000 deaths; how many would Allende have inaugurated?” asks Thomas at Red State. “The Chilean economy, on the way down under Allende, tanked in 1980; how much worse would it have been had Pinochet not brought in the Chicago Boys?”

Andrew Bielak was a CJR intern.