- The General’s Slow Retreat: Chile After Pinochet by Mary Helen Spooner
In 1988, Chileans narrowly defeated General Augusto Pinochet’s electoral bid in a climate of profound uncertainty, skillful opposition and international scrutiny. Even as the regime’s opponents celebrated in the streets, Pinochet’s supporters prepared to defend his legacy, as well as his person, from the political and legal consequences of the regime’s well-documented abuse of human rights. Over the next two decades, the transition to civilian democracy would be marked by the challenges and contradictions of Pinochet’s continuing sway over Chilean politics, a process evident in real time to [End Page 516] Chilean and international observers, but discernible in all its complexity only with the passage of time.
In The General’s Slow Retreat, Mary Helen Spooner reconstructs the private world of conflict, negotiation, and insecurity that marked the Chilean transition. Spooner takes her readers beyond the narratives produced for public consumption into the private meetings of military and civilian leaders, where deals were struck and positions that profoundly shaped the way forward for Chilean democracy were devised. Drawing on published interviews, news accounts, and memoirs as well as her remarkable access to dozens of key players—including presidents, senators, ministers, and military officials—Spooner has crafted a detailed and sophisticated account of Chile’s fragile transition, focusing with unfailing acuity on questions of Pinochet’s influence and the legacy of human rights abuses after the 1988 plebiscite.
The book is structured in three parts: the transition in its fragile early years, the deepening of civilian authority and challenges to military impunity in the 1990s, and Pinochet’s fall from power following his London arrest in 1998. Using information gleaned from public sources and interviews, Spooner details how civilian leaders of the transition managed Pinochet’s relentless challenges to civilian supremacy. The second and third parts of the book examine how democratic consolidation affected these evolving civil-military relations, particularly as ever more human rights cases were brought against military officials. Spooner also devotes two excellent chapters to the ruling coalition’s management of challenges beyond human rights, including economic and environmental policies, constitutional reform efforts, and controversies over the protection of free speech in democracy.
In Chapters 7 through 10, Spooner returns to the chronology of human rights prosecution, recounting the critical period of Pinochet’s ten-month detention in London, describing Pinochet’s decline, Judge Juan Guzmán’s persistent investigations, and the continuing challenges of civilian governance until the dictator’s death in 2006. The book’s closing chapters explore other kinds of challenges faced by the Concertación center-left government thereafter, including economic inequality, indigenous policy, and the provision of public services, particularly education and transportation.
Although The General’s Slow Retreat provides a welcome and highly teachable contribution to the literature on contemporary Chile, it is not without limitations. In her effort to provide an insider’s account of Pinochet’s role in Chilean politics, for example, Spooner reproduces a top-down, party-centered story of Chilean political life, an approach that obscures how those developments have been shaped by experiences and organizations at the grassroots. The roles of human rights organizations, the Catholic Church, and the labor movement in the resurgence of opposition parties in the 1980s, and in sustaining political pressure on civilian governments thereafter, occupy only an incidental space in Spooner’s account of specific events. Spooner’s own account of the shifting political tides of accountability in the face of impunity begs the question of how and why issues of truth, justice, and reparation have remained so central to the [End Page 517] process of democratic consolidation, a question that can be answered only by looking beyond opinion polls to Chilean participation in politics, consumption, and economic development.
Notwithstanding this limitation, The General’s Slow Retreat provides a nuanced and accurate reconstruction of how and why Pinochet’s seeming invulnerability—both legal and political—declined after 1988, a history...