Assault of the shock therapists
Tuesday 19th September 2017
JOHN GREEN previews Chicago Boys, the story of how Salvador Allende’s progressive government in Chile in the 1970s was overthrown with the help of a small group of US-trained Chilean economists
MILLIONS of CIA dollars pumped into the right-wing media to undermine a socialist government. Destabilisation of the economy, creating widespread civil unrest. A potential military coup.
No. This was Chile in 1973 when, following Salvador Allende’s surprise election victory, the right-wing in the country and the US were deliberating how to intervene and prevent the delivery of a socialist programme without courting worldwide condemnation.
The award-winning documentary Chicago Boys, which gets a screening in London at the weekend, takes us back to the 1950s where it all began. It was then that a small group of Chilean students had been given grants to study economics at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman.
They were a close-knit group of “fun-loving,” hard-working students who jocularly dubbed themselves “the Mafia”. In the film they maintain that they were not “party political” but some of them were right-wing Catholics and members of Opus Dei, the fascistic cult which flourished in Franco’s Spain.
The Boys’ world view ran counter to the many Latin Americans who viewed democracy and socialism as indivisible — the fight for democratic elections was indistinguishable from the fight for social welfare — but this was especially the case in Chile, where communists and socialists were able to win power electorally. But that victory was short-lived.
After completing their studies, the Chicago Boys returned to Chile to teach at the Catholic University in Santiago. Without their input and collaboration after the Allende government was overthrown, the military junta in Chile would have been incapable of governing the country. One of the group, Sergio de Castro, became the Minister for Economics in the dictator Augusto Pinochet’s government.
In this brilliant investigative film, the Boys are interviewed in depth about their involvement in economics, the Pinochet coup and the Chilean experience. They are more than happy to talk.
Asked whether he knew about the killing, disappearances and torture that took place during his time as minister during the Pinochet regime’s most brutal period, de Castro answers: “I didn’t know absolutely nothing.” A significant double negative.
He recalls climbing a hill in Santiago on the day of the coup to watch the bombing of the presidential palace where Salvador Allende would be murdered. As flames poured out of the palace’s windows, he felt, he says, an “infinite happiness.”
In statements reminiscent of leading nazis at the post-war Nuremberg trials, he and his fellow economists deny any knowledge of, or involvement in, human rights abuses. They were “only concerned with economics,” not “politics.”
But they add that it would not have been possible to make the necessary changes in Chile without an authoritarian regime and without “some” violation of human rights.
The documentary’s makers, journalist Carola Fuentes and film-maker Rafael Valdeavellano, have unearthed home movies of the first class of Chicago Boys studying and socialising in Santiago and they reveal how ideological the Chicago Boys were.
Trained not only in the technical aspects of monetarism they were, as one of them puts it, imbued with “a religious belief in the efficient operation of the totally liberalised market.”
The exchange mechanism that brought these Chileans to Chicago was funded by public funds from the US government’s Point Four foreign-aid programme. “I don’t think there has been a better investment of American taxpayers’ money,” says Juan Andres Fontaine, Chile’s Minister of Economy from 2010–2011.
That programme was targeted at weakening Keynesian economic developments in Latin America and at spreading, as one former University of Chicago president put it, “the Chicago influence” and “market economics” throughout Latin America.
Among the film’s many insights is the key role these civilians played in the coup itself. The military was reluctant to move against Allende unless they had an alternative economic plan and so the Boys, especially de Castro, gave them one.
Once the coup had happened and Allende was dead, it was they who convinced military officers to take a gamble on “shock therapy”, bringing in Milton Friedman to close the deal.
The documentary has a fitting epilogue. A younger neoliberal Chilean economist, trained by de Castro and other Boys in the 1970s, complains about the current government’s ban on snacks with high sugar content being sold in elementary schools.
What had started out as a world-historical insurgency, committed to executing a revolution not just in economics but in morals, is today reduced to complaining that the government “won’t allow us to get fat.”
Chicago Boys (subtitled) is being screened at 12 pm on Saturday September 23, at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, London E1, box office: richmix.org.uk.