Chile Says “Yes” to a New Constitution, “No” to Alvaro Saieh

The Chicago Coup

On the morning of September 11, 1973, los Chicago Boys were busy. Outside on the streets of Santiago, Chile, the military portion of the coup was well underway. Tanks rolled and rifles fired as general Augusto Pinochet prepared to launch 24 rockets into the presidential palace, where the democratically elected president Salvador Allende was making his last stand with 36 ride-or-die supporters. Meanwhile, inside the offices of El Mercurio, a right-wing newspaper, los Chicago Boys frantically printed final copies of the Brick, a 500-page economic plan that the Boys had been secretly working on — with funding from the CIA — since the early days of Allende’s presidency

For 17 years after the coup, Pinochet terrorized Chile via two types of brutality: physical brutality, provided by his military and law enforcement, and economic brutality, provided by los Chicago Boys and their Brick.

After Pinochet left power, his government’s constitution remained in force. The document was amended numerous times, but the amendments failed to change the essential dynamic of Chilean economic life. While Chile as a nation became wealthier, the ruling elite concentrated an increasingly larger share of the wealth among themselves, which forced a ever-growing number of citizens out of the middle class and into poverty. The rich got richer. The poor got poorer.

Saieh and Friedman

Los Chicago Boys got their nickname via their participation in the Chile Project, a program based at the University of Chicago (UC). The project worked like this: The U.S. government paid for Chilean students to move to Chicago to study economics at UC, where Milton Friedman headed up an economics department devoted to a radical free-market ideology that emphasized deregulation, privatization, and slashed social spending. Friedman and his government allies imagined that the Chilean students would return to Chile and spread the free-market evangelism, thereby indoctrinating more young people, who would rise to power in Chilean politics. The ultimate goal: make Chile more amenable to U.S. transnational corporations availing themselves of Chile’s national resources and business opportunities, primarily via privatization of nationalized industries.

Friedman worked at UC from 1946 to 1977. Towards the end of his tenure he advised Pinochet via correspondence and in person, while Pinochet’s shock troops abducted, tortured, and killed their perceived enemies. At the same time, a young Chilean named Alvaro Saieh studied at UC, where he received a Master of Arts in 1976, with a Ph.D. in economics following in 1980. In an article about Saieh’s art collection — some 150 pieces spanning from the 14th century to the present — The Art Newspaper noted, “One of the so-called “Chicago Boys” … [Saieh] was part of a wave of economists and businesspeople who revolutionized the Chilean economy during the Pinochet years.” Saieh didn’t just proselytize Chicago School economics when he returned to Chile. He put his ideology into action, amassing a fortune in the capitalist feeding frenzy started by the collaboration between Pinochet and Friedman.

Giving Back to Those Who Took Everything

Saieh Hall occupies more than 100,000 square feet on the UC campus in Hyde Park. Formerly home to the UC theology department, the building was renovated, repurposed, and renamed in honor of Saieh, who had contributed what the university termed “a significant donation.” Inside Saieh Hall you’ll find the Becker Friedman Institute, which represents a merger of the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics and the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory. The merger happened in 2011, after three years of controversy surrounding the creation of the Friedman Institute in 2008. A high point of the controversy came when 170 members of UC staff wrote an open letter criticizing the school for honoring Friedman, whose radical promotion of unfettered capitalism had fallen out of vogue as its implementation turned countries into failed states around the world, from the Southern Cone to the Middle East — and ultimately to the United States itself, where since September 11, 2001, a state of perpetual crisis has allowed corporations to feed off an increasingly impoverished, shocked, and alienated citizenry.

Radio Free Chile

In October 2019, Chile increased fares for public transit. After nearly three decades of economic exploitation, the fare hike tipped the scales. Santiago erupted with uprisings and protests. For the first time since Pinochet, the Chilean military took to the streets to oppose its citizens. Sustained popular unrest forced the government to consider fundamental changes. One year later, on October 25, 2020, Chileans voted on a national referendum that asked this question: “Do you want a new constitution?” A resounding 78% of voters answered “yes.” This “yes” was also a “no.” It was a “no” to the existing constitution, which dated to Pinochet’s rule. It was a “no” to the ideology of predatory capitalism. It was a “no” to the culture of Friedman and his foremost Chilean devotee, the fourth-richest man in the country, Alvaro Saieh.

Saieh came to Chicago in his mid-twenties and learned how to take advantage of the people in his home country. When he returned home, he fully put his studies to use, becoming one of the top 1,000 richest people in the world. He expressed his gratitude to UC in such measure that his name is on the economics hall, while the name of Friedman, the Nobel-winner and Eater of Worlds, is relegated to a glorified meeting room inside the building.

Saieh has seen the full lifespan of Chicago School economics. He has watched the ideology metastasize from Chile to Argentina to Bolivia to Poland to Russia to Sri Lanka to Africa to, ultimately, the United States. And now, with more money than God, the son and heir of the Chicago School watches as Chile stands and says “yes” to a new constitution and “no” to the ideology that allowed Alvaro Saieh to become a billionaire.

The failed-state factory that is Chicago School economics started in Chile. Today, after a year of demanding fundamental change, Chileans have earned the opportunity to enact it. Whether this rekindled power of democracy makes its way around the world and back to the United States is up to us.

Sources
Carrillo, C. (2019, November 04). Alvaro Saieh explains his collecting habits and fascination with Old Masters. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.theartnewspaper.com/archive/collector-interview-fascinated-by-old-masters

Klein, N. (2014). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin.

Tuerk, A. (2019, October 19). Chilean President Suspends Fare Hikes; 3 Die In Supermarket Fire As Protests Continue. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/10/19/771545299/chiles-capital-engulfed-in-chaos-as-metro-protests-intensify

New commitment to support postdoctoral program in economics. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://news.uchicago.edu/story/new-commitment-support-postdoctoral-program-economics

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