20 Dec, 2006 @ 06:24
4 mins read

Pinochet Slips Through the Net


Lisa Tilley asks if the former dictator’s death will boost democracy in Chile and explains how Spain and Britain are involved in the Pinochet issue.

SPAIN almost had him, Britain set him free, Chile could never quite get it together and now he has finally slipped through the net for good. General Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s former dictator, led the regime which killed or “disappeared” more than 3,000 people. However, to paraphrase and elaborate Stalin’s words: one murder is a punishable offence, many thousands more is just a statistic beyond the reaches of international law. After over a decade evading justice in an elaborate global dance which frustrated judges and politicians alike, Pinochet ultimately passed away in his beloved Santiago at the ripe old age of 91.

While his supporters shed a tear watching him buried with military honours, his opponents shed a tear for those lying cold in unmarked, unknown graves – those who were buried without ceremony by his regime.

At the height of Cold War paranoia and with the aid of the US, Pinochet came to power in a bloody coup which ousted the democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende in 1973. The General went on to torture, kill and “disappear” thousands of Chile’s citizens throughout his 17 years at the head of the Chilean state. Pinochet pioneered the mass forced disappearance as a political tool; thousands of ‘subversives’ were kidnapped, tortured and executed in secret. Many of their bodies have never been found.

Evidently, the repression and violence took place in Chile, a country which slivers down the Southern Cone of Latin America. So, where do Spain and the UK come into it?

After Chile had begun its transition to democracy in 1990, much of the international community stood aghast that the former dictator remained at large, even continuing to have a hand in the running of the country from his place on the senate. Pinochet was a frequent visitor to the UK, where he counted friends in high circles – not least Margaret Thatcher, his economic soul mate if you like. Opponents of the Iron Lady believe Pinochet did things Thatcher could only dream of (he would quickly have dealt with all those miners for a start). Thatcher has expressed she is “saddened” by the death of the despot.

In 1998, while Pinochet was moving in those high London circles, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, took a stand for human rights and ordered his arrest. Pinochet had also tortured and killed foreign “subversives” and it was on behalf of its own citizens murdered by the Chilean regime that Spain decided to prosecute.

Chile was outraged. Even the left was offended by the move. Spain was infringing Chile’s sovereignty, they said, if he should stand trial he should stand trial here. Imagine if Franco were alive and being tried abroad, what would that do for your national ‘pact of forgetting?’
Nevertheless, Spain had a case; he had killed Spanish citizens too. For the next year and a half Pinochet suffered house arrest on Surrey’s exclusive Wentworth Estate while people in high places were busy bending and flexing the system until a loop-hole appeared through which to let him go.

Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary, released him in 2000 on the grounds of his mental incapacity – he was unfit to stand trial in the UK. Straw now admits he could have been “duped” by the former dictator. Months later, Pinochet was on television in Chile arguing his corner like a man whose brain cells were all intact. A fresh warrant was issued: so continued an opera of arrest warrants, pleas of insanity, minor strokes and frustrated calls from human rights groups, which continued for the last six years until, finally, Pinochet has been laid to rest in eternal impunity.

The death of a dictator is no simple event. Seventeen years of his personality cult carved his role as the father of the nation, Chile’s saviour from the “Marxist-Leninist cancer” which had pervaded the county. Mourners line the streets of Santiago, grieving as they would a biological father. Meanwhile, his opponents are celebrating with vigour. Spain should know and recognise ‘the two Chiles’ only too well.

Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge who almost tried him, expressed his regret that Pinochet never faced his crimes. At least however, Chile is investigating the truth and victims of the dictator are being compensated.

Dr Ann Matear, one of the world’s leading academic experts on Chilean politics believes Pinochet’s death will not change much in Chile. The government made the decision many years ago not to give him a state funeral and the military buried him out of duty, although many military officials perceive him as dishonourable after his denials of human rights abuses since the transition.

“He gave the orders, then lied, they were charged and he walked away,” she says. Therefore, once those staunch supporters reciting Cold War propaganda on the streets of Santiago have gone home, Pinochet is unlikely to be “rehabilitated by the right or more reviled by the left in death than he was in recent life.” As for his dramatic arrest in London, this marked the beginning of his gradual isolation from political life in Chile and the related strengthening of democracy in the country.

For many, from the left and the right, Pinochet is an almost embarrassing reminder of what was essentially a brief dictatorial interlude in the country’s lengthy democratic history. His final removal from public life will be a welcome boost for democratic consolidation, as Chile seeks to root out the persistent authoritarian enclaves which hold it back.

Twenty years ago, Chile was a repressive, patriarchal, military state with few rights for women and no political freedom. Now, it is a democracy again, and one led by a socialist female at that: Michele Bachelet was tortured by the former regime and her father was killed by it. Now she is running the country. Pinochet is probably turning in his grave already.

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