Augusto Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold

Justin Vogler
11 December 2006

Augusto Pinochet's death closes an era in Chile but leaves a nation still split over the ex-dictator's legacy, reports Justin Vogler in Santiago.

General Augusto Pinochet, who died on Sunday 10 December 2006 aged 91, continues to divide Chile. Less than two hours after his death a crowd of over 3,000 had gathered in Santiago's Plaza Italia to celebrate. Simultaneously, two kilometres away in the upmarket district of Providencia, 2,000 mourners had congregated in front of the military hospital where the general's body lay.

A joyous throng chanting and singing for a loathed dictator at last dead, against inconsolable tears and fury that the hospital's flag hadn't been lowered to half-mast: the contrast is symbolic of the former dictator's legacy to his divided country.

Since the general was rushed to hospital a week earlier after suffering a heart attack, there has been a heated debate in Chile over how the government - led by Chile's socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, whose father was tortured and killed by Pinochet's goons - should deal with his death. A survey published in the 10 December edition of the centre-right La Tercera newspaper showed that 55% of Chileans believed he should not be given a state funeral but that 51% felt he should be awarded the honours due to a former army commander-in-chief. A surprising number, 45%, said that Bachelet should attend the funeral.

Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist in Chile. He writes regularly in the Santiago Times and Upside Down World

Also by Justin Vogler in openDemocracy:

-"Michelle Bachelet's triumph"
(January 2006)
-"Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war" (January 2006)
-"Latin America: woman's hour" (March 2006)
-"Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble" (April 2006)
-"Mapuche: the other Chile" (June 2006)
="South America: towards union or disintegration" (July 2006)
-"Democratising globalisation: Joseph Stiglitz interviewed"(25 September 2006)

A swift government announcement echoed the public mood: there is to be no state funeral, rather, "the general will receive the honors corresponding to a former Commander in Chief of the Army, in accordance with Army regulations". This includes the flying of flags at half mast at army installations. The terse statement concludes: "The government of Chile will act at all times within the institutional framework established for situations such as this, and will ensure a climate of tranquility and equanimity throughout the country."

Throughout the week there has also been growing speculation that Pinochet's heart attack may have been a sham. For many it looked like a repeat of a familiar pattern, with the general being whisked to the secretive military hospital just hours before judges were to decide whether he should stand trial for state murders committed during his seventeen-year dictatorship. On 6 December, Lorena Pizarro, president of the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (association of relatives of disappeared detainees), called a press conference to denounce yet another "shameful show". This was after all the man who, as the socialist senator Carlos Ominami told me recently, had "feigned madness to escape justice in London".

Yet there were signs that Pinochet himself knew his end was near. On his birthday, just a week before he was hospitalised, he emitted a statement taking "political responsibility" for everything that had occurred during his dictatorship. His declaration ended: "Today, close to the end of my days, I want to make clear that I hold no grudges towards anybody and that I love my country above all else."

The other 9/11

Chile's historically marginal geopolitical position makes this South American republic of scarcely 15 million people an unlikely candidate for what in the event it became between the 1970s and 1990s: a position in global social-science literature as the eternal "example". This emblematic status, initially established by the experience of the Unidad Popular government of Salvador Allende, was replenished by a number of succeeding events in this singular country.

First, Allende's election as president in September 1970 (a position he retained until the coup that overthrew him, and precipitated his suicide in the Moneda palace, on 11 September 1973) is widely cited as inaugurating the first attempt of a democratically elected Marxist to lead a peaceful transition to socialism within a constitutional framework.

Second, Pinochet's bloody coup has long become the paradigm case of a CIA-backed plot to overthrow an elected leader whose policies threatened both the local elite and United States economic interests.

Third, Pinochet's Chile is constantly evoked to illustrate the horrors of torture, disappearance, state repression and political exile. True, relatively fewer Chileans were murdered or 'disappeared' during his rule (3,200 at the last count) than in Argentina (where there were around 30,000 desaparecidos in the 1970s and early 1980s), but the number of victims was far larger than this. The 2004 informe sobre prisión política y tortura (report on political imprisonment and torture) found that nearly 30,000 people had suffered torture or politically motivated imprisonment during the dictatorship; some of these were among the 70,000 Chileans estimated to have fled or been expelled during Pinochet's time in power.

Fourth, the Chilean "example" continued with the economic policy pursued by Pinochet's economic advisers - the infamous "Chicago boys" - in the early years of his rule. The adherents of the Milton Freidman school of economic liberalism regard Chile as the model of what can be achieved when neo-liberal reforms are consistently implemented. Pinochet's combination of free market and strong state took Chile into and through the readjustment crisis and mass unemployment of the early 1980s.

The pain of forced debt payments, violent suppression of the unions, privatisations, deindustrialisation and the cutting of state budget contributed to deepening social inequality but, by the time Pinochet stood down in 1990, after he had lost the October 1989 referendum he called to legitimise and extend his rule, there were annual economic growth rates of almost 10%. (Some observers - the Nobel laureate for economics Joseph Stiglitz is one - have said that Chile had not in fact followed the neo-liberal recipe half as closely as Friedman and other monetarists claimed.)

Fifth, Pinochet's referendum was followed by the start of another pioneering Chilean story: the textbook transition to democracy. Pinochet was the only Latin American dictator to stand down after losing a plebiscite he himself had organised. What he did bequeath, however, was a tightly-crafted constitution that greatly limited the scope of the fledgling democracy and ensured that his political and economic reforms would stay in place. Pinochet also awarded himself and his cohorts blanket legal immunity.

As Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan write in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (1996): "This set the framework for an extremely constrained transition and the most democratically 'disloyal' transfer of power of [the] southern European and Southern Cone cases."

The London clinic

Indeed, for most of the 1990s it looked as if constitutional safeguards, strong support from a large and influential sector of the population and a legacy of successful economic reforms would keep Pinochet safe. He stayed on as commander-in-chief of the army until 1997 and then took his place as a "designated" lifelong senator (as stipulated in the constitution). Indeed, had he stayed at home in Chile, it is likely Pinochet would have lived out his retirement tranquilly. He did not stay put, however, and on 16 October 1998 he was arrested in London. True to form, Chile became the first country in history to have a former head of state arrested abroad under international criminal law.

After nearly two years of legal wrangling, the then British home secretary, Jack Straw, finally concluded that Pinochet was too senile to be extradited to Spain and sent him home. But the general's reputation and aura of immunity had been shattered for good. As Salvador Allende's daughter and socialist congresswoman Isabel Allende (not to be confused with her cousin, the famous novelist of the same name) told me in an interview in December 2005: "The 500 days that Pinochet was detained in London were a watershed. It forced Chileans to accept that the serious human-rights abuses committed by the military were part of a systematic state policy and not isolated cases or accidental 'excesses' as many claimed."

This was the start of a seven-year game of cat-and-mouse between the humiliated general and the Chilean judiciary. Legal efforts concentrated on three symbolic cases - the "caravan of death", Operation Colombo and the infamous Operation Condor. Time and again the courts repealed the general's senatorial immunity and time and again Pinochet's lawyers argued that he was medically unfit to stand trail. As the legal ping-pong continued, people lost interest. A new culturally and politically vibrant Chile was emerging and the once all-powerful Pinochet had become an embarrassing remnant.

Also on Chilean politics and the Pinochet legacy in openDemocracy:

-Geoffrey Bindman, Juan Garces, Isabel Hilton, "Justice in the world's light" (15 June 2001)
-Roberto Espíndola, "Michelle Bachelet: Chile's next president? " (6 December 2005)
-Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (16 January 2006)
-Tom Burgis, "Michelle Bachelet's hard lesson" (26 June 2006)

But there was one more surprise to come. In 2004, a north American congressional investigation revealed that Pinochet had amassed millions of dollars in numerous accounts at the Riggs Bank. This was the final humiliation for a pious strongman who had repeated tirelessly that he would leave office with less money than he arrived with. The Clinic - a satirical magazine launched in 1999 and named after the London clinic where Pinochet was arrested - ran a headline that said it all: "Just Another Shoddy Latin American Dictator After All". By the time of Michelle Bachelet's election in January 2006, the discrediting of the ex-dictator appeared complete.

In fact Pinochet's Riggs Bank accounts had been known about for years. Hugh O'Shaughnessy's 2000 book Pinochet: the Politics of Torture contains photocopies of Riggs Bank documents in Pinochet's name. But with the world's press focused on the story, the Chilean authorities could no longer turn a blind eye, and a second barrage of lawsuits were filed for embezzlement, tax-fraud, money laundering and, more recently, drug-trafficking (O'Shaughnessy's book also contains extensive evidence of the Pinochet regime's involvement in drug-running).

Isabel Allende was quietly jubilant. "There are people who justified the human-rights abuses, saying it was necessary. But now things we always suspected are coming to light; private commissions paid on arms sale and expropriation of public funds. Here in parliament you see long-term Pinochet supporters feeling very uncomfortable. They can't justify it any longer", she told me.

But there are many who will never desert Pinochet. By 8pm on 10 December, the crowd outside the military hospital had grown to 4,000. After a government spokesman confirmed that the general would not receive a state funeral, the multitude started chanting angrily duelo nacional, duelo nacional (national mourning). Clutching a photo of a uniformed smiling dictator one bejewelled woman yelled though floods of tears, "rest in peace my general, my saviour".

Meanwhile, downtown the party had degenerated into yet another battle between heavy-handed police and opponents of the dictator. As if for old time's sake, police were dispersing anti-Pinochet revellers with water-cannon and teargas. A breathless middle-aged man stopped running from the riot squad to talk to a camera crew. "I've waited so long for this day. I have friends who died and were tortured, relatives exiled", he gasped, joyously clutching his knees, red faced and panting. "I'm only sorry for one thing", he continued breathlessly. "And that's that the old bugger was never convicted."

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