Chile and the End of Pinochet | The Nation


Chile and the End of Pinochet

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

As former dictator Augusto Pinochet was preparing to take pretrial mental exams, and as the Chilean military was releasing a report acknowledging that during the Pinochet dictatorship the bodies of scores of political opponents and leftists had been thrown into the ocean, perhaps the satirical Santiago tabloid The Clinic put the situation most pungently. "Why Bother With the Tests?" asked the headline. "Only a Psychopath Would Toss Bodies Into the Sea."

It was, nevertheless, rather satisfying to stand outside Chile's main military hospital on the morning of January 10 and gawk as the physically and politically diminished 85-year-old former general was finally forced to submit to four days of tests to determine whether he was "demented or crazy"--those being the only thus-defined illnesses that, under Chilean law, would permit Pinochet to elude pending trial on charges of multiple murder and kidnapping.

The former dictator's defense team had struggled mightily to evade the tests--as well as a trial. A few days before, Pinochet had openly refused even to show up for the court-ordered tests. But that course was reversed after he was paid a personal visit by the current army Commander in Chief, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, who reportedly lectured Pinochet that he must comply with the law and the courts or else risk losing any military support he still had.

Izurieta's lecture was striking evidence of the depth to which the once politically omnipotent and legally untouchable Pinochet had fallen. If any further proof was needed, it was enough to see that no more than a pathetic dozen Pinochetistas bothered to demonstrate in his favor in front of the hospital doors (primarily by physically attacking reporters and passing tourists, all considered members of the International Communist Conspiracy).

This was a helluva long way to come in two and a half years. In the fall of 1998, thousands of enraged Pinochet supporters, upon learning of his arrest in London on a Spanish warrant, took to the streets of Santiago and threatened to sack both the British and Spanish embassies. It seemed that the entirety of the Chilean political establishment was pleading for the dictator's liberation.

Pinochet's medical examiners eventually found him to be suffering "light to moderate vascular dementia"--clinical language for a form of arteriosclerosis. It was not enough to stop investigating magistrate Juan Guzmán Tapia from formally interrogating the former dictator and moving his case to the brink of trial. And so, on the morning of January 23, 2001, as all of Chile looked on amazed, Judge Guzmán, accompanied by court reporters and detectives from Chile's federal police, entered Pinochet's uptown mansion and for more than two hours subjected the former dictator--who had once boasted that not so much as a leaf moved in Chile without his consent--to the same sort of questioning imposed on any common criminal suspect. Guzmán quizzed Pinochet on some fifteen questions relating to accusations that the former dictator was the "intellectual author" of Chile's most macabre massacre and the disappearance of seventy-five civilians.

According to the transcript of the interrogation, Pinochet denied ever ordering anyone's death and blamed the massacre on regional subordinates. But Pinochet probably should have just kept his mouth shut. For, shortly after his assertion, retired Gen. Joaquin Lagos rushed onto Chilean TV and, wagging his finger and breaking two decades of silence, said Pinochet was fully informed of the mass killing carried out by his troops. "They took their eyes out of their sockets with daggers, breaking their jaws, breaking their legs," General Lagos said. "They shot them in segments, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart with submachine guns...there was not even a final mercy shot."

But the general's bombshell statements were merely prelude to the single most important moment in recent Chilean history. On Monday, January 29, six days after questioning the former dictator, Judge Guzmán decided that the medical reports were not sufficient to halt the proceedings. He formally charged Augusto Pinochet with multiple counts of murder and kidnapping and ordered him placed under immediate house arrest. Guzmán granted Pinochet only the courtesy of postponing any fingerprinting and snapping of mug shots until all appeals are resolved.

Those appeals have already been filed and will go all the way to the Chilean Supreme Court. But most observers agree that the best Pinochet can hope for is to be finally excused from trial for health reasons. Virtually no one believes he can overturn the charges themselves and thus escape history's judgment as having committed crimes against humanity. "The 29th of January will go down in history as the day Pinochet was finally charged with his crimes," said a joyous Viviana Diaz, president of the Association of Families of the Disappeared. Human rights attorney Roberto Garretón called it "a turning point" and said that the human rights movement "has succeeded in indicting a dictator who wrote his own Constitution and decreed his own amnesty." He added that after Pinochet left office, "he was protected by politicians who have lied to the Chilean people and the world, asserting that we lived in a democracy and that everyone wanted to forget about the past. Judge Guzmán and the human rights movement have given us justice and the truth. They have changed Chile and the world."

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