Pinochet’s Legacy

Pinochet’s Legacy

The death of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet should not blunt the work of healing the damage he has done and shining light on the truth.


Millions of Chileans got an unexpected gift December 10, on International Human Rights Day. The country’s 91-year-old former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, was plucked from this earth shortly after midday.

Many of us who survived General Pinochet’s dictatorship (I escaped Chile, where I had worked as a translator for Salvador Allende, the elected President overthrown by Pinochet) would have preferred the tyrant to have lived just a bit longer–long enough to stand trial on one of the multiple counts of murder, torture and kidnapping pressed against him as a result of his seventeen-year reign of terror. But greater forces intervened.

Pinochet’s very name came to symbolize all the horror that can follow when democracy is supplanted by dictatorship. Even now there are those who justify his brutal rule by citing statistics of economic growth. But there’s another, more chilling set of numbers that will forever define the Pinochet dictatorship: In a country of barely 11 million at the time he seized power, 3,200 were murdered by the state, more than 1,000 disappeared (some of them thrown into the ocean, others into pits of lime), tens of thousands were tortured and hundreds of thousands fled into political exile.

Pinochet also embodied a wave of authoritarianism that swept through all of Latin America during the time of his rule. Similar dictatorships imposed their own brand of fear as they clamped down on Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. Encouraged originally by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and then nurtured by the Reagan Administration and rising Thatcherism in Europe, Pinochet and the continent’s other allied military regimes instituted a savage free-market capitalism that in many cases reversed decades of social welfare reforms. At bayonet point, unions were outlawed, labor laws were abolished, universities were stifled, national healthcare and social security programs were privatized, and these already unequal societies were further stratified into rich and poor, strong and weak, favored and invisible.

Their network of terror, Operation Condor, coordinated from Santiago and encompassing intelligence agencies from neighboring countries, included assassinations from Buenos Aires to Rome to the streets of downtown Washington, where in 1976 Pinochet’s agents detonated a car bomb that killed Chile’s former US Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his associate, Ronni Moffitt.

But Pinochet’s legacy also stands as a monument to other, more uplifting, human values. The so-called Pinochet Precedent was born in 1998 when, during a visit to London, Pinochet was arrested on a Spanish extradition warrant for the alleged murder of Spanish citizens. His detention by the British was a historic turning point for international human rights: In a global era, no longer can violators of human rights roam beyond their borders with impunity.

It’s a precedent that should be seriously pondered by those in our own government who believe they can bend and break the rules of human dignity and international law and pay no price. Already, lawyers in the United States and Germany are asking the courts to apply the Pinochet Precedent to Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales and other American officials who ripped a page from the Chilean dictator’s playbook and instituted practices of torture–from waterboarding to simulated executions–in US military detention centers.

Amazing and satisfying what a little justice can do. Once Pinochet had been captured, and after 503 days in British custody, his swagger had evaporated. He shrank from invulnerable strongman to wanted war criminal. Upon his deportation to Chile, two decades of social taboo were shattered, and he was indicted for murder by the courageous Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia. At the time of Pinochet’s death, more than 200 criminal accusations were still pending against him.

Pinochet departed the scene discredited and reviled. The nation he once ruled with an iron first has only partially recovered from the trauma he inflicted. But his legacy must continue to be examined and investigated. This magazine, its editors and readers have a proud history of standing on the front lines of efforts to shine light on Chile’s dark past.

Hundreds of murders and disappearances still seek resolution. There are still too many Pinochet collaborators and enablers who have not been called to account–and that includes Kissinger. The investigation into the murders in Chile of American citizens Charlie Horman and Frank Teruggi, two friends of mine whose lives were snuffed out in their youth, must continue. And the US government must release classified documents it still holds relating to Pinochet’s role in the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations.

So a brief timeout to dispose of Pinochet’s remains. Then back to the work of exhuming the truth.

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