Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died of complications from a heart attack Sunday at age 91. His death has cheated justice, snatching him from the material world just as he faced the possibility of standing trial for the murder of two bodyguards of his predecessor, President Salvador Allende.
A neatly timed exit, considering the former general was also facing charges on how and why he stashed as much as $17 million in overseas accounts, as well as continuing judicial investigations into numerous human rights atrocities that took place during the bloody and dark period of his rule that stretched from 1973 until 1990.
But Pinochet’s demise doesn’t save him from the harsh judgment of history. He dies not only decrepit and politically abandoned in a Santiago hospital but also discredited and reviled. His very name has come to rightfully symbolize and encapsulate all of the horrors and fears associated with brutal, dictatorial regimes.
It’s not just the numbers, though they are horrific in themselves. In a country of barely 11 million at the time of his seizure of power, 3,000 were murdered by the state, more than a thousand disappeared (some of them thrown into the ocean, others into pits of lime), tens of thousands were tortured and hundreds of thousands sent into political or economic 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 by the Reagan Administration in Washington and rising Thatcherism in Europe, these military regimes instituted a savage free-market capitalism, in many cases reversing decades of carefully constructed social welfare reforms. At gunpoint unions were outlawed, labor laws were abolished, universities were stifled, tuition was hiked, national healthcare and social security programs were privatized, and these already unequal societies were rigidly stratified into rich and poor, strong and weak, the favored and the invisible.
Pinochet even attempted to build a new Terror International by setting up what became known as Operation Condor. Established in Santiago, the short-lived network aimed at making repression and murder more efficient through increased coordination, information-sharing and joint secret operations among the allied dictatorships. The most prominent victims of this alliance in murder were former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his associate Ronni Moffett, blown apart by a 1976 car bomb in downtown Washington, DC–a bomb set by Pinochet’s dreaded secret police, known as DINA.
Even after this barbaric act of terror, even after the world began to learn of Pinochet’s other mass crimes, it was jarring to see how much the American press still pandered to him as the man who was bringing economic revival to Chile. No matter that his “shock therapy” nostrums prescribed by the recently deceased Milton Friedman pushed Chile to the brink of bankruptcy and that the first public rebellions against the regime in 1983 were motivated as much by hunger as political rage.
Years after Pinochet was voted out of power in a 1988 plebiscite (which he unsuccessfully tried to rig), the swaggering general seemed impugn. He remained head of the army until 1998 and then promoted himself to senator-for-life under the terms of a military-written constitution.
Only because of the intrepid efforts of a couple of crusading Spanish magistrates looking into the political murder of co-nationals in Chile and the bad luck of Pinochet being served with an international arrest warrant from them while visiting London in 1998 was the course of history righted. Five hundred days of British custody eroded the political magical shield that Pinochet had borne. He shrunk from invulnerable strongman to wanted war criminal. Upon his return to Chile, two decades of social taboo were shattered, and Pinochet was formally indicted for murder by the courageous former Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia.
The cascading indictments of Pinochet, the gruesome truths revealed by judges and government commissions, the accelerated erosion of his legacy, coincided with a tectonic political shift on the continent. A twenty-five-year cycle of military rule produced a radical counter-cycle of civilian and leftist reform. The chairs of power in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Brazila and La Paz–once occupied by dictators and generals—now seat democratically elected reformers, liberals and socialists.
Their task is formidable: to heal the trauma, reverse the damage, and bridge the yawning social gaps that are the real legacy of the Pinochet era. In Brazil, President Lula struggles-–decades after the supposed economic miracle brought by the previous military dictatorship—to feed tens of millions who slip below the hunger line. In Chile, even the center-left government faces protests from a riled student population feeling enough self-courage to demand reform of an educational system left in tatters by the dictatorship. And so on.
Burying Pinochet this week in itself won’t make this task any easier. In some odd ways it might make even make it more difficult. As long as he was alive, even in a gargoyle state, he was a grotesque reminder of all that has haunted the continent, all that has been left unresolved. Good, let’s bury him now and post an armed guard at his grave site, making sure he again never rises. And then back to the work of healing what he has wrought.