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End of a dictator

Print edition : Jan 12, 2007 T+T-
OPPONENTS OF AUGUSTO PINOCHET throw a burning coffin effigy into the Mapocho river during celebrations in downtown Santiago after his death, on December 12.-MARCELO HERNANDEZ/AP

OPPONENTS OF AUGUSTO PINOCHET throw a burning coffin effigy into the Mapocho river during celebrations in downtown Santiago after his death, on December 12.-MARCELO HERNANDEZ/AP

Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, dies before he could be brought to justice for his crimes.

AUGUSTO PINOCHET, who ruled Chile with an iron fist for almost two decades, died on December 10. He was among the most reviled dictators in recent history. At the time of his death at the ripe old age of 91 in a military hospital, Pinochet was on the verge of being brought to justice at last. Many Chileans actually regretted his passing away at this juncture, mainly because he could not be brought to justice during his lifetime for the horrendous crimes he had committed. Isabelle Allende, writer and the niece of Salvadore Allende, said that she would have preferred the courts to have completed their work so that Pinochet could have been convicted. In his last years, Pinochet was also found to have amassed huge amounts of illicit wealth during his period in office.

The majority of Chileans, however, chose to celebrate the dictator's demise, in Santiago and other cities. There were clashes between the police and people celebrating on the streets. The police had to intervene to prevent a confrontation between the people and a small minority that had lined up to pay their respects to the former head of state. The hard-core right wing in Chile still look upon Pinochet as the saviour of their country. According to them, he was the man who saved Chile from communism and laid the foundation for the strong Chilean economy.

The Chilean government, led by President Michele Bachelet, whose father died after being tortured in prison in the 1970s, did not accord Pinochet a state funeral. Pinochet was instead laid to rest in a military cemetery. The President did not attend the funeral. Bachelet herself was briefly a political prisoner and endured torture during military rule. In a brief statement after the dictator's demise, she said that the Pinochet period was "painful, dramatic and complex". Interior Minister Belisario Velasco was more forthright in his criticism. He said that Pinochet was a "classic right-wing dictator who violated human rights and who became rich".

Death does not mean that all the cases pending against Pinochet will be closed. The long list of charges against him relates to murder, human rights abuses and corruption. Many of his close associates who are still alive and his relatives have also been charged as accomplices. His family members will have to answer charges arising from the discovery of huge deposits of money in banks in the United States and other countries.

The U.S. Senate revealed in 2004 that $28 million was found in a U.S. bank, part of the kickbacks the Pinochet family had accumulated on the strength of its cosy relationship with Washington.

Pinochet's worldwide notoriety, however, stems from the rampant human rights abuses that characterised his rule. For progressive people all over the world, the bloody coup he led against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvadore Allende will forever be etched in collective memory. Allende had trusted Pinochet when he was chosen for the job of army chief. But the upstart army officer started plotting immediately, with the connivance of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to overthrow the left-wing government. The Chilean Army until then had a history of non-intervention in politics. Pinochet's use of the air force to bomb La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, and other government institutions was an unprecedented and brutal act. Allende laid down his life, fighting to the last, with an AK-47 gifted by Cuban President Fidel Castro in his hand.

In a speech on September 11, 1973, Allende said: "They have the force, they can subjugate us, but the social processes cannot be detained with the crime or by force; history is ours and it is the people that make it." Allende had prophetically concluded in his last speech to the Chilean people that "sooner rather than later, the great avenues along which free human beings will travel to construct a better society will open up". The images of the heroic resistance put up by Allende and his comrades at Moneda Palace continue to inspire people all over the world.

Immediately after seizing power, Pinochet embarked on a killing and torture spree. He was once quoted as saying that the concept of "human rights is a Marxist invention". His government is held responsible for the killing of more than 3,200 civilians. Many people who were in Chile at the time are of the opinion that the numbers of those killed were much larger. A National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture catalogued more than 27,000 confirmed cases of imprisonment and grotesque forms of torture. "Torture was used as a tool of political control through suffering. Irrespective of any possible direct or indirect participation in acts that could be construed as illegal, the state resorted to torture during the entire period of the military regime." Western correspondents were not allowed to file stories of killings that they had witnessed.

Pinochet's coup had the full backing of Washington. After consolidating his power in Chile, Pinochet, advised by some of his influential U.S. friends, set up "Operation Condor" in 1975. It was a Chilean-led project consisting of secret police agencies of other military-dominated regimes of the time in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia. Its purpose was to eliminate leftists and others fighting for democracy. "Operation Condor" has been held responsible for hundreds of acts of terrorism in Latin America and many other parts of the world.

The assassinations of General Carlos Prats, Pinochet's predecessor as army chief, and Orlando Letelier, who was Allende's Foreign Minister, were connected to Operation Condor. Both these personalities had strongly opposed the military takeover. Prats was killed in Buenos Aires. Letelier was killed along with his secretary Ronni Moffit, an American, in 1976 in a car-bomb explosion while travelling to work in a busy downtown part of Washington. Investigations have shown that Chilean security officials aided by Cuban counter-revolutionaries, who had the patronage of Washington, were involved in the assassination.

Recently declassified U.S. Intelligence documents have described the Chilean police under Pinochet as "International Murder Inc.". Most of the torture and interrogation was done at the "Villa Grimaldi", the biggest detention centre in operation in Santiago, where many people "disappeared". The other serious charge of human rights violation against Pinochet related to the "Caravan of Death". After the coup in 1973, a military killing squad was dispatched to provincial towns to hunt down political opponents. Ninety-seven Chileans were killed in that operation. The CIA, in an intelligence report on Gen. Arellano Stark, Pinochet's right-hand man after the coup, showed that Stark had ordered the murder of 21 political prisoners during the time of the "Caravan of Death".

Even after being forced to cede his stranglehold on power, Pinochet was treated with deference in the West. Things started changing only after the Spanish Judge, Baltazar Garzon, used his expertise in international law to prosecute Pinochet. While on a visit to England, Pinochet was served a warrant to face trial in Spain for human rights violations. Pinochet had to spend more than a year under house arrest in the United Kingdom. With some help from his friends in the British government, Pinochet managed to escape extradition to Spain. But after he returned to Chile, the courts there took a tougher stance against him. Although they initially declared him unfit to stand trial, he was formally charged six times for different crimes.

On December 13, 2004, a Chilean Judge declared that Pinochet was "mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation". He ordered Pinochet to be placed under house arrest. The dictator was indicted for nine disappearances and one murder relating to "Operation Condor". In the previous month, the Supreme Court had ruled that the amnesty law passed by Pinochet before he demitted office did not offer immunity to senior officials against whom cases of torture and "disappearances" were proved. Pinochet's first secret police chief, Gen. Manuel Contreras, has been jailed for the murder of Letelier. Another Chilean court ruled that Pinochet could be prosecuted for being the "intellectual author" of the car-bomb assassination of Prats.

In the past two years, the Chilean parliament abolished Pinochet's last remaining privileges, including his "seat for life" in the Senate. In 2006, his immunity from prosecution in his capacity as a former President was removed. His former comrades and imprisoned military officers had also started criticising him openly for refusing to accept the responsibility for the rampant abuses that occurred under his watch. One of Pinochet's generals, Joaquin Lagos, outraged by Pinochet's pleas of innocence, told a Chilean television station that the dictator was kept fully informed about the mass killings carried out by the troops. Gen. Lagos described the torture procedure routinely practised during the Pinochet era. "They took their eyes out of their sockets with daggers, breaking their jaws, breaking their legs. They shot them in segments, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart with machine guns - there was not even a final mercy shot."

Pinochet had been credited for the so-called "Chilean economic miracle". Chile, under the tutelage of the late economist Milton Friedman and his associates, known as "the Chicago Boys", was the first country in the region to introduce privatisation, de-regulation and other market reforms in a big way. Chile was supposed to be the model for other Latin American countries to emulate. But there are many who think that the Chilean model is a flawed one. Most of Latin America has any way rejected globalisation and the liberal model, if recent election results are anything to go by.

When Allende was ousted, Chile's unemployment rate was less than 5 per cent. By the time Pinochet left office in 1990, the unemployment rate was hovering around 40 per cent. Under the advice of the Chicago Boys, the minimum wage was abolished, trade union activities were banned, and the pension system was privatised along with much of the public sector. By the early 1980s , with unemployment rising and industries closing, workers had taken to the streets. Pinochet was forced to give up on his most radical free market policies, and he did an about-turn. In the face of mounting protests, the general was forced to restore the minimum wage and allow trade union activities.

It has also been pointed out that the real key to Chile's so-called economic miracle is the state's control of the copper industry. Copper exports provide most of the country's hard currency, accounting for between 50 and 70 per cent of its earnings.

It was Allende who nationalised Chile's copper industry in 1973, just before his ouster. Until then, it was under U.S. companies - Anaconda and Kennecott. It was this decision that infuriated Washington the most. The second most important sector in the Chilean economy is agriculture. Again, it was Allende's socialist land reforms that made the sector viable. Pinochet could not reverse these two radical reforms.