- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006


The death Sunday of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, many Chileans say, will enable the country to start healing a society that had been unable to reconcile itself in the 16 years since democracy was restored.

That polarization among Chileans was in evidence to the very end of the general’s life. Heated brawls between Pinochet supporters and foes erupted outside the military hospital during his final hours.

At the news of his death, thousands spilled into the streets of the capital, hoisting champagne glasses and honking car horns. Meanwhile, about 200 sorrowful “Pinochetistas” gathered in front of the military hospital waving red, white and blue Chilean flags and chanting, “Long live, Pinochet.”

Now, with the news of Gen. Pinochet’s death still fresh, rancor predominates among Chileans. But many think reconciliation is approaching and human rights advocates say the death of Gen. Pinochet may aid their quest for justice in Chilean courts.

“This is one more symbolic step toward reconciliation. While today the divisions are once more visible on the streets, in short time the country will turn the page as it has in the past, and we will see changes,” said Jose Zalaquett, a professor of human rights issues at the University of Chile.

Forever infamous

“The elements for reconciliation are all here,” he said. “Nobody denies the truth of what happened; there has been compensation to the victims, and there has been significant justice in recent years. Even though Pinochet was never put behind bars, he was indicted, kept under house arrest and will be forever condemned in history.”

Center-right Sen. Alberto Espina agrees that with Gen. Pinochet’s death, reconciliation is within reach. “The immense majority of Chileans have already advanced in reconciliation, including the armed forces,” he said. “The passage of time will help all Chileans put their divisions in the past and work together.”

According to the report of the Retting Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, a human rights commission set up by the 1990-94 government of President Patricio Aylwin, 3,197 persons were killed for political reasons under Gen. Pinochet’s 17-year military regime. In addition, 1,100 Chileans disappeared and their bodies were never recovered; they are thought to have been buried in mass graves or tossed into the sea.

Gen. Pinochet seized power in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973, after bombing La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. More than 200,000 Chileans — out of a population of 11 million — were imprisoned, tortured or sent into exile for purported sympathy with leftist political groups or opposition to the dictatorship.

Detention in Britain

Chile’s post-Pinochet era began eight years before his death, when he was put under house arrest for 503 days by British authorities during a visit to London on a warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon charging crimes against humanity.

Before Britain’s arrest of Gen. Pinochet, who died Sunday at age 91 of complications from a recent heart attack, he had eluded attempts to bring him to trial for human rights crimes.

In 1978, he decreed an amnesty, pardoning all crimes committed by the military from the coup up to that year. He also rewrote Chile’s constitution in 1980, creating the position of senator for life for himself and other ex-presidents, a title that gave him immunity from human rights trials unless the Supreme Court agreed to remove that immunity.

The general once famously boasted that “not a leaf moves in Chile if I am not moving it,” and after nearly two decades of his iron-fisted rule, Chilean courts and the political establishment had been intimidated into inaction.

But his 1998 arrest in London emboldened Chilean courts and human rights groups, and by the time of his death, more than 600 human rights complaints against him were making their way through Chilean courts. The once untouchable Gen. Pinochet, who with his dark sunglasses and military capes had become a poster-boy image for Latin America’s long line of brutal dictators, was indicted and put under house arrest five times, avoiding conviction only because of his deteriorating health.

Sapped by corruption

What finally eroded the support he enjoyed from right-wing politicians and fellow officers in the Chilean military until the last years of his life was mounting evidence that Gen. Pinochet had engaged in corrupt dealings during his time as president and commander of the army. Last year, he was indicted on tax fraud, passport forgery and other crimes related to $28 million he had hidden away under false names in foreign locations such as the Riggs National Bank in Washington.

After that, most of his once-loyal supporters, like rightist presidential candidate Joaquin Lavin, increasingly distanced themselves from Gen. Pinochet. Mr. Lavin called on the general and the military last year to publicly admit their human rights mistakes.

Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, a socialist who began her four-year term in March as leader of a center-left coalition government, has refused a state funeral for Gen. Pinochet and will send her defense minister to his military obsequies.

Yesterday morning, she pointedly made no public pronouncements about the former dictator and at a press conference spoke only about deep reforms her government intends to make in education policies.

President’s father slain

Mrs. Bachelet, a physician and mother of three, and her mother were tortured and briefly jailed by the Pinochet regime in 1975. The president’s father, an air force general in the Salvador Allende government toppled by Gen. Pinochet, reportedly was tortured to death by Gen. Pinochet’s henchmen six months after the military coup. As defense minister in the 2000-06 Ricardo Lagos government, she pushed for national reconciliation with Chile’s military.

She recently announced that she will send Congress before the end of the year a bill to outlaw amnesty for human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

Signs of Chile’s future in the absence of Gen. Pinochet already have come to the fore. Chilean youths, especially high school students, have rocked the national establishment all year with their challenges to authority.

Some of the first young Chileans to grow up after the repressive 17-year Pinochet dictatorship have ditched their PlayStation video games, Internet chat rooms and Reggaeton dance parties to challenge inequalities in Chilean schools.

Students seek change

Coordinating their protests through e-mail, blogs and cell phones, more than 600,000 Chilean high school students boycotted classes for three weeks in June and occupied more than 300 schools across the country. More than 2,000 students were arrested in clashes with police.

Nicknamed the “Penguin Revolution” because of the protesters’ black-and-white school uniforms, it was the largest student movement the country had ever seen. The students called attention to unequal access to quality education and exposed Chile’s failure to close the gap between rich and poor.

Despite an enviable economic growth rate averaging more than 5 percent in the past 16 years — at least in part credited to market reforms enacted by the Pinochet regime — the income gap is the 12th largest in the world and studies show it is worsening.

Carolina Melero, 17, one of the Santiago student activists pushing for change, said her generation has more pressing priorities than pursuing the ghosts of Chile’s past.

“For us, Pinochet is for the history books,” she said. “We want to make a new, more open, more fair Chile.”

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