Pinochet for beginners




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Declarations & Statements



Boston Globe, 24.1.00, p.A17

Deja vu for Pinochet. By William Pfaff, Paris

The ironic coincidence has been noted by nearly everyone - except, possibly, by General Augusto Pinochet himself, if he is indeed as far gone in old age as British Home Secretary Jack Straw says that he is.

The coincidence is that a socialist has been returned to Chile's presidency at just the moment when Britain has said Pinochet is unfit to be extradited to stand trial in Spain for humanitarian crimes. Those crimes followed his violent ejection of another socialist from Chile's presidency, 27 years ago.

History emphasizes its lessons with such coincidences. This one instructs us in how very little some things count in the larger play of events. Between the Pinochet coup d'etat in 1973 and the election last weekend of socialist Richard Lagos to the presidency, Chile has suffered political drama and repression, torture and murder, and unscrupulous meddling by the United States - all of it ultimately pointless.

It has ended where it began. The communist world threat by which Pinochet justified his coup and the United States its intervention has collapsed on its own. The general wasted his time. The rest of the people involved suffered or died for nothing.

The first Chilean socialist to become president was Salvador Allende, in 1970. His government was overturned in 1973 by the military coup conducted by Pinochet. Allende committed suicide in the course of the coup.

Pinochet's political views were those of a caricatured anticommunism, in which violent revolution, civil war, and Gulag were considered the inevitable products of avowed socialism and anything on the moderate left, either a conspiratorial disguise for communism or its natural prelude.

The Marxist Allende had courted ridicule over the years for his persistence in seeking the presidential office he finally won in 1970, as a minority candidate in a three-way election. In office, his misfortune was to possess allies as intransigently ideological and irresponsible as his military enemies. He badly managed a situation few could have managed well, but to the end he remained a constitutional legalist.

His election had panicked not only the right in his own country, but Washington, as well, then convinced that Russia and Cuba were on their way toward conquering Latin America - even though their actual means for doing so, the likelihood that they really could do so, and the profit of so doing were all hard to discern.

Henry Kissinger, according to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, considered Allende's election ''linked to a broad web of tests of America's geopolitical will: The Soviets were trying to take advantage of the situation in Jordan, Vietnam, and Cienfuegos (Cuba),'' as well as in Chile.

Washington attempted without success to block Allende's electoral ratification by the Chilean Congress, and canvassed the possibilities for a military coup. The result of the latter effort, two years later, was direct US implication in the murder, by Chilean officers, of the constitutionalist armed forces chief, General Rene Schneider.

Indirect US involvement followed in the successful coup that ended with the president's death. (The Clinton administration has since apologized for these actions by the Nixon government.)

Fifteen years of obscurantist political repression followed in Chile, with the arrest, torture and execution of members of the political opposition inside the country. Outside it, the Chilean government inspired the creation of international death squads to deal with leftist figures operating throughout the region.

The victims of that campaign included a number of Spaniards, as well as others with West European citizenship. That is why the Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon, followed by magistrates and prosecutors elsewhere, demanded Pinochet's extradition and trial.

The general eventually yielded to a staged restoration of Chilean democracy, which culminated in a plebiscite in 1988 in which he was rejected by the public. He went quietly. A Christian Democrat became the new president.

The observation that things have ended where they began does not mean that nothing has changed. Chile itself has greatly changed. Extremism has been dampened on both right and left. The consequences of ideological intolerance have sobered everyone.

The new Chilean government would prefer to have the general returned, rather than die in exile as a ''martyr'' to foreign interference in Chile's affairs. The new president has suggested that the general should be tried in Chile if he returns.

Pinochet himself says he holds himself accountable only to God and to the Chileans. Trials of some of his associates have already been held. The head of his secret police is in prison.

No one seems to think that the general's trial, were it to be held, would seriously disturb Chile's currently moderate and consensual political situation. However, it would undoubtedly suit everyone if the general's state of health prevented such a trial.

The other thing that has changed is that the principle of universal accountability for humanitarian crimes was successfully asserted by a Spanish magistrate and confirmed by the British Law Lords, the highest judicial authority in Britain. This was another significant step in establishing universal jurisdiction for such crimes, a positive evolution in international law, however complex its implications.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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