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Declarations & Statements


The Washington Post, 7.5.00; Page X08

From President to Pariah. By Saul Landau

PINOCHET The Politics of Torture. By Hugh O'Shaughnessy
New York Univ. 182 pp. $25.95

"Not a leaf moves in Chile if I don't move it, let that be clear," boasted Augusto Pinochet in 1981. Indeed, when the former president, ex-army chief and senator for life left his native Chile en route to England in September 1998, he was still king of the world. On landing, he trod heavily on the red carpet British authorities laid down for him, dined at elegant establishments, shopped at Harrods and sipped tea with his soul mate, Lady Thatcher. He then checked into an exclusive clinic for a back operation and awoke from his anesthetic to see and hear a strange man saying in English: "You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent."

After holding him for 503 days on a Spanish judge's charges of crimes against humanity, the British home secretary released Pinochet on "humanitarian grounds." In 15 months, Chile's most powerful man had become a veritable pariah.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy, veteran Latin America correspondent for the Financial Times and the Guardian, characterizes Pinochet as an unlikely candidate for infamy. Although Pinochet has had Chilean history texts revised to make himself into a fervent Allende opponent long before the coup, O'Shaughnessy claims that "there is no evidence that Pinochet was involved in anti-Allende activities" before the bloody events of Sept. 11, 1973, turned Chile into a military dictatorship. Pinochet had pledged eternal loyalty to Allende as he had to his predecessor as army chief, Gen. Carlos Prats, whom he later had assassinated. Just 20 days before the military coup, Pinochet had told Allende, according to Prats's diary: "President, be aware that I am ready to lay down my life in defence of the constitutional government that you represent."

Pinochet joined the plotters at the last moment and then, after the coup proved successful, outdistanced his zealous rivals in his fanatic repression. "The transformation from the seemingly apolitical, rather grey and hard-working Pinochet," O'Shaughnessy observes, "into a dictator who showed no concern for the principles of government, fair play, the law or indeed friendship, is a startling one." It was not "pure opportunism" that turned Pinochet, suggests the author, but rather the possibility that "a series of factors in his character and his experience crystallised in the crucible of a day on which the history of Chile turned, a day which presented Pinochet with an unprecedented chance for almost unlimited power."

Once in power, Pinochet turned Chile into "a society ruled by fear." His secret police routinely "seized people off the street for sessions of torture and then released them to pass the word about the punishments which awaited the dictators' opponents." "In the five years after the coup," O'Shaughnessy sums up, "Pinochet had achieved his aims. He was in complete control of Chile. He had toppled the government, shut the Congress, eliminated the political parties, intimidated a judiciary . . . killed or incapacitated his opponents abroad, overcome his rivals in the army, and escaped sanction or threat from any foreign government."

But beyond Pinochet's acquired taste for absolute power, O'Shaughnessy probes the dictator's post-coup alliance with key financial families, such as the Edwardses, owners of a major bank and Chile's leading daily, El Mercurio, and peddlers of American soda pop. Just after Allende's 1970 election, Agustin Edwards, the banker, had helped convince President Nixon that the Americans had better prevent Allende from transferring Chile's wealth to the nation's working classes. Neither Edwards nor Nixon saw much difference between Cuba's revolutionary Castro and Chile's democratically elected Allende. The United States backed the coup and continued to support Pinochet's policies, from his torture and execution campaigns to his economic program. After Pinochet appointed Edwards's man as finance minister, he proceeded to abolish "taxes on wealth and capital gains tax, giving the wealthy further chance to enrich themselves and widening the already enormous gulf between rich and poor." Pinochet, who claimed "I'm general of the poor," also bestowed benefits on armed forces officers and on his own family. O'Shaughnessy includes a photocopy of one of Pinochet's 1997 U.S. bank accounts, showing an average balance of $1.8 million.

Pinochet: The Politics of Torture is like a prose line drawing, a literary appetizer to a still unwritten main course: a thorough political biography of the late 20th century's most visible dictator, a man whose metamorphosis led to the death and disappearance of more than 3,000 people and, through the politics of torture, to the brutal transformation of a democratic nation.

Saul Landau holds the Hugh O. La Bounty Chair of Interdisciplinary Applied Knowledge at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and is author (with John Dinges) of "Assassination on Embassy Row."

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