Pinochet for beginners




Inside the dictatorship



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Declarations & Statements


By Rasmus Sonderriis in Santiago de Chile, 16th July 2001

Upon closer inspection, justice, human rights and history are well served by the outcome of the Pinochet case.

The last ruling in the long-running court case for mass murder and kidnapping against Chilean ex-dictator General Augusto Pinochet, declaring him too senile to be prosecuted, sets a whole new precedent for a more humane Chilean justice system. The local press is writing of hundreds of feeble-minded defendants who may benefit, too, for Chile is a land of equality before the law. Pinochet's last living act is thus to institute a strict interpretation of human rights. And yet, although the general's political opponents, the victims' relatives and human rights organisations would acknowledge the charm of this irony, their dominant feelings - as reported in the press - are disappointment and anger. Has it all been in vain? Has justice been taken for a ride?

To answer this question, first one must ask what the whole exercise was about. If the sole aim was to lock up the 85-year old and throw away the key, there may be grounds for disappointment. For those more concerned with justice than human rights, the firing squad is the least one could reasonably have expected.

Yet he is not let off without punishment. Pinochet has now been officially declared "mad and demented" (loco y demente), and the judges made it very clear that the defendant's return to sanity would immediately reopen the case. This puts some serious constraints on his freedom, as any kind of active-minded conduct - say, a political statement - would unleash a howl of protests and open up 270 counts of indictment. Indeed, the present arrangement puts him away even more than if he had gone to prison or house arrest. From there, he would have been able to keep portraying himself as a martyr. Now, he will be hidden away as an embarassment. Meanwhile, the prosecution of the ex-dictators subordinates is carrying on with renewed momentum. With their boss out of the judicial picture, they may well feel freer to tell who gave the orders.

Other objectives of prosecuting Pinochet, and good reasons for doing it on Chilean soil, have been to finally end Pinochets influence on Chilean politics through his seat as "senator for life" and by means of sabre-rattling from his staunch supporters in the armed forces.

When Pinochet was arrested in London on 17th* October 1998, while still untouchable in his native Chile, it caused the victims of his regime immense joy. No doubt, to a majority of Chileans, it was the funniest thing that ever happened in the history of their country. But for a very considerable minority, it was the greatest imaginable affront. It certainly did shake up the complacency of the long-winding Chilean "transition to democracy". Chilean brass hats (and some British conservatives, like Thatcher and Lamont) raged against "the dangers to the delicate balance of Chilean democracy".

This was very soon exposed as an empty threat. In Chile, the times of coups d'etat are over. The business community, despite its strong pro-Pinochet feelings, would never allow anything to upset political stability and hence their own economic prosperity. However, a false consensus emerged in public discourse that "this is a matter for the Chilean courts". For the onward march of this argument, the British and Spanish involvement should indeed be thanked. What Pinochet's desperate supporters failed to foresee, alongside the human rights groups critical of the Chilean government's demand for the defendant's repatriation, was that all the condemnation of foreign meddling was gradually turning justice in Chile into a matter of patriotic duty.

And so, when the general was returned home in March 2000, after 18 months of captivity in London, the Chilean courts took only a few months to call the military's bluff by lifting Pinochet's parliamentary immunity to prosecution. This also booted him out of the Senate, which incidentally gave his political opponents in the government a majority in the upper chamber for the first time since the reintroduction of democracy in 1990.

The new Chilean satirical biweekly "The Clinic" (named after the place where Pinochet was operated for hernia, and then arrested by Scotland Yard) described the psychological implications of that historic ruling by comparing the ex-dictator to the mythical "goat-sucker" (chupacabras). According to eye witnesses this was a two-legged, hairy monster with evil eyes and sharp claws, who had long put panic into the Chilean countryside by murdering and sucking the blood of goats on the fields. Well, as it turned out, it was the work of stray dogs driven to hunger by the closure of dumping grounds.

"The abominable monster," cheered The Clinic, "is now, to everyone's relief, revealing itself as plainly and simply: a dog! Well, yes, a rabid and nasty dog, but, after all, just an earthly little creature who whines and puts his tail between the leg if someone clutches an ordinary stick!"

The last barking came in January 2001, when Pinochet initially refused to undergo medical examination. According to his family and lawyers, he found it too humiliating to be let off by insanity, and preferred to "prove his innocence in court". The message to the executive and judicial powers was unequivocal: "My troops remain loyal, so let us see if you dare arrest me!"

However, it was the military's reaction to this message that woke up the old general and his entourage to the new realities. The men in uniform were already experiencing a so-called "military parade before the courts", and none of them was prepared to risk further trouble with the law for Pinochet's sake. In fact, the same week when Pinochet turned down, and later accepted, the medical examination, the military published a list of 180 victims dumped into the sea - as a "contribution to national reconciliation". It was a breakthrough to hear about the crimes from the perpetrating institutions themselves. For the first time ever, even hard-line Pinochet supporters had to recognise they did indeed take place.

Member of Parliament Pía Guzmán took the opportunity to present the first apology from the political right wing.

"We knew very well that horrible crimes were being committed, but preferred to look the other way. What I cannot forgive myself is that we even refused to listen to our own Catholic Church."

Although it is frequently mentioned that the political right wing's remaining power in Chile is due to the undemocratic constitution, imposed by Pinochet's dictatorship in 1980 and still only slightly reformed, the uncomfortable truth is that 40-45% of voters still adhere to Pinochet's political heirs in democratic elections. In January 2000, presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín - from the fanatically pro-Pinochet party UDI, though posing as a moderate - even took 49% of the popular vote.

This is unlikely to change in generally conservative Chile. The right wing will remain a strong opposition, but the Pinochet case has finally begun to push it out of the dictatorship's long shadow. The largest and most moderate of the two right-wing parties, Renovación Nacional, recently replaced its entire leadership. Out went, among others, chairman Alberto Cardemil, who made himself an accomplice to a botched attempt at rigging the polls in favour of Pinochet in 1988. His place was taken by Sebastián Piñera, who had long been at odds with his constituency, because he openly advocated voting "NO" to Pinochet at that same plebiscite held in 1988, which eventually led to the dictatorship's phase-out. This change at the right-wing's helm paves the way for a consensus on far-reaching constitutional reform.

Pinochet has not only lost his power and freedom. Gone are also his dignity, political legacy and historical reputation. If the thrust of criminal law is to deter from similar crimes, the Pinochet case has been an unqualified success. Most importantly, the defendant has, at long last, ceased to be a menace to society

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