Pinochet for beginners




Inside the dictatorship



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Declarations & Statements



Chilean expert on public opinion pooh-poohs the danger to democracy:


Rasmus Sonderriis

Hell broke loose, just when everyone was busy bragging about the virtuous boredom of Chilean politics. Only the outrageous but idle threats occasionally issued by ex-dictator General Pinochet seemed to put a bit of spice into the public debate. But the old patriarch was still capable of more than mischief. Getting himself arrested in London dealt a startling blow to normality: a constitutional senator and former president is captured by a foreign power!

Some people's joy clashes against other people's frantic search for scapegoats. The social democrats are the easiest target, amidst threats of making the country "ungovernable" and accusations of "high treason" being taken to court. The Government seems desperate to save the skin of Pinochet, its old political foe, in order to placate the military, whose leaders are issuing aggressive political declarations. Alas, Chilean democracy is not as 'normal' as everyone liked to believe. But is it in danger?

"Oh forget it, all those reactions are mere theatricals", assures the Chilean sociologist and election expert, José Auth, senior adviser to the Government and vice chairman of PPD, a party of liberal social democrats closely allied to the Socialist Party. Señor Auth has made a name for himself in Chile by accurately predicting election results. He attributes this to a free interpretation of what people claim in the opinion polls:

"We Chileans are accomplished method actors able to live into whatever role is seen as the most fitting for the occasion. President Frei acts out his preoccupation with political stability, but knows perfectly well that internal peace is relentless on all fronts. He is supposed to look immensely prudent, towering above simple emotion, thinking only of doing his job as prescribed by the Constitution, while the right-wing Pinochet supporters are burning flags, demanding suicidal economic sanctions against Spain and Britain, shouting about impending chaos and so on. Foreign minister Insulza bangs the table and pretends to be deeply offended on behalf of the Chilean Rule of Law. But everyone familiar with his personal suffering during Pinochet's dictatorship can only conclude that he is laughing on the inside. The right's main candidate for president, Joaquín Lavín, travels to the Vatican and London, proclaiming his desire to come back together with his beloved general. But in fact, it would be immensely more convenient if Pinochet could just die as quickly as possible, thus giving Lavín a chance to slip out of the ex-dictators long shadow and broaden his support base before this year's election campaign starts to intensify. Even the citizens are playing along. Do you really believe the cab driver and parking guards are worried that things may get out of control, as they say? No! They are just acting out their role as responsible citizens, too. Why are the Government's protests against Britain and Spain so well evaluated in the opinion polls, when at the same time most Chileans express a desire for justice? Because people think the Government deserves to be nominated for an Oscar! Chileans just love sticking to the script!"

But are many people not smiling about the situation, too? At least a small majority of people?

"Oh yes, certainly! I found it incredibly telling how the spontaneous joy came to the surface right after the Law Lords first deprived Pinochet of his immunity. Even supposed 'moderates' were caught with a smile from one ear to another. According to MORI's opinion polls, 63% of Chileans think Pinochet is guilty of the charges levelled against him, while only 16% say he is innocent. The fact that we have to debate this at all has had a healing effect on our democratic awareness. To me, this is far more important than the technical conclusions of a small group of judges, or whatever happens with the defendant later on. Pinochet has already been universally condemned for his moral and political responsibility. Only his legal responsibility remains to be declared. Here there is, no doubt, a great thirst for justice."

But that has been difficult to quench in Chile so far. Don't you think many Chileans find that their country has been put to shame in the world, because you - the politicians - have accepted far too much ever since the slow transition from dictatorship began in 1988?

I think the Chilean population is politically very mature. They are not only aware of, they also identify fully with, the limitations of our transition to democracy: pro-Pinochet judges, a sabre-rattling army, a constitution tying the government's hands and feet, well, and of course the lingering popular support for the dictatorship's political parties, which has never really fallen below 40%. Nevertheless, it is hard to see any massive demand for change and confrontation. People know that time will take care of many problems. The army today led by General Izurieta is not as intrusive as the one headed by Pinochet only one year ago. Everyone knows the objective conditions for a military coup d'etat are simply not present. Even the stock market showed no measurable reaction to Pinochet's arrest. Some day, when Pinochet passes away, we may even get a political opposition with democratic credibility. Then we can finally overhaul the Constitution.

What do you think will be the implications for this year's presidential elections if Pinochet sinks deeper into the legal quagmire in Europe?

First of all, no one any longer believes the right wing's thesis of steadily increasing polarisation. The opinion polls show no reaction to Pinochet's arrest. Secondly, it is clear that the news about Pinochet have already become a lot more low-key, as people are getting fed up with it. Even the most nerve-racking hostage drama loses the attention of the press after a few days without new developments. As I predicted long ago, the stories about Pinochet have largely left the front pages. If it goes on, they will gradually move further into the papers - until they end up somewhere close to the obituaries!

Don't you think the right wing's discourse about the nation's offended dignity has any impact?

Not by changing anyone's mind, but yes, it has the clear implication of shutting up dissent. Today, there is a false and imaginary consensus that it would be best if he comes home, whether to welcome him as a hero, or to step up legal pressure against him at the Chilean courts. But all this does nothing to change people's convictions, let alone their vote at the next election. My party's candidate, Ricardo Lagos, is almost bound to become Chile's next president. This means that the presidency will again fall to the self-same political grouping overthrown by Pinochet's coup in 1973. Yes, we may have radically innovated our ideology, yet still it will be seen as a tremendous symbolic defeat for Pinochet. To him, we are still the same people. But today, there is absolutely nothing he can do to prevent it. Now that is what I call an historical ruling!

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