Life After Pinochet

istory will remember Augusto Pinochet not only as someone who lied under oath, but as a coward, who was never prepared to face justice.’ Speaking in Athens on 7th September Isabel Allende – senator and daughter of Salvador Allende, the world’s only democratically-elected Marxist president, who died thirty-one years ago in the coup that brought Augusto to power – declared that the ex-dictator, ‘has preferred to feign madness, dementia and senility rather than face justice’. Events, however, appear to be conspiring to deny the 88-year old former general the opportunity to play the fool.

On 26 August Chile’s supreme court voted by nine votes to eight to strip Augusto of his immunity from prosecution, a privileged enjoyed by the country’s former heads of state. Such an outcome had seemed extremely unlikely, following the court’s 2001 ruling that the former dictator was suffering from ‘irreversible dementia.’ It was this ruling which stopped him being tried by Judge Juan Guzmán in connection with his role in the ‘caravan of death’, a group of soldiers under Augusto’s command which travelled Chile in 1973 killing at least 72 leftwing activists.

Perhaps confident that he was now untouchable, the ex-president gave an interview to a Miami-based TV station in November 2003. Although his comments that he was no repressor but rather ‘a patriotic angel’ caused instant outrage, it was his apparent lucidity that aroused more significant interest. Judge Guzmán promptly asked for a copy of the interview, confident that the former dictator was showing few signs of ‘irreversible dementia.’

The case against Augusto was given a boost by a US senate report into his secret multimillion dollar bank accounts held at the US-based Riggs Bank, prompting none other than President George W Bush to promise a full investigation into the allegations of money-laundering the findings indicated. The key to whether Augusto faces trial will be the paper trail from Riggs bank. If it can show that he had the wit to manage his finances while under house arrest in London in 2002, the court may assume his mental faculties are sufficient to stand trial; not only for personal enrichment at the cost of the state, but also for crimes against humanity.

Human rights lawyers are starting to find witnesses willing to testify against the retired General, and are becoming more successful at connecting their stories to hard evidence. In mid August two former military officers testified against Augusto, claiming that in 1979 army intelligence units received a coded message from him ordering them to ‘withdraw the televisions’. They explained that in the military code of the time, ‘televisions’ referred to the bodies of hundreds of leftwing activists killed after the 1973 coup. Their testimony led to the unearthing of the incinerated remains of 17 bodies.

That former military personnel are beginning to come forward is indicative of the fact that the centre of Chile’s political spectrum has begun to shift to the left. Although the nominally leftwing Concertación coalition has been in power since the return to democracy in 1990, little serious progress had been made in addressing both the political and social legacy of the Pinochet era. Now both the man and the ideologue are under attack. On 11 August the Chilean congress approved a bill which proposed the declassification of over 170 secret laws promulgated during the Pinochet dictatorship. Later in the month a cross-party commission began work on the investigation of the privatisation of state-owned businesses from 1973-1990. Carlos Montes, a deputy from the Partido Socialista (PS), President Ricardo Lagos’s own party, emphasised that the freedom to investigate these processes was much greater now than in 1990, when the idea was first mooted. ‘We had to work in a very restricted context […] there was a very strong defence of those who empowered themselves through the public purse. Today there is a different context, a process of economic reactivation, a favourable international scene, the country is stable and the conditions are right.’ Although Chile remains a deeply conservative country, both economically and socially (divorce was only legalised last year), it is beginning to reconcile itself with its troubled past.

The author works for Latin American Newsletters.

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