The Arrest and its Aftermath

September 25, 2007

Almost every year, Augusto Pinochet feels an overwhelming compulsion to visit London. The symptoms include the craving to have tea with the admired Baroness Thatcher and the desire to buy fine things at Harrods and to stay in elegant hotels. But last October, when he traveled to his favorite relaxation spot to have back surgery, he was literally caught off guard. One night while he was recovering from the operation, Pinochet was roused from his sleep, not understanding what a Scotland Yard official in his severe but ceremonious English was saying to him. He was being detained, he was told, for untold crimes against humanity. It is said that his mind sunk into a fog and that for several days, he did not understand what was happening to him.

The situation was fully comprehensible for anyone thinking with a clear head. But it was not for Pinochet because until that moment he had seen everything from the lofty perch of a great statesman who believes himself to be beyond the reach of human justice. It was impossible for him to imagine himself being as vulnerable as his Argentine counterpart, General Jorge Videla, who was imprisoned for human rights crimes after the military was tainted by the stigma of losing the Malvinas War. Pinochet believed that his situation was radically different. It was he, after all, who had imposed the rules of what everyone calls—or called—"the exemplary Chilean transition." It was he who utterly transformed the capitalist system in Chile, leaving his mark on every aspect of Chilean life. Guided by a false sense of omnipotence, he did not heed his advisors' warnings that a meddlesome Spanish judge was investigating crimes against humanity in Argentina and Chile, and that according to the new rules of the European Union, he might be vulnerable to arrest.

Pinochet's arrest jolted Chile's political elite, which was gearing up for the campaign season for the presidential elections of December of this year. It had the effect of hardening an already reactionary right, which wrapped itself in the banner of Chilean nationalism to protest the General's arrest as an "international socialist conspiracy." The ruling Concertación coalition, meanwhile—the principal architects of the "new Chile," which to function requires that the unpleasant past remain dead and buried—found itself divided over the London arrest. The more centrist members of the Concertación, the Christian Democrats, found themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending the General and urging London to ignore the Spanish extradition request and send him home. The Socialist Party, reflecting perhaps its ambiguous legacy as the party of Allende in the past but the party of the new Chile of the present, split on the issue.

Pinochet is viewed in the Chilean political imagination as a criollo Superman. According to some, he acted in the service of good, taking on the role of exterminator of the Marxists and modernizer of Chilean society. Others consider that he acted in the service of an evil so radical and immense that it could only be attributed to the Devil. He was seen either as one of those Greek gods with human passions and interests or as the Devil himself.

This superman aroused the reverential admiration of his followers, who walk through the streets of Santiago with placards proclaiming his immortality. At the same time, he produced in his enemies the paralyzing fear that is felt when faced with someone endowed with diabolical powers.

What had happened? How could this superman have fallen into this trap? His detention brought Pinochet back to earth and caused the loss of that aura of invincibility—a sort of symbolic death.[1]

To erase this image of him as a mere mortal and to preserve his threatened state of omnipotence, Pinochet's followers felt compelled to hatch the idea of a socialist conspiracy. The super-rat could not confess that he had been caught in a trap by his own libidinous obsession for cheese. So, the strategists in the General's inner circle invented the story that Pinochet had not fallen victim to an absurd error of judgment. No, he was the target of the ruthless persecution of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who could count on the support of the British Labor government, the Spanish Socialist Party and Chileans acting behind the scenes.

The conspiracy theory, which the Chilean press embraced, did save Pinochet's aura of omnipotence. International intrigue played the same role in this version of the General's downfall as Kryptonite did in the loss of the powers of the on-screen Superman. Pinochet's strategists also hoped that the story would awaken compassion for the General's plight.

For the average European, however, such a claim was unbelievable. Everyone in Europe knew that a profoundly disillusioned Judge Garzón had retreated from his fleeting collaboration with the Socialist government. They were also aware that the Judge's obsessive investigations had brought to light the participation of the Interior Ministry and the Security Secretary of the government of the Socialist prime minister Felipe González in the sinister crimes committed in the dirty war against Basque separatists. Say to Spaniards that Garzón is a Socialist peon and they will laugh in your face.

So, the idea of an internationally sponsored campaign of persecution took shape in which the same enemies as always—Marxists in sheep's clothing—were conjured up against the General. While Pinochet's inner circle built the image of the victim, Baroness Thatcher was telling her people that the arrest was a dire mistake, since the General had been so generous with England. After all, he had saved gallons of European blood even as Latin American blood spilled freely to save Chile from Communism.

This strategy had only one objective: to transform Pinochet into a man deserving of compassion and gratitude. It was not directed at the British Law Lords, but at the British political elite and public opinion. It sought to displace the legal judgment with a political judgment. But the entire campaign was disarmed by Pinochet's legal defeat at the hands of the Law Lords, and above all by the impertinent decision of the British Home Secretary Jack Straw—twice—to allow his extradition to Spain.

The arguments used by Pinochet's legal defense team shocked the Chilean public. His lawyers asserted that a head of state enjoys absolute immunity for any official acts, regardless of their character, including such abhorrent practices as torture and assassination. Pinochet's lawyers argued for the validity of any act committed by a head of state in his capacity as such—arguing, in effect, for a total separation between ethics and politics. The norms of war—and even practices beyond those considered permissible in warfare—were transferred to the political sphere. The radical and brutal positivism of the defense produced an uneasiness in the Chilean press, especially when Pinochet lawyer Clare Montgomery asserted that even Hitler would have been protected from prosecution in London by virtue of his immunity as head of state.

At the moment of Pinochet's total defeat—before the first decision of the Law Lords was revoked—he and select aides wrote a "London Letter," which had two primary objectives. First, the letter tried to present Pinochet as a statesman, not as an old man begging for compassion. And second, the letter asserted Pinochet's innocence in the face of the doubts awakened by his own defense, which never made reference to his guilt or innocence. On the contrary, his defense attorneys began from the assumption that even if he committed those crimes, he still could not be punished for them.

The letter's overall goal was to rebuild Pinochet's symbolic power in order to continue using that authority to accomplish his work. The letter is both a defense of his achievements and a self-exaltation, in which Pinochet is presented as a sort of trustee of the will of God and the nation's destiny. It seeks to create an image of Pinochet as a crusader struggling to save the West; as a man who does not look for power but is sought by it; and as someone who bears the pain of his people, even the pain of his enemies and of those whose death, disappearance or torture he caused. The letter seeks to revive the demigod that the detention had brusquely brought down to earth. It aims to project the image of Pinochet as that of a serene man, a statesman, a patriot.

When the Law Lords' first decision was revoked because of Lord Hoffman's ties to Amnesty International, a group which had intervened in the case against the General, Pinochet was careful not to let himself be carried away by optimism. Instead, he sought refuge in the role of martyr, assuming the role of someone who is ready to bear any pain for the sake of the fatherland. He is eager to make people forget his previous role—the humiliating role of an old man hoping to be pardoned on humanitarian grounds—which he played before the reversal.

When they first caught wind of Pinochet's detention in England, the leaders of Chile's two right-wing parties—the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and the National Renewal (RN)—jumped in unison to defend the General, arguing that his detention was a violation of national sovereignty. The leaders of both parties began to organize demonstrations in Santiago and to plan trips to London of right-wing politicians and later, of caravans of political activists to confront the anti-Pinochet demonstrators in London's streets. The meetings organized in Santiago attracted a fascist throng who dared to use flags emblazoned with the swastika and to salute like Nazis. That group was quickly restrained. Yet almost all those in attendance justified violence when employed against Marxists, and they often cruelly joked that it was a pity that certain Marxists had survived. There have been no dissenters from this stance of unconditional support for Pinochet within the Chilean right. In fact, those politicians positioning themselves for a presidential run began to openly compete with one another to demonstrate their loyalty to the General, showing once again the limits of liberal postures within the Chilean right.

The centrist Concertación government of Eduardo Frei argued that Pinochet should be released on the grounds that Chilean citizens should be judged only by Chilean courts. Some argue that it did so at least in part out of fear of a possible reaction on the part of the armed forces. While a political analyst who does not have access to everything that informs the decisions of those in power must proceed with caution, it seems to me that the government overestimated the threat posed by the armed forces. The Frei government acted in almost knee-jerk fashion to the Pinochet arrest, repeating the same pattern of fearful behavior that marked the administration of Patricio Aylwin when it faced saber-rattling from the army.

It is perhaps understandable that in the first days after Pinochet's arrest, the government acted out of fear of the military. As time passed, however, the objective limits of military pressure should have been evident, but the government did not change its position. Instead, it decided to involve itself even more and to intercede in the second round of arguments before the Law Lords on Pinochet's behalf, contending that it was defending "principles." What it was defending was the principle of the absolute territorial sovereignty of criminal law. But in a democratic society, that principle should be subordinated to the principle of universality for the crimes of kidnappings, genocide and torture. By first defending Pinochet's diplomatic immunity and later the immunity of the Chilean state as an extension of the General, the government ended up defending his impunity. This is because even if, theoretically, Chile could put Pinochet on trial, the possibility that he would actually be punished is, for all practical purposes, nonexistent.

In fact, fear only explains part of the Chilean government's behavior. The Pinochet episode presented the opportunity for a grand act of reconciliation, which is predicated upon the unofficial pardon that the Chilean government granted its dictator during the transition and its subsequent constant support of him. It is a strategic tactic aimed at creating a sense of solidarity among businessmen, military officials and high-ranking politicians from the Concertación government made up of the Christian Democrats and their Socialist partners. That approach culminated in the Chilean government's decision to argue on Pinochet's behalf before the Law Lords.

One faction of the Socialist Party, acting with full awareness of its long-term strategic interests—which remain a mystery to some nostalgic sectors of the left—seized this opportunity and supported the Concertación's decision to argue for Pinochet's release. For this group within the Socialist Party, supporting Pinochet was a way of liquidating the past and their association with the traditional left. They wanted to demonstrate that they are part of the present, of today's Chile. The acquiescence of some Socialists, combined with the silence of others or the weak arguments that they have since put forward to justify their behavior, reveals that long-term political calculations have prevailed over ethical principles.

While the Pinochet episode has had a notable effect on elite party politics in Chile, its impact on voters' preferences seems relatively insignificant. Public-opinion polls suggest that while a significant majority of the Chilean population believes that the Pinochet regime committed human rights violations, only a minority favors his extradition. A significant majority believes that Pinochet should be put on trial in Chile and supports the government's handling of the Pinochet episode.

While the polls show that those surveyed have followed events closely, their personal stake in the matter is low. Close to 55% of the respondents said that they considered the Pinochet episode to have little or no importance for their personal life. When respondents were asked to rank the importance of different current issues, the Pinochet episode came in far behind more pressing daily concerns such as the rise in crime, the economic situation, and the electrical blackouts caused by the recent drought. In fact, the Pinochet episode only outranked their concern about the presidential candidacies.[2]

The different polls also refute the thesis that the Pinochet episode has elevated the level of confrontation in Chilean society. In fact, in the months since the Pinochet arrest, confrontation became more pronounced only at the level of the political elites, whose relations were disturbed by the episode in the context of the upcoming presidential elections.

Within the right, Pinochet's arrest has modified the political spectrum to a significant degree. One candidate, Sebastián Piñera, the candidate of the liberal wing of the right, dropped out of the race. While his rival on the far right, UDI's Joaquín Lavín, remains in the race, his position is being challenged by a newcomer: former Christian Democratic Senator Arturo Frei Bolívar, a scion of the influential Frei political dynasty.[3]

For Piñera, the unexpected detention of Pinochet occurred at the worst possible time, as the internal leadership of the right was being defined. Prior to the arrest, Piñera's main task was to stake out a competitive profile that would cut into the political base of Lavín, his major right-wing rival and current mayor of Las Condes, Chile's wealthiest neighborhood. Piñera sought to distinguish himself from the relatively undefined image of Lavín by laying out well-defined centrist positions on socio-economic issues and liberal positions in the political and cultural sphere. After the arrest, it became impossible to create such a profile because Piñera's party, the RN, which is sharply divided between liberals and Pinochetista conservatives, chose to unequivocally defend Pinochet.

The party's president could not distance himself from that position. Piñera did not dare defy the Pinochetistas within the right-wing electorate, nor could he challenge the internal faction of his own party. Polls released in late December and early January showed that he had not been able to attract more than 6% of the vote, compared with the 25% of his far-right rival. He withdrew from the election without consulting his own party, revealing his disagreement with its position over the Pinochet matter. This gambit meant that Pinochet, still a prisoner, had unwittingly achieved one of his permanent objectives—preventing the emergence a liberal right as an alternative in Chilean politics.

Frei Bolívar, a member of a family which has always been linked to the Christian Democrats, stepped into the vacuum created by Piñera's withdrawal from the race. He entered the spotlight by making a special trip to London to demonstrate his support of Pinochet. He described his meeting with the General in emotional words, sparking the anger of a significant part of his party. He then blasted the Law Lords before they had announced their verdict. A few days later, accompanied by one of the leaders of the liberal sector of the RN, Frei Bolívar launched his presidential candidacy, and it was rumored that retired military officers close to Pinochet were supporting him. During a trip to Chile, Pinochet's wife endorsed Frei Bolívar, and shortly after he joined the race, important figures from the Pinochetista faction of the RN threw their support behind him as well.

This surprising candidacy, which emerged as a direct result of the Pinochet affair, gives the RN an interesting card to play in its struggle for the presidential leadership. Frei Bolívar has the important symbolic capital of his name, which should make him acceptable to the liberal faction of the RN, but he also has the support of the Pinochetista faction of the party. Everything depends on whether the RN can make quick decisions that will allow Frei Bolívar to position himself in the polls as a viable candidate.

The events in London have also had serious implications for the governing Concertación coalition. The Frei government's decision to lobby against Pinochet's extradition brought to the fore the serious conflicts within the Concertación. Ricardo Lagos, of the Socialist Party, is the front-runner in the upcoming elections, but for many months now the Christian Democrats have been loathe to declare their full backing for a Socialist to head the governing coalition, even though it would very likely bring them victory in December. Since last year, they have been hinting that they might support Christian Democratic Senator Andrés Zaldívar. The actual candidate will not be determined until internal primaries are held in late May.

Indeed, the Christian Democrats' disdain for their coalition partners was revealed when President Frei, in deciding to support Pinochet unconditionally, gave more consideration to outside political support—in this case from the right, the business community and the military—than to the internal consensus of the Concertación alliance. His policy was essentially to forgive and support the General, who had become transposed as the symbol of the Chilean nation itself.

The Socialist Party was sharply divided over how to handle the Pinochet affair. When the divisions within Socialist Party over the government's stance came to the fore, the Christian Democrats launched a virulent campaign against their coalition partners, suggesting that the Socialists could not lead a stable government because they were not ready to sacrifice their convictions for an ethic of responsibility. They also seized on the visit to London of leaders and assembly members of the Socialist Party and the Party For Democracy (PPD), who had personally been affected by human rights violations during the military regime, to insinuate that the left could not be trusted in power.

In large measure, Pinochet served as a convenient pretext for the pre-electoral dispute that would have occurred between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists in any event over one or another subject. The Pinochet episode created the great divide with which the Christian Democrats could put the Socialists between a rock and a hard place. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats' attempt to undermine Lagos' possibilities at the polls by pointing out his opposition to the government's position on the Pinochet affair did not have the desired effect.

In one public-opinion poll, for example, those surveyed were asked which candidate reflected their way of thinking with respect to the Pinochet situation and which candidate they intended to vote for [See Table].[4] The numbers show that while voters may disagree with a given candidate's stance in the Pinochet affair, that does not mean—at least at this point—that they will alter their voting preference. This is clearest in the case of Lagos' candidacy: While only 25.4% of those surveyed agreed with his position on the Pinochet affair, 34% said they would vote for him. It can also be seen in the case of the Communist Party candidate, Gladys Marín: While 10.9% of those surveyed agreed with her stance on the matter, only 4.2% said they would vote for her. This poll and others clearly show that the Pinochet affair is not a decisive factor in determining voting preferences.

The Pinochet Factor


Supports candidate's position on Pinochet question

Candidate Voting Preference

Ricardo Lagos



Joaquín Lavín



Andrés Zaldívar



Sebastián Piñera



Gladys Marín



All figures are percentages. Source: Qué Pasa (Santiago), December 19, 1998.

This is indeed surprising, since in the first weeks of Pinochet's detention, it was widely believed that Lagos' candidacy would suffer most because he had to reconcile the posture of the Concertación government with that of the Socialist Party. And in actual fact, the conflict between the two did force Lagos to oscillate between ambiguity and opportunism. But regardless of the criticism generated by Lagos' position or that of the Socialist Party as a whole, time has revealed that this has not affected people's intention to vote for him.

Now that Jack Straw has decided to allow Pinochet's extradition to Spain it appears that the General will soon face Spanish justice. But months of legal wrangling await us, and if Pinochet is at some point freed and allowed to return home, disillusionment and the sense that justice is impossible may set in.

It is impossible to predict what could happen in those circumstances, since the symbolic aspects of the case will then take on maximum importance. Passions could explode, and such a situation could yet affect voting preferences in a way that has not been visible until now. It is very probable that the 40% of Chileans who say they advocate Pinochet's extradition are core supporters of the Concertación, and especially of Lagos—even though the government, including elements within the Socialist leadership, is portraying this an "extremist position." The deep rifts already present within the Concertación could come to a head if the General is allowed to return to Chile.

Two distinct electoral scenarios seem possible. The first is a Lagos candidacy supported by a unified Concertación alliance, which means he would win a majority of votes and would therefore be elected in the first round. The second is a split in the Concertación in which the Socialist allies, the PPD, support Lagos, while the Christian Democratics support their own candidate, most likely Senate President Andrés Zaldívar. In this scenario, all bets are off. If there is a second-round matchup between Zaldívar and the candidate of the right—Lavín or Frei Bolívar—the Socialist vote would remain loyal to the Concertación. But if Lagos were forced into a run-off against the right, the great enigma of Chilean politics would be confronted: Will Christian Democrat voters remain loyal to the Concertación, or—perhaps the most likely scenario—would this be the beginning of the end of the Concertación alliance?

Tomás Moulian teaches sociology at the ARCIS University in Santiago, Chile. He is the author of Chile actual: Anatomía de un mito (Editorial LOM, 1997) and Conversación interrumpida con Allende (Editorial LOM, 1998). His article, "A Time of Forgetting: The Myths of the Chilean Transition," appeared in NACLA's September/October 1998 issue. Translated from the Spanish by Deidre McFadyen.

1. For a different analysis of the same theme, see my article, "Carta desde Londres," in Revista Infraganti (Santiago), February 1999.
2. Qué Pasa-Feedback Poll, Revista Qué Pasa (Santiago), December 19, 1998.
3. He is the nephew of former President Eduardo Frei Montalva and the first cousin of the current president, Eduardo Frei-Tagle.
4. Qué Pasa-Feedback Poll.

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, arrest, justice, politics

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