Twilight of the General: Chile After the Arrest of Pinochet

September 25, 2007

When General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London last October at the behest of the tenacious Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, the event was greeted with a mix of jubilation and consternation on a world scale. Human rights advocates and the families of the General's victims were naturally jubilant and hopeful that the unexpected turn of events would set a new precedent for international justice. Followers of Garzón's crusade to bring the former dictator to Spain to face charges of genocide, torture and hostage taking were expectant that a full accounting of Pinochet's crimes would now be forthcoming. The General's old allies in the Cold War community, Baroness Thatcher and Secretary Kissinger among them, were predictably outraged. "I would be happy," Kissinger told the London Observer, "if Pinochet was allowed home. This episode has gone on long enough, and my sympathies are with him."

Within Chile's political class, reactions were more complex. The ruling Concertación coalition, a center-left, four-party alliance, immediately divided over how to handle the situation. President Eduardo Frei initiated a lobbying effort against Pinochet's extradition, at once defining the official position of the coalition and highlighting longstanding conflicts within it. Christian Democrats—like Frei—and many Socialists with positions in the government found themselves defending the General's immunity from prosecution and urging first London and then Madrid to let him go. Many leftists in the coalition supported Spain's right to try the General, but the Socialist Party—once the party of Allende, now a member of a very cautious coalition, and hopeful that one of its own, Ricardo Lagos, would be elected president this December—remained divided and ambivalent.

Chile's normally feuding right came together to support the former dictator in his time of need. The rightist parties now use the freshened memory of the General to warn voters of what might happen should Chile again elect a socialist. Rightist politicians have now positioned themselves to use the nationalist—even anticolonialist—sentiment awakened by Pinochet's detention on foreign soil to attract the more conservative wing of Christian Democracy to their candidacies. The conservative dream of splitting the Concertación from the right is not, at this moment, an unrealistic one.

Since October 1988, when General Pinochet lost a popular plebiscite to which he was forced by domestic and international pressure to submit, Chile has been in a long and uncertain transition to democracy. Pinochet, who led the military overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, presided over some 3,000 political murders and a regime built upon torture, disappearance and terror. In 1978, he declared an amnesty for himself, and by the time he left office in 1989, he had negotiated a transition in which those who ruled under the dictatorship would continue to have disproportionate power under the new "protected" democracy.

The General now sits imprisoned in a rented London villa, his fate subject—for the first time in 25 years—to forces completely beyond his control. Yet at this hour of his greatest defeat, he has once again imposed himself on the stage of Chilean politics and redefined the principal issues facing the country. This NACLA Report examines this current delicate moment.

His arrest in England has brought home to Chileans the issues that continue to cloud the country's democratic pretensions: the persistence of strong enclaves of authoritarian power and the implicit pact made by the elites who have guided Chile's transition to forgive and forget the brutality of the recent past. Pinochet's prolonged detention may indeed have created a political moment in which these long-buried issues can be addressed and resolved. The arrest has created an opportunity for the country's democrats to examine the flaws of transition and to at least begin talking about how to eliminate the authoritarian bases of the country's political institutions. On the other hand, the ruling elites may simply decide that the past can once again be buried—a decision which would leave Chile's authoritarian legacy intact.


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