October 23, 1998

This Time It's Pinochet The Prisoner — But it's Still Outside Intervention

EDITOR'S NOTE: Once again outside forces have intervened in Chilean affairs. This time, the casualty is former dictator Augusto Pinochet, but to a significant extent, Pinochet is a victim of his own isolation, nurtured during his repressive 17-year rule. PNS Associate Editor Alfonso Serrano F., a native of Chile, is a San Francisco-based journalist.


By Alfonso Serrano F.

This time, Pinochet is the prisoner, the humble man who complains his "rights have been violated."

I have no sympathy for Pinochet. I imagine him alone on a London hospital bed, seething with rage at what, in his mind, must surely be a global Communist conspiracy.

But as a Chilean, I'm also struck by how, once again, outside forces have intruded into my country's affairs. Again I feel how isolated and marginalized Chile is — that tiny strip of a country at the end of the world.

So when Chile's foreign minister, Jose Miguel Insulza, calls Pinochet's arrest a new form of colonialism, I am forced to agree.

General Augusto Pinochet, with the backing of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, led a military coup in 1973 that toppled Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president. The bloody takeover forever changed Chile. Approximately 3,000 people were killed, while thousands were tortured and disappeared.

Now, the aging dictator lies in a London hospital bed. He is awaiting possible extradition to Spain for the presumed deaths of Chileans and Spaniards during his 17-year rule.

Ironically, Pinochet's new predicament is the result of his own isolation.

Shortly after the coup, Pinochet acquired full executive powers. A decree named him Supreme Chief of the Nation. He had absolute power to implement his vision for Chile.

As dictator, Pinochet trusted only a handful of people. And the longer Pinochet remained in power the more isolated he became. His aides assured him of his popularity, and the joyous crowds of supporters provided further proof. Eventually, he wound up believing he was invincible.

This immense popularity, and the belief in his own invincibility, explains why the dictator allowed a 1988 plebiscite in which Chileans voted for his continued rule or a return to democracy. Although he lost the election, Pinochet received 42 percent of the vote.

Today, millions in Chile continue to regard Pinochet as a savior who rescued Chile from the Marxists. He is the savior of the republic, the man who rescued the fatherland.

Pinochet admirers (and even onetime opponents) quickly point to Chile's success in the global market. They credit him for implementing the economic reforms that have transformed Chile into a model economy. Today, Chile is a model of economic prosperity throughout Latin America. Millions have risen above the poverty line. Unemployment levels and inflation have remained consistently low. Chile is an active and prosperous member of the global economy. Cell phones, lap tops and MacDonalds are as common in Santiago as in any modern capital.

More than 25 years after the military coup brought him to power, Pinochet was again betrayed by his isolation. It impaired his judgment. In his eyes, he was the invincible crusader. Encouraged by this sense of invisibility, he traveled to London to cure an ailing back.

Now, Spain wants to question Pinochet about his involvement in genocide and torture during his regime, something, they say, Chile's fragile democracy was never able to do.

In the weeks to come, Augusto Pinochet will have to answer to charges of torture, terrorism and crimes against humanity. Backed by lawyers and government representatives, he will have the opportunity to defend himself.

That's an opportunity his victims never had.

But the outside forces that hold Pinochet's — and Chile's — fate in their hands must respect the painful transition to democracy occurring in Chile. Today in Chile and Argentina — throughout Latin America, in fact — the military strongmen of the 70s and 80s enjoy impunity. It's the price to pay for a peaceful return to democratic rule.

"Pinochet is not a murderer. He's our savior. He saved us from the murderous communists," one woman screamed after hearing of Pinochet's arrest in a London hospital. Her voice trembled with rage. There was fury in her eyes.

That fury, that rage frightens me. Once again, outside forces could sharply divided Chile between those who profited during Pinochet's years in power and those who are haunted by the past.

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