Augusto Pinochet, 1915-2006
Farewell to the perpetrator of one of the most shocking crimes of the 20th century.
Just a short walk from my apartment in Washington, D.C., is the memorial at Sheridan Circle to the murdered Orlando Letelier, a Chilean exile and former foreign minister who was blown up by a car bomb in rush-hour traffic on Sept. 21, 1976. It did not take very long to establish that this then-unprecedented atrocity on American soil, which also took the life of a U.S. citizen named Ronni Moffitt, was carried out on the orders of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Indeed, we have the testimony of his own secret police chief, Gen. Manuel Contreras, that such was the case. The U. S. Department of Justice has had an indictment for Pinochet, first drawn up by its Criminal Division during the tenure of Janet Reno, completed for some time. But the indictment has never been unsealed. The death of Pinochet is an occasion, among other things, for a moment to remember the many victims of his state terrorism and international terrorism and the deplorable way in which he managed to outlive their claims.
Pinochet ended up like Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco, with a series of deathbed farewells that were obscenely protracted and attended by numerous priests and offerings of extreme unction. By the end, Chileans had become wearily used to the way in which he fell dramatically ill whenever the workings of justice took a step nearer to his archives or his bank accounts. Like Franco, too, he long outlived his own regime and survived to see his country outgrow the tutelage to which he had subjected it. And, also like Franco, he earned a place in history as a treasonous and ambitious officer who was false to his oath to defend and uphold the constitution. His overthrow of civilian democracy, in the South American country in which it was most historically implanted, will always be remembered as one of the more shocking crimes of the 20th century.
His coup—mounted on Sept. 11, 1973, for those who like to study numinous dates—was a crime in itself but involved countless other crimes as well. Over the past decade, and especially since his arrest in England in 1998, these crimes began to catch up with him. Pinochet had arranged a lifetime immunity for himself via a lifelong Senate seat, as part of his phased withdrawal from power. But this deal was not binding on Spain, where a magistrate successfully sought a warrant for his arrest in connection with the "disappearance" of some Spanish citizens. That warrant from Judge Baltasar Garzón, served in London, was the beginning of the unraveling. By the time he returned to Chile, the general was faced with a newly aroused citizenry. I once went to testify in front of Judge Juan Gúzman, the magistrate who finally ordered him indicted and fingerprinted. He told me that he himself had been a supporter of the original coup and that he came from a conservative military family that had thought of Pinochet as a savior. It was only when he read through the massive and irrefutable judicial files, on murder and torture and kidnapping, that he realized that there was only one course open to him.
Probably the worst of these offenses was "Operation Condor," a coordination between the secret police forces of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Brazil. This network was responsible for assassinations of political exiles as far away as Rome (in the case of Christian Democrat Bernardo Leighton) and Washington, D.C. But within Chile itself, there were appalling cases of extra-judicial killing, secret prisons, and torture centers like the notorious Villa Grimaldi. Those decades in the Southern Cone were a nightmare that still seems like yesterday to millions of people.
There were those who used to argue that, say what you like, Pinochet unfettered the Chilean economy and let the Friedmanite breezes blow. (This is why Mrs. Thatcher was forever encouraging him to take his holidays and shopping trips in London; a piece of advice that he may well have regretted taking.) Yet free-marketeers presumably do not believe that you need torture and murder and dictatorship to implement their policies. I read Isabel Allende not long ago saying freely that nobody would again try the statist "Popular Unity" program of her uncle. But Salvador Allende never ordered anybody's death or disappearance; he died bravely at his post, and that has made all the difference. Meanwhile, a large part of Pinochet's own attraction to "privatization" has been explained by the disclosures attendant on the collapse of the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., which revealed large secret holdings in his name. This, combined with the cynical delaying tactics that he employed to delay or thwart prosecution, made his name stink even more in Chilean nostrils while he was still alive.
It is greatly to the credit of the Chileans that they have managed to restore and revive democratic institutions without any resort to violence, and that due process was scrupulously applied to Pinochet and to all his underlings. But there is a price to be paid for the slowness and care of these proceedings. We still do not know all that we might about the murder of U.S. citizen Charles Horman, for instance. And many Chilean families do not know where their "disappeared" loved ones are buried or how they died. (Perhaps sometimes it is better not to know the last bit.) Not once, in the prolonged process of investigation and clarification, did Pinochet offer to provide any information or to express any conscience or remorse. Like Slobodan Milosevic (who also cheated justice by dying) and Saddam Hussein, he was arrogant and blustering to the very last. Chile and the world are well rid of him, but we can thank his long and brutish rear-guard action for helping us to establish at least some of the emerging benchmarks of universal jurisdiction for tyrants.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Pinochetby Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images.