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Analysis by Gustavo Gonzalez

The Race For Pinochet's Gold

(IPS) SANTIAGO -- Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who died Sunday afternoon in Santiago at the age of 91, will be remembered in Chile as one of the key figures of the 20th century, leaving behind a legacy in which human rights crimes and corruption overshadowed the status of statesman to which he once aspired.

He was facing legal action in four human rights cases and two cases of illicit enrichment and corruption when a heart attack landed him in the Military Hospital -- his refuge since 2000, where he evaded legal action thanks to controversial diagnoses of senility --for the last time on Dec. 3.

Astute, obsequious and sly were adjectives that since the Sept. 11, 1973 coup d'etat best described the army chief who overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973) on that date.

Pinochet, who was born in the port city of Valparaiso, 120 km west of Santiago, on Nov. 25, 1915, ruled Chile with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, and served as army chief for a quarter century.

Pinochet, the longest-governing leader in this South American country, overthrew socialist president Allende to "save the fatherland from communism," in his own words.

He was a pioneer in Latin America in the adoption of the "neo-liberal" free-market economic model. He also severely weakened Chile's welfare state and sold off public enterprises to private interests at ridiculously low prices as part of a mission that would have been impossible without outlawing trade unions and leftist parties.

His 1973-1990 dictatorship left 3,000 dead and/or "disappeared," while at least 35,000 people were tortured.

He admired General Francisco Franco and was the only Latin American leader to pray at the Spanish dictator's funeral in 1975, one of his few trips abroad.

Like Franco, the Chilean dictator was messianic, and more than once appealed to the protection of the Virgin Mary, especially after he survived the September 1986 attempt on his life by the insurgent Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front near Santiago, where five of his bodyguards were killed and 11 were injured.

He survived three other assassination attempts during his nearly 17 years in office, according to versions that have not been thoroughly confirmed, which point to the good luck enjoyed by a man who reached the pinnacle of power in the army even though he was never considered a brilliant officer.

On Aug. 23, 1973, in a divided Chile polarized by the leftist Popular Unity government and the opposition front made up of the right wing parties and the Christian Democrats, Allende was forced to accept the resignation of then army chief, constitutionalist General Carlos Prats.

Allende replaced him with Pinochet, who was second-in-command, not only out of respect for the chain of command but also because, somewhat naively, he saw the taciturn officer in dark glasses as a man who was not terribly sharp but was loyal to the country's laws.

In "The Decisive Day," a book Pinochet published in 1980, the then dictator claimed that he himself planned the coup staged on Sept. 11, 1973, just 19 days after Allende made him commander-in-chief of the army.

However, a number of investigations have since found that he merely joined in, at the last minute, a plan hatched by air force General Gustavo Leigh and navy commander Admiral Jose Toribio Merino.

Nevertheless, as the head of the most powerful branch of the armed forces, Pinochet headed the military junta, whose role he later reduced to "legislative branch," while he had himself named president under the constitution that he had voters approve by referendum in September 1980.

In his years in power, Pinochet surrounded himself with officers who were unconditionally loyal, while pushing into retirement any general who might question or outshine him. Some were even physically eliminated, like Prats, who was assassinated in Buenos Aires in 1974, or Oscar Bonilla, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1975.

Air force General Alberto Bachelet, who cooperated with the Allende administration in the area of food supplies, was tortured to death, and his wife and daughter -- current President Michelle Bachelet -- were forced to go into exile, like some 800,000 other Chileans.

In the early years of the de facto regime, Pinochet's right-hand man was Colonel Manuel Contreras, who was named head of the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the secret police blamed for a large part of the 1,119 forced disappearances and 1,800 murders of dissidents committed by the dictatorship.

Contreras eventually served years in prison for human rights abuses, while Pinochet never admitted his own responsibility. Nor did he apologise to the victims, as army chief General Juan Emilio Cheyre did in 2004.

Contreras accused Pinochet of being disloyal to those who took the blame for the rights violations.

The farthest the former dictator went was to assume "full political responsibility for what happened" under his regime, in a brief statement read out by his wife Lucia on his 91st birthday.

However, he once again presented himself as a martyr, saying he "gladly offered" all of the "humiliations, persecutions and injustices that affect me and my family, for the sake of the harmony and peace that should reign among Chileans."

He also said that during his regime, "everything that was doneˆhad no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration." His statement echoed what he had long claimed: that he dealt the first major defeat to Marxism in Latin America, and that he felt let down because the western democracies refused to recognize that achievement.

Like Franco, he was able to avoid international repudiation in the first few years of the dictatorship while surrounding himself with civilian advisers who implemented free-market reforms, privatizing social security, health and education, while building a constitutional framework for an authoritarian democracy protected by the armed forces.

The mechanisms put in place were so effective that even though Pinochet was defeated in the Oct. 5, 1988 presidential referendum, which led to him stepping down in 1990, he remained head of the army until Mar. 10, 1998, and was sworn in as senator-for-life the next day.

These institutional mechanisms and the elderly general's continued influence threw a wrench into the transition to democracy.

The crimes of the dictatorship, and especially those of Pinochet, were safeguarded by the virtual impunity provided by a meek justice system, a cautious executive branch and a legislature in which the right wing alliance blocked any in-depth reforms.

But the former dictator's omnipotent image suddenly began to crumble when he was arrested on Oct. 16, 1998 in London, where he was recovering from surgery for a slipped disc. He was arrested on a warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who wanted to try him for crimes against humanity.

He spent 503 days under house arrest in London. But in a "humanitarian gesture," the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair released him on health grounds, and he returned to Chile on Mar. 3, 2000, where he faced a flood of lawsuits brought since January 1998 by leftist parties, victims' families and trade unions.

Although he first evaded legal action under the pretext of being mentally unfit to stand trial in 2001, the cases against him continued, thanks to the perseverance of the victims, a renovated judiciary, and the fact that military officers themselves began to acknowledge that opponents had been killed and forcibly disappeared.

The political right gradually began to distance itself from the figure of Pinochet, seeking a change of image that would enable it to compete effectively with the center-left Coalition for Democracy, which has ruled the country since 1990.

Since 2000, Pinochet had been stripped of immunity from prosecution -- a privilege enjoyed by former presidents in Chile -- several times. But over and over again, he was found mentally unfit to stand trial due to his alleged senility.

However, he continued to face prosecution in cases of human rights violations committed not only in Chile but in other countries as well, as demonstrated in August 2004, when he was charged with crimes committed under Operation Condor.

In 1975, Contreras, who received his orders directly from Pinochet, began to set up Operation Condor, under which the dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay coordinated the kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and murder of leftist activists, trade unionists and other dissidents.

While the human rights cases against him moved forward in the courts, in late 2004 a U.S. congressional commission reported that millions of dollars were found in secret accounts in the names of Pinochet and his family members in the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C and other financial institutions. The fortune was estimated to amount to around 40 million dollars.

On Oct. 19, 2005, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision to strip him of immunity in a case involving charges of tax evasion, use of false passports, false sworn statements and concealment of assets, and on Dec. 30, 2005 he was accused by the appeals court of embezzling public funds.

Two days earlier he had paid 46,000 dollars in bail to secure release from house arrest in another case, involving Operation Colombo, committed in the framework of Operation Condor.

But this year he was once again put under house arrest -- in his suburban Santiago mansion -- for yet another human rights case.

The latest case against Pinochet was opened on Nov. 28, three days after his birthday, by Judge Victor Montiglio, for murders committed in October 1973 by the "caravan of death," a special army mission that summarily executed leftist political leaders who had been arrested in northern and southern Chile.

Pinochet repeatedly evaded legal action due to his supposed senility, which he himself, through his lucid public statements, demonstrated was merely a pretext. And in the end he was never convicted in court, but died on his sickbed, surrounded by his loved ones and receiving the best of care -- a privilege denied the dictatorship's victims, whose families continue to demand justice.

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Albion Monitor   December 11, 2006   (

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