Reporters from Chile advise that two-thirds of the people celebrate the death of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But thousands turned out at his funeral to mourn him. Any man who loomed large in history will find fans right to the end of the line. There is a special awkwardness in the matter of General Pinochet, who came to public life in the great and bloody days of September 1973, when he participated in the coup against Salvador Allende in Santiago.
Pinochet emerged as president of Chile and ruled for 17 years as just one more strongman. But complications were deep-set. When in 1998 a nonchalant Spanish judge set in motion legal machinery intended to bring Pinochet to trial for murder, the protests were thunderous. To begin with, similar legal loose cannons might hypothetically endanger the future of any former leader who ran afoul of human rights concerns. One dissenter complained that if the Pinochet precedent prevailed, no Israeli cabinet minister could ever travel safely abroad.
But what mattered even more to some was that history should rule correctly on the Chilean legend. And there is sympathy in these quarters for Chilean dissenters from the general orthodoxy on Pinochet, who acknowledged the authoritarian aspect of his rule but defended its objectives on the grounds that he had displaced a leftist who, in the service of the Left, was prepared to overthrow the Chilean constitution.
As a conservative bystander, I found myself, in 1980, with an unusual opportunity, which was to accept an invitation to a totally private meeting with Pinochet arranged by a Chilean journalist who had long ties to the general. In a few days I was Pinochet's guest at his private apartment in Santiago.
He wore a smoking jacket of sorts, made drinks, and I was told to proceed with my line of questioning. I can maneuver in the Spanish language but had a problem with the Spanish I was hearing, and was informed by the lady intermediary that the general was using the rough dialect of his native region. I went quickly to the pivotal questions: Had Pinochet authorized killings that were not a part of the political action he had taken to remove Allende from the presidency, but rather executive exercises in power? He spoke with passion to say that he had not himself known about, let alone authorized, any of the random killings and torture laid at his door.
I was inclined to believe him.
The unfolding of the Pinochet story took many years. He was never tried, and in the last years he was too ill to act responsibly in his own behalf.