Any kind words for Pinochet?

Posted: Dec 12, 2006 8:01 PM
Any kind words for Pinochet?

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.

At the end his defenses collapsed at every level. It had been popular among his supporters to say that he was untouched by greed. But a federal investigation into "money laundering and foreign corruption" disclosed that he had manipulated the banking system in order to cultivate a private fortune in the Riggs Bank in Washington. The myth of an elder statesman who lived austerely on the income of a retired general came crashing to earth, and with it the entire defense structure of Augusto Pinochet. The talk now in Chile has to do with whether his former subordinates can be successfully brought down. As for the general, there is nothing left to say. Is it always so? I wondered.

In 1968, in the company of a British historian, I tried to inquire into the personal lives of the three "colonels" who had brought down the Greek government. Their rule was not protracted, and Greece quickly returned to its madcap democratic ways. But as in Chile, the Greek experiment with clean revolutions foundered, and the colonels lived out most of their lives in jail.

There was the great postwar exception, and it happened in Portugal, where Antonio Salazar exercised power without ever using it for personal debauchery. When his successor, Marcello Caetano, was overthrown in 1974, Portugal had a brief revolutionary moment, but in the end stability made its way. All that Portugal lost was its empire, but it had been losing that for 400 years.

The general rule is implacable: Power begets the abuse of it.