What Do We Do With Pinochet?

Isaac Bigio

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 1

On October 16, twenty five years after he took power in the September 1973 coup, Augusto Pinochet was detained in London.  This episode had produced a series of conjectures and strange turns amongst political circles. What we have to do with him? Should he have to be punish or should he have to return to Chile? What precedents have to be make regarding other dictators and democratic transitions? Is there any prospect for a global democratic justice against mass murderers?

The Spanish super-judge Baltazar Garzón managed to receive the support of his own  National Court in his claim to extradite the Chilean ex-dictator. He is accused for crimes against humanity: for violently overthrew a democratically elected government, violating the Chilean constitution and producing the death of the constitutional President; for killing at least 3,000 people;  for tortured, kidnapped or detained tens of thousands; for allowing animals and torturers to rape women; for building an international terrorist Cóndor command; for murdering Chilean personalities in other countries; and, in summary, for making genocide.

The British government declared that Pinochet does not have diplomatic immunity. Chilean exiles wanted to put him on trial in London. Many European countries are also presenting charges against him. Pinochet could be detained in Brazil if he stop there in a possible way back. Even in the USA some legal institutions want to judge him for killing North-American citizens.

However, it might be possible for the defence to find some legal arguments that could release Pinochet. He is 82 years old. The Archbishop of Canterbury asked for humanitarian considerations to send him back. Mr. Straw has the ultimate word in a final decision. Despite all the extra-political arguments his future would lay on political pressures and considerations. The main forces which are openly demanding that the ex-dictator should return home come from Chile and the conservatives. The Chilean ambassador is demanding that Pinochet’s immunity have to be respected and that he should return home when he could be judge. Despite that in Chile an opinion poll showed that 60% of the population want to put him on trial, the Pinochet-made constitution maintained many privileges for the ex-dictatorial forces. Pinochet has a post held for life in the Senate and he can not be touched by the justice. One third of the High Camera was directly appointed by the General and today the Senate is in a sort of ‘strike’ pushing for his freedom. The National Security Council is another supreme body set up by the military. It is mainly composed by the chiefs of the four arm corps and now is being reconvene in order to press the government for a more energetic attitude in favour of Pinochet.

Chile’s ruling Christian Democrats had always an ambivalent attitude towards Pinochet. They never liked him but they believed he was a lesser evil in relation to the radical left. During the transition they were prepared to maintain his economic programme and his chiefdom over the military. They are afraid that a new polarisation could shake Chile’s political and economic stability. Ricardo Lagos, who might be the first Social-Democrat president to be elected in post-dictatorial Chile, is, paradoxically, demanding that the UK should release the General that violently overthrew the last socialist government.

In Britain some voices stood up to defend the ex-autocrat expressing admiration for his achievements. Lord Lament congratulated him because he crushed a Marxist totalitarian threat. The Daily Telegraph backed his economic reforms and defended his right to do so using repression: ‘you cannot make a tortilla without breaking eggs, not to mention legs’. It also warned that this could create a bad precedent for the UK: ‘Imagine the reaction in Britain if a third country initiated legal proceedings against the Government for what it had done in Northern Ireland.’ Baroness Thatcher raises the issues of UK’s patriotism and Chilean national sovereignty. She claimed that Pinochet gave unavailable help which accelerated Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands war. For her the Chileans should be he only ones that have the authority to deal with their internal matters.

The right wing accused Labour of having double standards. On the one hand Blair was recently in Beijing and he was prepared to welcome the government that crushed in blood the 1989 demonstrations and on the other hand Mandelson was claiming justice for the Chilean ‘brutal dictator’. Thatcher also show another inconsistencies. She backed Western interventions in internal matters in Iraq, Libya and former Yugoslavia and she demanded prompt and strong military actions in Bosnia. The conservatives who were demanding to put the Serb leaders in European courts are now asking exactly the opposite for Pinochet. Thatcher’s arguments damaged the efforts made by some Conservatives who wanted to adopt a more humanitarian and less extremist discourse in order to help their party’s recovery after one of its major electoral disasters. Fidel Castro declared that the detention was legally questionable and that it could damage the ruling ‘progressive’ coalition. Adam Michnik recommended to ‘release the culpable’. For him a transition from dictatorships towards democracy obliged some concessions. If all the dictators from Eastern Europe, Southern Africa or the Third World would have to be punish it could create intolerable social tensions. For President Aznar a trial on Pinochet would not give other dictators sufficient incentives to abandon power. The fact that a former dictator could walk freely in the world’s main capitals after achieving illegal fortunes and killing thousands is something that would not be a bad precedent for other officers which could plot against democracies. Why a young unemployed would have to go to jail because he steals some coins while a mass-murderer could be liberated due ‘political considerations’? Dictators would never left power if their was not strong mass pressures. When they think that they can not retain its absolutism and that there is a risk to be overthrown by a popular revolt they could try to maintain many of their former privileges and to open a bargain process with the moderate opposition in order to go for a concerted transition. How is possible to create and develop a democracy when people that illegally assaulted it and committed so many atrocities against the human race are free and in key state positions?

The Pinochet’s case is producing the most estrange U-turns. The freedom for the General that in 1973 crushed one of the oldest Latin American democracies is being associated with the viability of Chilean democracy. The Chilean right wing, who had been accused of ‘betraying national interests’ because they were in power with CIA help and they gave the state companies to foreign capitals, is trying to appear as the great champion of patriotic sovereignty against the old colonial powers. They are burning Spanish and British flags, something that usually was being made in the past by the left.

The Chilean Communist Party had traditionally a strong anti-imperialist discourse but today is giving entire support for the Spanish judges. The Chilean Socialist Party who had been in the ruling coalition are dissenting with President Frei. They are now congratulating a foreign power for doing what they were incapable of doing in their own country after many years of sharing power.

The country that is more keen in judging Pinochet is Spain, the old colonial power who is accused of genocide by the indigenous peoples. It is also the one that had maintained many of the institutions and the personal of one of Europe’s worst autocracies. Franco ruled Spain for four decades. He won a bloodiest civil war with the support of Hitler and Mussolini troops and planes which killed tens of thousands. He was the last European fascist to remain in power. He backed Pinochet and all the right-wing Latin American juntas. The Spanish transition respected the immunity of the Francoists. The Socialists and Communists who fought for the republic accepted the reinstatement of the monarchy. Today Aznar’s People Party is the only party who is in power in the EU and who are the modernised inheritors of a dictatorship.

Something that strike many is not Pinochet’s detention but where it happened and why it was produce so late. Pinochet’s crimes not started twenty years ago. In March 1966 he murdered eight miners. He was never touched. Allende allowed him to be the chief of the army and later he paid that gift with his own life. The West supported, armed or accepted Pinochet, despite his crimes, because they think he was the last chance in order to avoid the reinforcement of a popular-base pro-USSR regime. British Hawk Hunters were used to bomb Allende’s Presidential palace. The 1973 coup was directly prepared by the CIA. Washington sent 400 ‘advisers’ to that country. US war-boats patrolled the Chilean coast. Kissinger declared ‘I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people’. He told to the CIA that ‘it is firm and continuing policy that Allende should be overthrown by a coup’.

Democratic and humanitarian considerations are not the ultimate mobiles of many top political decisions. It is not truth that democracies always protect democracies. They first of all have to protect the interests of their rulers. The US invaded or overthrew many Latin American constitutional governments like in Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Chile. Today, when the Cold War was won there is no necessity of maintaining such autocrats and the West could be willing to sacrifice former allies like Mobutu or Pinochet if it would increase its legitimacy.

The Pinochet’s trial could serve many interests. In the last years most of the EU countries had been elected social-democratic governments. In economics terms they already renounced their former Keynesianism and have little differences with the neo-liberals. However, there are some non-macroeconomic questions which they need to strength as a way of establishing some demarcations with the right. The attitude towards human rights and brutal dictators is one of them amongst others like ecology, gender, race, social issues, devolution, etc.

Immediately after Pinochet was arrested the anti-Tory media published many cartoons associating the ex-dictator with his friend Margaret Thatcher. The detention was used to strength the democratic credentials of the Third Way against a right-wing embarrassed with its link with ‘brutal dictators’. A trial on Pinochet could clean and renew the Western system. It could help it to have more authority in intervening in the internal affairs of other countries in the South and the East. This in turn could be welcome by some companies and institutions that want a strong Western interference in ensuring developing countries that they should apply some rules.

The Western judiciary would advance in obtaining some recognition in the right to send troops to Panama in order to capture its president or to arrest Serb or Arab leaders perceived as ‘enemies’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘ethnic cleansers’. The Cuban-US exiles are demanding that the next top figure to be detain should be Fidel Castro.

The Spanish justice would acquire more respectability specially amongst the left, which traditionally was sceptical of what it considered a semi-Francoite institutions. In a EU in which all political parties are free and the pro-IRA Sin Feinn is engaged in peace talks, Spain remain the only exception that just put in jail the entire leadership of pro-ETA Herri Batasuna (the Basque third largest legal party) and proscribed its daily Egin.

A global democratic justice would have always very strong bias. Who will decide which political personality have to be judge?

After the Second World War many German and Japanese figures were executed. However, no Allied leader was judged on war crimes. The only time in history in which atomic bombs were dropped on innocent civilians was considered a heroic decision. The killing of more than 100,000 unarmed Japanese children, women and men was not typified as a genocide.

The West was very keen in putting Pol Pot on trial. However, non of the Western leaders which devastated Cambodia, Vietnam or Korea using Napalm or killing millions had been condemned.

It would be the main powers who should put a strong influence on who might be judge or condemn. The Serb Republic of Krajina was the only European country which was completely ethnically cleansed since the 1940s. Tudjman and all the Croat responsible are not even being charged. The Western courts are mainly concerned only or mainly with the Serb butchers. Many African murderers are still having mansions in Socialist-led France.

A trial on Pinochet might have some limitations. Despite Baltazar’s request to the CIA for showing some papers, it is unlikely that the process could go further judging the Western figures which backed the Chilean coup and junta. There are also many interests that would like to don’t create a precedent for other new democracies. In Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Central America, Paraguay, Uruguay and other countries the transition allowed immunity to many figures associates with death squads and massacres. In Bolivia, General Bánzer, the man who overthrew in 1971 the People’s Assembly is now a constitutional president.

Probably no other country would have to be so furious with Thatcher’s declaration as Argentina. New information had been released showing how the SAS built secret military basis which were use against Argentina. However, President Menem was one of the first voices claiming for Pinochet’s release. He wants to protect the law that he made pardoning many officers culpable of producing around 30,000 deaths.

A very possible outcome is that Pinochet would be put in a plane back to Santiago. If the Spanish and Chilean social-democrats managed to co- administrate a country with former dictatorial forces there is no reason why Blair could not accept a compromise on Pinochet. The Chilean right and military must probably be obliged to make new concessions. Britain could released him arguing its superior moral values (a democracy having compassion for an old ill man). Labour might try to console human right activists saying that some positives things where achieved having the ex-dictator detained and humiliated in London and that it is necessary to think in the consolidation of Chilean democracy.

However, it would be not so easy to liberate him. In Europe there is a strong Chilean exile community and there are many people who were and still are evolve in anti-Pinochet campaigns. In Chile tens of thousands had participated in recent demonstrations supporting a tribunal for Pinochet. There is a continuing series of pressures that could prevent such outcome and could even radicalise and extend the process.

Pinochet should not be release. The best way to consolidate and deep democracies is making justice on human rights. The best place to make a trial on Pinochet is in its own country. There he could not try to appear as a patriotic martyr who is captured by overseas powers. Every people have to learn by itself. It is not good to say to the Chileans that their liberation from their former dictator would came from foreign powers (and specially the one which colonise them). The Chileans victims should have the right to appear in the tribunal. If the Chilean people would be allowed experience and honest and objective process it would strength its political process. For that reasons, Chile has to withdraw all the laws and institutions that were set up to protect Pinochet.