Pinochet’s death marks the end of an era

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The death of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, marks an appropriate coincidence: the end of one of the bloodiest tyrants in recent Latin American history at one of the most significant human-rights celebrations.

Although his supporters praise Pinochet’s contribution to the fight against communism, most Chileans also remember the thousands of “disappeared” and the tens of thousands of Chilean tortured under his regime.

There are several lessons to be learned from Pinochet’s rule in Chile. Perhaps one of the most notable is the danger that foreign intervention represent in the affairs of a country. Pinochet’s rule was possible not only because of domestic opposition to President Salvador Allende but also because of the crucial role played by the U.S. government in Allende’s downfall.

Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state under U.S. President Richard Nixon, tacitly admitted the U.S. role when he declared shortly after Allende’s election, “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves. I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.” In 1973, paradoxically, Kissinger received the Nobel peace prize for his efforts to end the war in Vietnam, the same year that president Allende was overthrown.

Since assuming power in 1974, Pinochet led one of the most ruthless regimes in Latin America. During his rule, over 3,000 Chileans were killed and almost 30,000 brutally tortured. Over 100,000 Chileans left their country, fearing for their lives.

Another lesson to be learned from Pinochet’s rule is that justice may come late, but it may still come. In Pinochet’s case, only his death precluded him from being tried for his crimes, a situation with so much clear evidence, that he would probably have been convicted for his crimes. They included not only assassinations of political opponents but illicit personal enrichment and tax fraud.

The third lesson to be learned from Pinochet’s rule is a confirmation of the old dictum that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Although a 2005 a State Defense Council investigation pointed toward a connection between Pinochet’s illicit accounts and proceeds from arms sales, Gen. Manuel Contreras, the founder of Chile’s notorious secret police (DINA), stated from prison that the origin of Pinochet’s fortune was in fact traffic in cocaine.

A 2005 U.S. Senate report determined that the former Chilean president held more than 100 bank accounts in the name of his children and of high Chilean military officials. It should be said, however, that compared to other Latin American presidents’ level of corruption, Pinochet’s was relatively modest, only some $30 million dollars compared to much higher sums from other former presidents such as Carlos Menem in Argentina.

The critical question is perhaps if it was necessary for the United States to support criminal regimes such as Pinochet’s in Chile or that of the generals in Argentina or Guatemala, responsible for the death and “disappearance” of thousands of political opponents to defeat communism. And the answer is no, that even if one takes into account people’s wrong political decisions, it is only through the operation of the democratic process that democracy should be installed in a country.

People’s massive voting in Latin America in recent times for candidates that so far have not betrayed their trust by committing human-rights abuses indicate that, with all its shortcomings, only democracy can build successful and lasting democracies in the world. And that any pretended solution imposed forcefully from the outside will sooner or later proved to be futile.