A Divided Chile Contemplates Pinochet’s Passing

As millions around the world celebrated International Human Rights Day on December 10, the event was overshadowed throughout Chile as its citizens both mourned and celebrated the death of ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the South American country from 1974 to 1990. The street in front of La Moneda, the nation’s executive mansion, teemed with anti-Pinochet protestors who lashed out at the police as they tried to disperse the march with tear gas and water cannons. The late dictator’s supporters also took to the streets this past week outside the Santiago Military Hospital, where he had been recovering from a heart attack. Their own tears marked the loss of the brutal strongman, who may have brought economic stability to the country’s middle-class, but at the expense of the already harsh living standards endured by the poor.

Although more than 15 years have passed since Pinochet lost power in a renewal of democratic elections, a chasm still divides the Chilean populace. There is a high likelihood that those now swigging at champagne bottles and tossing confetti may have been one of the 28,000 dissidents who survived horrific sessions in the many torture chambers authorized by Pinochet, or know someone who was killed by the oppressive regime.

Although many wished for his death, the majority of anti-Pinochet activists would have preferred to see him stand trial for the murders of more than 3,000 Chilean dissidents, in addition to the more recent allegations of tax fraud and embezzlement of millions of dollars. Pinochet had been arrested in London in 1998, where he remained under house arrest until he was released in March 2000 on account of his deteriorating health. Upon his return to Santiago, Chilean courts worked feverishly to strip him of his immunity. This was achieved in May 2004, yet he was time and again deemed mentally unfit for prosecution, leaving many of his victims’ families frustrated and even more disheartened over whether he would ever see justice. Despite his enduring anti-democratic personality, there remains a steadfast group of Pinochet loyalists who were glad to see his release, as they still revered him for implementing the macroeconomic reforms which eventually raised the standards of living nationwide, and for eliminating the alleged Communist threat from their country.

Pinochet’s advent was no accident, for squarely at the center of the plot to remove Allende from power was the effort by the Christian Democratic (PDC) opposition to block any prospect for President Allende’s successful rule of the country. The PDC leadership, headed by ex-President Frei, was prepared to risk sacrificing the country’s democratic system in order to rid the nation of a loathed government. As it turned out, Allende proved to be an authentic democrat, while the PDC were sheer opportunists who were prepared to sell out their country to oust the new elected leader, presumably to be replaced by themselves. However, the cruel joke on the PDC was that the Chilean military viewed the democratic politicians with contempt. Furthermore, if the Christian Democrats were guilty in preparing the groundwork of Allende’s overthrow, it was the Nixon administration – mainly Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – who supplied the dagger to plunge into the back of Chilean democracy. Its complicity cannot be exaggerated.

Pinochet was the U.S.’s main tool in the 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist who many ultra-conservatives feared would bring communism to the region during the height of the Cold War. However, the involvement of the Nixon administration can be traced back even further. Even before Allende came into office, the U.S. Ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, had spoken with then-Chilean President Eduardo Frei on methods of sabotaging the inauguration of Allende. Recently unclassified documents reveal that Kissinger had met with CIA operatives on Project “FUBELT,” with the purpose of staging a military coup against Allende. With the covert backing of Nixon and Kissinger, on September 11 Pinochet instructed the Chilean Navy to seize the port city of Valparaíso, and what followed was a series of bloody raids to capture, and in many cases eliminate, all Allende sympathizers. Even though Washington was aware of the thousands of human rights abuses being committed, it still supported Chile’s part in Operation Condor, a coalition of South American rightwing dictators who systematically sought out and killed anyone with Marxist or Communist ties by utilizing a sophisticated computer circuit to track dissidents throughout the Southern Cone.

Washington has not made any comment on Pinochet’s death thus far. However, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has stated that there will be no official mourning period and that the late general will receive a military, and not full state, funeral. Although this move may appease a portion of his opponents, they would have been much happier seeing him in court, instead of in a casket.

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