The death of Chile’s former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, at the age of 91 this month polarised his country. Here are two typical comments from a BBC forum. Pedro Antonio wrote: "The legacy of Pinochet is today’s Chile. What radical changes have recent governments implemented? None. They have only fiddled around the edges. For instance, the constitution has been the same since 1980 — succeeding governments haven’t been able to improve on it. The economy and the pension system has not changed since the military government. The health system, which was planned during Pinochet’s regime, and inherited by the next administration, has led to the success of ‘Plan Auge’."
But Susana had a different point of view. "How did he manage to have so many followers? The economic miracle tastes of blood, with torture, missing persons, curfews, and thousands of people denied their human rights. This was not democracy, but feudalism, totalitarianism, dictatorship."
With Pinochet there was no middle ground. You were either for him or against him. He ruled his country with an iron fist from 1973 to 1990. He began with a coup d’état against the socialist government of Salvador Allende and finished with a referendum which unexpectedly rejected his proposal to stay in the saddle.
"In Chile no leaf stirs without my knowing it," he said in 1975. Perhaps that sums up his regime. He led a dictatorship which repressed and killed thousands of people. It is believed that under his rule more than 3,000 citizens were murdered or disappeared and that more than 300,000 emigrated for political reasons. According to official figures, more than 28,000 were tortured.
He died before he had been brought to trial. At the time of his death, the wheels of justice were slowly turning to judge him for some of the crimes committed by his government. But, because of the fear of a military reaction, the process began too late to put him in jail.
Pinochet stepped down in 1990, but as Commander in Chief of the Army he maintained his grip on power. In 1998 he stepped down and became a senator-for-life, a right of every former president under the 1980 constitution. This was a vital element in defending his immunity from prosecution.
His nightmare began in 1998. Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón asked for his arrest in London – where Pinochet was recovering from an illness — and for his extradition, based on testimonies of relatives of the victims of the regime. However, he managed to escape arrest when the British Foreign Minister allowed him to leave the country on medical grounds. He returned to Chile in 2000.
Back in Chile Pinochet faced hundreds of criminal lawsuits and lost his seat as a senator for life. Attempts to put him in the dock repeatedly failed because judges alleged that Pinochet was mentally unable to testify. But in 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that that he was capable of standing trial. He was quickly accused of participating in Operation Condor, a counter-terrorist network set up by several South American governments in the 1970s.
In 2005, American investigators uncovered a secret web of 125 US bank accounts which had been used by Pinochet and his associates to move millions of dollars. A little later, he was charged with complicity in the Operation Colombo, a scheme which was responsible for the disappearance of 119 left-wing militants in 1975. In August 2005 Pinochet’s wife Lucía and his son Marco Antonio were arrested for alleged involvement in the secret bank accounts.
"No historian will ever say that I did what I did out of personal ambition or any other reason than concern for the welfare of Chile," Pinochet wrote while he was in London. "Everything was being destroyed [before 1973] and the army acted as the conscience of a country which was falling apart, and falling into the hands of those who wanted to bring it within the Soviet orbit."
In fact, his coup d’état helped Chilean business to prosper. This is why businessman and the political right generally regard Pinochet as a hero who saved Chile from Communism and impoverishment. Of course, high prices for copper, a major export from Chile, helped as well. Like it or not, the success Chile’s economy must be seen as part of the Pinochet legacy.
In fact, 30 years after the coup, Chile has become one of the best performing economies in Latin America, with a GDP growth well above average for the region. In 2006 it fluctuated between 4.5 and 5 per cent. The president of the National Agriculture Society, Luis Schmidt, has commented that history will credit Pinochet with this economic transformation. He says that the Pinochet economic model transformed Chile into a case study in good economic management.
This explains, no doubt, why thousands of Pinochet supporters were weeping in front of the hospital where he died.
Why do some Chileans turn a blind eye to the obvious human rights abuses? To understand their point of view, one must remember what was happening in 1973. The country was poor; Marxism was growing more and more powerful. Landowners were losing their properties; key companies were being nationalised. There were hyperinflation and strikes, clashes between paramilitaries of the left and right. “There is no more wheat for the bread”, said Allende in one of his last journeys. Chile was a mess — although now it is obvious that Pinochet’s end did not justify Pinochet’s means.
A chapter in Chilean history has drawn to a close, although some people want judicial investigations to continue. Time will tell whether Pinochet´s death will heal the wounds of the era of dictatorship.
“What we have seen in the demonstrations in Chile between Pinochet supporters and those who reject him was not just a reaction to his death; it expressed the political clashes which Chile lived through in the seventies”, commented Alejandro Ferreiro, Chile’s Economy Minister.
“The causes of that conflict are almost behind us today. Nowadays, there is a consensus on a political and economic model and on the possibility of harmonising economic growth and an open economy with higher levels of social equality,” he explained. “In that sense, past divisions had to do with a polarised society which is no longer relevant to modern-day Chile.”
President Michelle Bachelet, who was tortured with her mother during the dictatorship, expressed her point of view in the same way. She expects Chileans to keep the past in the past. “I remember”, she said, "I believe in the truth and I aspire for justice," Bachelet said after Pinochet‘s death. "Chile cannot forget, as this is the only way we can look in a constructive way to our future, guaranteeing respect for the fundamental rights of all Chileans."
Pedro Dutour writes from the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo.