The death of a general

11 December 2006
5:15 PM

1 Comment

At 2:15pm yesterday, Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator of Chile for 17 years, died. Every year the Sept. 11 anniversary of the coup d’état that brought him to power sparks riots in the streets of Santiago. His death had a similar effect. Within a few hours of the news, people were lighting fires in the streets, throwing rocks, ripping apart anything available, and fighting with police squads. Under Pinochet Chile was a country united by force. Now, with Chile again a strong democracy, the extreme divisions he created are plainly visible.

In contrast with the riots, this morning throngs of people lined up at dawn outside Escuela Militar, where Pinochet’s body lied in wake, to pay their respects. Teary-eyed supporters told TV reporters their reasons for coming. One woman met Pinochet when she was eleven and felt a special connection with him. Another man came to see “Chile’s great general” one last time. In other places throughout the capital city and around the country supporters gathered, singing the national anthem, waving flags, and chanting “Long live Pinochet!”

For those outside Chile, this kind of support for a man best known for human rights abuses may seem strange. The New York Times described him succinctly as a “brutal dictator.” During his regime, at least 3,000 people were murdered. Many more—as many as 26,000—were tortured or intimidated. The government’s 2005 report, Information from the National Commission on Political Prisoners and Torture, gives 30 pages describing the torture methods used by Pinochet’s agents including gut-wrenching, first-hand testimony from some victims.

The Chilean State agrees that this is no man to honor. It announced that it would make no official statement of condolence and that Pinochet would not receive a state funeral. In a press conference Minister of the Interior Belisano Velasco said, “Pinochet will be remembered as a classic right-wing dictator: he gravely violated human rights and made himself rich.”

Pinochet supporters try to counter with other parts of the story. Chile’s present day economic strength is often attributed to the radical free-market reforms Pinochet implemented in the 1970s. Many, including Henry Kissinger, also supported Pinochet for stopping Chile’s march towards Communism. After Chileans democratically elected Salvador Allende, the Communist candidate, Kissinger famously remarked, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.” In a similar vein today, a woman waiting to enter Pinochet’s funeral came her daughter and granddaughter, “to thank our general who saved us from Communism and Marxism.” Some people also maintain that the claims of political murder and torture are fabricated or exaggerated.

The contrast between the wide range of national opinions about Pinochet and the nearly ubiquitous international one is a lesson in politics and perception. How can the people of Chile be so divided about this man when no one outside the country has any doubts that he was a ruthless dictator? There are two possibilities, and both deal with someone not seeing clearly. Either the many details and complexities of local politics are lost on outsiders, or those same details and complexities, combined with the partisanship of politics, cloud the insider’s opinion. In all likelihood, there is some truth in both of these options. As the United States struggles with perception on both sides of the coin—understanding other countries’ politics, and having other countries understand ours—this is a lesson to keep in mind.

In Pinochet’s case, the problem is with internal perception. He died still embroiled in ongoing legal battles for human rights violations and embezzlement, escaping judgment in those terms. There should be no doubt that he was responsable for crimes against humanity; his verdict was merely delayed by amnesty safeguards he wrote into the constitution himself. His judgment will continue in history, hopefully arriving at the truth that no amount of economic progress, nor anything else, justifies torture and murder. For now, it is an appropriate coincidence that Augusto Pinochet died on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day.


Thanks for writing about Pinochet. I had heard him on the news but I did not know that he was from Chile. Thank you for going into detail that, even though he seemed like a horrible man, many people were grateful from an economical standpoint.

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