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Pinochet's Troubling Legacy

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
December 11, 2006


In 1989, Augusto Pinochet said: "I'll go to heaven. Where would I have gone, do you think? To hell? No, don't worry, I'll go to heaven" (BBC). Likely to agree are those Chileans who view Pinochet, head of the military junta that led Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, as a national hero and the economic savior of their country. But the ranks of those who disagree—both in Chile and abroad—loom large. News of his death on Sunday, International Human Rights Day, was met with jubilance (Times of London) by thousands of his opponents, who took to the streets of Santiago. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that Pinochet will not receive a state funeral. Over the last ten years of his life, Pinochet teetered on the verge of prosecution for crimes against humanity and fraud, but ill health repeatedly kept him from standing trial. Amnesty International offers this timeline of the complicated criminal proceedings against Pinochet.

During his rule, at least three thousand people were killed or “disappeared,” and thousands more were tortured. One of the most notorious incidents, and the basis for Pinochet’s prosecution, was the “Caravan of Death” (BBC), a 1973 military delegation that traveled by helicopter from town to town, executing political opponents. For years, there was no official acknowledgement of these crimes by the Chilean government, and no charges leveled against the military (Pinochet had passed an amnesty law preventing prosecution for any human rights abuses committed before 1978.) But “Chile, thanks to the Pinochet affair, is now finally well along the path of recovering a history that was on the verge of erasure,” writes journalist Marc Cooper in the Nation.

On his ninety-first birthday, Pinochet offered his first public acknowledgement (AP) of the atrocities that took place under his regime. “I take political responsibility for everything that was done,” he said in a statement read by his wife. But he went on to defend his actions as necessary for the preservation of Chile. PBS examines Chilean ambivalence over the pursuit of justice for crimes during Pinochet’s rule.

Under Pinochet, the country did make a series of neoliberal economic reforms—deregulation and privatization—that supporters claim launched the country on a path of sustained economic growth. In the New American, James R. Whelan, founding editor of the Washington Times, argues that Pinochet should be honored as a hero for stopping a nascent Communist dictatorship in Chile.

Pinochet’s 1998 arrest in Britain—at the request of a Spanish judge—marked a watershed for universal jurisdiction, the international law principle allowing any state to prosecute individuals who commit certain international crimes. “In an instant, what had long been unthinkable became precedent” writes Diane F. Orentlicher, American University professor of law, and universal jurisdiction “became a white hot subject of global controversy” (PDF). In Foreign Affairs, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger argues universal jurisdiction risks substituting “the tyranny of judges for that of governments.”

Yet Kissinger is not an unbiased voice in the debate. As the White House national security adviser under President Nixon, he was aware of the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert support of Pinochet’s coup (Guardian), and some historians argue that he knew and was complicit in the regime’s human rights abuses. The United States declassified thousands of documents in 1999 and 2000 related to its involvement with Chile during Pinochet’s rule. In The Pinochet File, Peter Kornbluh, director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, examines these documents and details the overwhelming evidence of U.S. involvement in the 1973 military coup.

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