Glee and grief as Pinochet dies
General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean former dictator whose brutal regime cast a shadow over his country and the rest of the continent for more than three decades, died on Sunday at the age of 91.
He was pronounced dead from heart complications at Santiago’s military hospital at 2.15pm local time. Within minutes, cars circled the centre of the Chilean capital, blowing their hooters and waving flags to celebrate the passing of the man whose United States-backed military coup destroyed Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist government.
Police were quickly deployed across the city and residents in working-class districts erected barricades on Sunday night as news of Pinochet’s death left the capital in ferment and the country in shock.
Victims of human rights abuses during his 17-year rule gathered at a statue of Salvador Allende, the Chilean president who died during the 1973 coup, and urged the government to avoid giving any special honours at the burial.
Their plea was heeded by President Michelle Bachelet, herself detained and tortured by Pinochet-era security forces, who said he would be buried with military honours, but would not be given a state funeral.
As police patrols fanned across the capital to avert clashes between friends and foes of the late dictator, poorer neighbourhoods lit tyres to celebrate.
“These people are not celebrating the death of anyone,” said Jorge Salinas (50), who was throwing confetti into traffic. “It is to celebrate the end of a cycle of so much pain, so much dictatorship, so much torture. Pinochet signified many deaths, so much suffering for us. That’s why you see such happiness in most of the people.”
While champagne flowed downtown, a bitter crowd of about 700 Pinochet supporters gathered outside the military hospital. Some sang the national anthem while others assaulted journalists.
“He leaves us today, but I remain proud to support him,” said Ivan Moreira, a member of the Lower House of the Chilean Congress who was with the Pinochet family during a private Mass at the hospital on Sunday.
However, even in upper-middle-class neighbourhoods where Pinochet was once revered, his reputation has disintegrated in recent years because of ongoing inquiries into financial crimes, including tax evasion and illegal weapons deals.
Pinochet was also under indictment in three cases stemming from the 3 000 people killed and thousands tortured during his regime, when he was feted by Washington as a bulwark against communism.
International reaction to his death was mixed and in some cases coy. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said: “We note the passing of General Pinochet and want to pay tribute to the remarkable progress that Chile has made over the last 15 years as an open, stable and prosperous democracy.”
A spokesperson for Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister who cherished Pinochet’s assistance during the Falklands war with Argentina, said she was “greatly saddened” and had sent her condolences to his family, but would not be issuing a formal statement.
Pinochet’s critics regretted his passing only because it meant he could not be tried. Amnesty International said: “Pinochet’s death should be a wake-up call for the authorities in Chile and governments everywhere, reminding them of the importance of speedy justice for human rights crimes—something that Pinochet has now escaped.”
When Pinochet seized power in 1973, he knew he would be enjoying the strong support of the US. The secretary of state and national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was an admirer and anxious that no bridgehead for the left should be established in Latin America by Allende.
“The prevailing mood among the Chilean military is to use the current opportunity to stamp out all vestiges of communism in Chile,” said a CIA memo immediately after the coup. “Severe repression is planned.” Another CIA document noted that the methods used by the junta’s secret police were “out of the Spanish inquisition”.
When Kissinger and Pinochet met in 1976, according to documents released in 1999, Kissinger told him to ignore criticisms from within the US about his methods, assuring him that they were part of a communist propaganda exercise. He told him: “We wish your government well.”
Kissinger remained loyal to Pinochet. When the retired dictator was arrested in London in 1998 and was facing extradition to Spain, he backed the campaign for him to be allowed to return home.
Pinochet’s link with Thatcher was equally strong. She visited him when he was under house arrest, a meeting as portrayed in the television film Pinochet in Suburbia. She thanked him “for bringing democracy to Chile” and dismissed Allende’s supporters as “a small minority of communists who nearly wrecked the country”.
Last month, besieged by criticism and pending trials, the ailing general appeared to accept political, but not legal, responsibility for his regime’s brutality.
“Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbour no rancour against anybody; that I love my fatherland above all; and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration,” he said.—Guardian Unlimited Â