The Chilean Strongman Who Won't Go Away

He is considered old, but he lifts weights every morning. He is said to have had his Army general's cap redesigned to add an inch to his stature. He dotes on his grandchildren, but is accused of having ordered the arrest and murder of thousands of his countrymen.

He is Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who steps down today as commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army after 25 years. He first came to the fore in Chile in 1973, when Popular Unity President Salvador Allende brought him into a crisis cabinet as defense minister. He came to international attention when, some months later, he returned the favor by bombing Mr. Allende in his own presidential palace.

The image of jets demolishing the seat of government, and General Pinochet's grinning face, became an international symbol of the new barbarity that gripped much of South America in the early 1970s.

Tightening his grip

In the months and years that followed, Pinochet tightened his control over Chile. He ordered anyone considered a threat to his rule to be rounded up. Many were never seen again: Up to 3,000 people are thought to have been killed in this way. He even ordered the death of one prominent opposition politician living in Washington. He boasted that his efforts had led to the "defeat of Communism" in his country, and that he had saved Chile for Western, Christian civilization.

The only miscalculation the general made was to think that the Chileans would profusely thank him for these efforts. He had a new national constitution drawn up, believing that under its provisions he would automatically become the first president of a new order in Chile. But in 1989, when Chileans were allowed to vote on this idea, they rejected him.

Pinochet's response was to ensure that at least he continued as commander of the Army - and that, as he said, "none of his boys" could ever be accused of human rights crimes. A blanket amnesty also was passed, making it almost impossible for any of the relatives of the disappeared to bring members of the security forces to task for human rights crimes.

Thus, since 1990, the newly returned civilian governments have had to deal with Pinochet as the guardian of the armed forces' honor. Relations often have been strained. Several times he has threatened to take his troops out onto the streets when he took exception to a government initiative on human rights.

In return, the civilian leaders have compromised, looking the other way whenever Pinochet has sounded off too loudly. The first president after the return to civilian rule, Patricio Aylwin, even went so far as to declare that the general was "the best guarantee" of democratic rule.

Now Pinochet is finally handing over the baton of command. And an hour later, he is taking up a new post: senator-for-life.

The position was created in his 1980 constitution. It allows Pinochet to sit in the upper house of the Chilean Congress - and once again to block any moves the civilian politicians might make to seek redress for what happened during the 17 years of military rule.

The dictator as senator

Despite his disdain for politicians, the soon-to-be senator is said to be looking forward to his new role. Apparently, he has hired an office near the hideous new Congress building he had constructed, which was another joke at the politicians' expense. The building is in Valparaiso, more than 80 miles from the capital, where most of them live.

That someone with such little regard for parliamentary democracy that he was willing to bomb it out of existence should now be taking his seat in Congress is typical of the paradoxes of many South American countries. They are trying to build for the future while having to constantly compromise, finding their democratic impulses hemmed in on many sides.

Perhaps the best proof of political maturity the Chileans could give is to allow the old dictator to spend his remaining years huffing and puffing, but not blowing any house down.

* Nick Caistor is a senior producer at the BBC World Service.

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