Controversial legacy of former Chilean dictator

General Pinochet is credited with stablilizing Chile's economy, but is best known for his repressive rule and alleged human rights violations.

The death Sunday of one of South America's most notorious dictators, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, frustrated the efforts of those who had hoped to see him condemned for the human rights abuses committed during his 17-year rule.

Yet Gen. Pinochet, who overthrew Chile's democratically elected Marxist government in a 1973 coup, leaves behind a disputed legacy that is also lauded for impressive economic successes.

The date of his death – Dec. 10, the UN's International Human Rights Day – could not have been more symbolic. The international effort to bring Pinochet to justice epitomized the global struggle to end impunity for human rights abusers in Latin America.

"It's no consolation to anyone that Pinochet has been subjected to a long legal battle, given that it has never resulted in a condemnation. That's what his victims will lament most about his death," says Sergio Laurenti, executive director of the Chilean wing of Amnesty International.

A paradoxical and symbolic regional figure, Pinochet is one of the most recognized emblems of Latin America's Dirty Wars against leftists during the 1970s and '80s.

Pinochet's rise

In 1970, Chile became the first country in Latin America to elect a socialist leader. President Salvador Allende quickly moved to nationalize foreign-owned industries and rectify Chile's gross economic disparities. But by 1972, internal dissent, failing production, and covert international attempts to undermine Mr. Allende's government combined to create an atmosphere of high political tension that many Chileans feared would crescendo into class warfare or civil war.

On Sept. 11, 1973, two weeks after being appointed commander in chief of Chile's Army, Pinochet led a military junta of four officers who sent war planes to bomb the presidential palace, La Moneda. Once Pinochet's treason and the forces against him became clear, Allende committed suicide.

Pinochet imposed a curfew and ordered mass arrests in an effort to root out opposition. Declaring himself president in 1974, he eliminated Congress, political parties, freedom of speech, habeas corpus, and trade unions. At least 27,000 people were tortured while in detention, and an estimated 3,200 Chileans were killed or disappeared during his rule.

Political scientists say that, although many dictators elsewhere in Latin America were responsible for more deaths, Pinochet is the most notorious because of what he embodies.

"He overthrew Latin America's first democratically elected Marxist leader, who himself was a symbol," says Robert Funk, a political science professor at Santiago's Diego Portales University.

In 1998, Pinochet narrowly lost a referendum on his rule, giving way to a democratic government in 1990, led by center-left president Patricio Aylwin.

Though condemned for its brutality, his regime is credited with stimulating economic growth.

"Pinochet, of course, became known for the economic reforms that he championed, which became perhaps the first case of neoliberal reform, not only in Latin America but in the world, and which were then copied by governments such as those of [US President Ronald Reagan] and [British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher]," Funk says.

Pinochet managed to control inflation, unite the country with highways, and bolster Chile's economic growth. He is credited with heralding an economic miracle for this developing nation, whose economy is now considered the most stable in the region.

Debating a symbolic legacy

Although it has been 33 years since Pinochet's military coup, and more than 16 years since the end of his rule, he still stirs passions on both sides.

Car horns honked here in celebration on Monday, while tens of thousands of his opponents gathered in plazas across the country to cheer and celebrate his passing. The celebrating was punctuated by low-level violence when police clashed with masked anti-Pinochet demonstrators, snarling traffic on Santiago's main boulevard.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 supporters gathered to mourn and express their outrage at the international media. With photos of Pinochet taped to their bodies, and waving flags or hand-painted signs, they came to Chile's Military Hospital to express their gratitude for the deceased strongman.

The government has not yet said how it will remember Pinochet, and whether it will hold a funeral with full honors, as is the custom for former heads of state and military commanders. Despite the continuing controversy surrounding his legacy, Pinochet still boasts a decidedly committed following who remember him as a savior.

"What there is in Chile, as there is in the rest of Latin America, is a fetish for authority," says Mr. Funk. "That respect that we see for Pinochet now is in many ways the support for someone who had a strong hand and made things run in a more orderly fashion."

According to opinion polls, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the population was still professing their support for Pinochet and his military regime as recently as one year ago, says Claudio Fuentes, director of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, an independent think tank based in Santiago.

"He led a series of social, economic, and political reforms that changed the face of our country," says supporter and history teacher Mauricio Schiapacasse. "When he took power, 40 percent of the population had sewers; when he left, 90 percent did. He created a private health-care system that focused on the poorest sectors. He took 150,000 families out of shantytowns and gave them property. And he achieved an economic growth rate of 10 percent. So many people are thankful for that and will never forget him."

Mr. Schiapacasse says Pinochet's legacy has been distorted outside of Chile by a deliberate campaign of disinformation financed by international leftists, including the more than 500,000 Chileans exiled during the dictatorship.

"We have to recognize that these human rights problems existed, but at some point they've come to eclipse the image of what he did for our country," says retired Gen. Luis Cortes Villa, Director of the nonprofit Pinochet Foundation, which is dedicated to giving out scholarships and preserving the positive side of his legacy.

But for most of the world, Pinochet's legacy is synonymous with human rights abuses. Pinochet had long been seen as an untouchable in Chile, but in 1998, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón mounted an offensive, using international instruments barring crimes against humanity to argue for Pinochet's extradition from London.

The former dictator spent more than a year under house arrest until he was deemed too ill and returned to Chile for judgment. But as the world looked on, Chilean courts finally declared Pinochet mentally unfit to stand trial in 2002.

Since then, Pinochet has been formally charged six times for various crimes, but was twice exonerated for dementia.

In late November, Pinochet was placed under house arrest on kidnapping charges stemming from a case in which Pinochet is accused of having sent soldiers to round up and kill opponents shortly after his military coup in 1973. The families of his victims had also filed more than 300 civil suits against him.

And Pinochet himself recently issued a sort of mea culpa. To mark his 91st birthday on Nov. 25, Pinochet issued a statement in which he took "political responsibility" for everything that took place under his rule, although he said he had believed it was in Chile's best interests. He also alluded to his failing health, saying: "Today, close to the end of my days, I want to make clear that I hold no rancor toward anyone."

While he has never been found guilty by the courts, some of his detractors have taken comfort in the fact that his popularity has suffered enormously in recent years and that his example may hold future dictators to account.

"Pinochet's greatest legacy may be the cautionary lesson he provides for dictators everywhere," says José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "His case showed the world that even the most powerful human rights abusers can be made to face justice."

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