General Who? Pinochet Returns to a New Chile

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General Augusto Pinochet's fate had once seemed to hold Chile on a knife edge; now it looks more like a non-event. The former dictator flew home Thursday after Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw ended extradition proceedings on torture charges and said Pinochet was free to leave. But the generalissimo will return to a country no longer in his thrall. When he left Chile in September 1998 it was as self-appointed senator-for-life and a self-satisfied former military ruler who had deigned to allow civilians once again to govern. When his plane lands in Santiago — a capital now ruled, once again, by the very Socialist party Pinochet overthrew in his 1973 coup — he won't be greeted as a national hero. Neither president-elect Ricardo Lagos nor outgoing President Eduardo Frei will be at the airport, and the general is expected to be welcomed by a small delegation of military officers, a marching band, a few thousand of his most fervent supporters and a packed media gallery.

Pinochet's absence failed to produce the military backlash some had feared, and even his supporters now favor the general's retirement from public life. Being shamed in Britain, which excused him from standing trial for crimes against humanity only because of his ailing health, has been deeply humiliating for the renowned Anglophile, and his ordeal may not be over. Chilean judge Juan Guzman is currently considering some 59 lawsuits brought against Pinochet, and the judge wants more medical tests to establish his fitness to stand trial. Of course Pinochet has plenty of legal grounds to hold off the prosecutors, particularly in light of the legal amnesty he insisted on as a condition for allowing a return to civilian rule. But that doesn't change the fact that now, even in his homeland, the general will have to hold the prosecutors at bay, and an ignominious exile from public life looks like the best-case scenario for the self-styled "senator-for-life."