Chile Exorcises the Specter of Pinochet

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"You run this town because people think you run this town," Gabriel Byrne tells Albert Finney's gang-boss character in "Miller's Crossing." The same was true, in the end, for Chile's General Augusto Pinochet. While the mass torture and killing of opponents that accompanied his seizure of power in the coup of 1973 was very real, the immunity from prosecution he'd awarded himself upon stepping down in 1990 was sustained only by an illusion of power. And that illusion was finally shattered Tuesday when Chile's Supreme Court stripped the former dictator of his immunity, opening the way for Pinochet to face some 157 different cases of murder, kidnapping and torture.

The Chilean court's decision may be the ultimate vindication of Judge Balthazar Garzon, the Spanish activist prosecutor who authored Pinochet's arrest pending extradition in Britain two years ago. Until then, putting Pinochet on trial in Chile had seemed unthinkable, with the military having only allowed a return to civilian rule in exchange for immunity. But the general's detention in Britain for 18 months, followed by the election of center-left prime minister Ricardo Lagos, who had once been a political prisoner under Pinochet, emboldened his accusers. Indeed, the general eluded a Spanish courtroom only by convincing a panel of British doctors of his physical and mental decrepitude.

Pinochet still enjoys considerable loyalty in the Chilean high command, two of whose members have warned publicly that the military won't cooperate with an investigation of their former boss. But this no longer intimidates his opponents, for the simple reason that a military coup is no longer a sustainable option. The essential precondition for the last one, after all, was active support from Washington, which saw the elected leftist regime of Salvador Allende as a threat to its regional interests. But the U.S. is no longer in the business of sponsoring coups. And that means the Chilean military — and the former U.S. officials that backed its grab for power — may simply have to grit their teeth through any court proceedings. Indeed, Pinochet is still under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for the 1976 car bomb attack in Washington, D.C., that killed former Allende official Orlando Letelier and an American aide. But even if they did decide to prosecute, the Justice Department would have to take a number and stand in a very long line.