Legacy: Gen. Augusto Pinochet

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Chile's right is haunted by the brutal legacy of Augusto Pinochet, center, who seized power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody coup and ruled for 17 years

General Augusto Pinochet picked a symbolically apt moment to die. The former Chilean dictator succumbed Sunday at age 91 after suffering a massive coronary earlier this month while finally awaiting trial for the murders and torture that terrorized Chile in the wake of his 1973, U.S.-backed military coup. His passing comes near the end of a year in which the leftist political forces he worked so violently to expunge have swept back into power in presidential elections all over Latin America — including Chile, where socialist Michele Bachelet now rules. As a result, pundits from Mexico City to Buenos Aires are sure to remark in their obituaries that the left wouldn't be enjoying such resilient support in the region if it were not for the reactionary excesses of figures like Pinochet that pockmark Latin American history like blood-soaked epaulettes.

The abuses of Pinochet — who also died, ironically, on the United Nations' International Human Rights Day — were certainly some of the most brutal South America has ever witnessed. His right-wing regime, which lasted 17 years until he ceded power to an elected civilian government in 1990, was responsible for the deaths or disappearances of more than 3,000 suspected communists and other leftists — "disappeared," in fact, became a noun during his reign — while thousands more were tortured or forced into exile (including Bachelet's family). Even banishment wasn't safe: in 1976, Pinochet henchmen assassinated former Chilean ambassador and Pinochet opponent Orlando Letelier by planting a bomb under his car in Washington, D.C. That same year, Pinochet's successes helped inspire the right-wing military coup that led to the even bloodier Dirty War in neighboring Argentina.

Pinochet's dictatorship symbolized the last throes of CIA-backed anti-communism in South America. When the Berlin Wall fell and Cold Warriors like Pinochet became obsolete — if not denounced — in Washington, Pinochet wisely built a fortress of legal immunity around himself before stepping down. But it couldn't withstand the level of pent-up outrage at home and abroad. In the most bizarre case, British authorities arrested Pinochet in London in 1998 on an arrest warrant issued from Spain — where prosecutors wanted to try him for allegedly ordering the execution of leftist Spaniards living in Chile in the 1970s. He was eventually released back to Chile, but he spent his last years in a virtual prison of legal assaults and deteriorating health. In October a Chilean judge ordered Pinochet under house arrest on charges related to human rights atrocities at Villa Grimaldi, a detention center outside Santiago run by Pinochet's vicious secret police.

But Pinochet's supporters, who still make up about half of Chilean society, insist the moustached dictator was himself a product of Latin America's other notorious extreme: intolerant leftism. Their point is at least half valid. Salvador Allende, the left-wing Chilean President whom the military ousted and probably killed, hardly shared Pinochet's bloodlust; but his government had indeed run Marxist-amuck by 1973. The economy was in state-run free fall and radical but influential leftist groups were calling for (if not already trying to carry out) an armed shift to Cuba-style communism. Pinochet always asserted that he was not part of a coup but a "civil war." In that sense, Pinochet maintained until his death that he had "saved" Chile.

But even the one policy initiative his dictatorship has been widely hailed for — Latin America's first real effort at free-market capitalism, which the rest of the region adopted in the 1990s — looks tarnished today. One leftist President after another has taken the oath of office this year because Latin voters are fed up with the failure of capitalist reforms to narrow the widest divide between rich and poor of any region in the world. And the reason for that failure isn't due so much to capitalism itself — it's due to the fact that capitalism, or socialism for that matter, can't work fairly in any setting devoid of the kind of functioning democratic institutions that the Pinochets of the hemisphere disdain, from universal education to reliable judicial systems.

Along with the iron fist, Pinochet epitomized another specter that still haunts Latin America: a dogmatic mind. If it continues, the region's addiction to ideological governance — the chronic oscillation between right-wing and left-wing — will keep it from entering the 21st century as surely as Pinochet and leftist despots like Fidel Castro kept it from entering the 20th. Chileans seemed to indulge the old habits Sunday night as Pinochet backers and haters squared off in the streets. But perhaps the reason that Chile's democratic institutions are still more the exception than the rule in South America today is because its citizens experienced most directly how the utter lack of such a foundation will rot any modern nation. In that sense, both Latin America's conservatives and victorious leftists should use Pinochet's death as an occasion for a little timely introspection, not just an opportunity to mourn or cheer.