Why Washington Should Be Putting in a Call to Chile's Generals

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General Augusto Pinochet is not a particularly scary man, now that he's out of uniform. He appears in public these days as a rather feeble octogenarian sporting soft colors, smiling affably, his eyes vaguely anxious and his demeanor almost eager to please. These days, the ruthless dictator of yore inspires more pity than terror, particularly now that the veneer of international respectability of his 17-year reign of terror has been stripped away.

Pinochet had once been able to convince himself that every skull crushed and every tortured body tossed into the ocean by his armed forces was part of the price of defending democracy and Western civilization in Chile against communism, but no longer. After all, it was the support of the United States and Britain that had helped him sustain that illusion, but these days he's the subject of criminal investigations not only in his home country, but also in the U.S. and much of Europe.

Fear of the uniform

Last week, for the first time, a Chilean judge cut through the veil of fear Pinochet had draped over his country and charged the general with kidnapping. These charges, of course, are only a handful of the more than 100 criminal complaints against Pinochet pending in the Chilean legal system. But they'll do: The case concerns the notorious "caravan of death" in 1973, when a group of senior military officers murdered some 73 political prisoners in the weeks that followed Pinochet's military coup.

What had held Chileans back until last week from prosecuting General Pinochet was not doubts over the strength of the case against him; it was fear of the consequences. Before he stepped down in 1990, the general, who ruled at gunpoint from October 1973, had authored an immunity decree for himself to avoid just such an eventuality, and it was only 10 years later that Chile's supreme court found the gumption to strike down this pseudo-legal impunity. The reasons for their caution are plain to see: Many Chileans feared that the generals who'd voluntarily allowed the restoration of democracy in 1990 were simply watching and waiting, and if presented with a distasteful political scenario they might once again demand the keys to the national palace and slaughter their political opponents. In other words, Chileans were not scared of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte himself; they feared his uniform and the power it signified, even after he'd given up wearing it.

Military bridles at indictment

The general's failing health and mental faculties got him off the hook after 18 months under house arrest in Britain, and few believe he'll actually get his day in court in Chile. Prosecuting him now may be more an exercise in stripping him of his respectability and shaming him for the crimes of his regime, for which he last week accepted political responsibility. It's also an expression of the independence of Chile's judiciary and a stress test for its reborn democracy.

The reaction of Chile's military commanders to the indictment of their erstwhile chief may well have sent a shiver of fear through the hearts of many Chileans. The the generals signaled they were deeply unhappy. Navy chief Admiral Patricio Arancibia warned that Pinochet's indictment had brought tensions in Chile "to a critical point," while armed forces commander General Ricardo Izurieta demanded a meeting with the president to convey the military's discontent. General Izurieta, too, warned that the ruling harmed "the climate of tranquility" in Chile, although as it turned out, only a couple of hundred people turned out to demonstrate on the former dictator's behalf. Still, the generals appear to have forced President Lagos, after a meeting Wednesday, to reluctantly agree to convene Chile's national security council, a constitutional body established by Pinochet which gives the military a voice in politics in moments of national crisis.

Reckoning with U.S. history

The question really is whether the Chilean military is prepared to accept democratic life, including due process of law against its own officers when they have violated the country's law or its constitution. And the emerging standoff in Santiago therefore presents the U.S. with an opportunity to reckon with a stain on its own history in Latin America, particularly in relation to Chile.

When Pinochet launched his 1973 coup, he did it with the active support and encouragement of the U.S. government, who saw the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende as a dire threat to its Cold War regional interests. The Clinton administration has forced the keepers of the nation's secrets to shine some light on the relationship between Washington and Pinochet, and what has emerged through four tranches of document declassification is an unflattering picture of U.S. collusion with a regime that systematically undermined the constitution of Latin America's oldest democracy, and brutalized its citizenry. And what's worth bearing in mind here is that it was, at least in part, the expectation of U.S. support that emboldened Chile's generals in 1973 to rise against their civilian government.

The Cold War, of course, is long over, and the U.S. is quite happy to have the very same Socialist party overthrown by Pinochet governing Chile today, all the more so because it has adopted the "Third Way" ideology, which prioritizes economic principles cherished in Washington. But if Chile's generals are once again getting restive, this time because a court wants their erstwhile commander to answer charges that by any standard democratic standard of behavior are extremely serious, then it may behoove Washington — preferably with the endorsement of whichever transition team makes it to the White House — to actively warn those generals against doing anything stupid. The Clinton administration has throughout its tenure made a laudable effort to reckon with the history of U.S. support for regimes such as Pinochet's. Now they have an opportunity to underscore that atonement with a few well-placed phone calls in defense of democracy and the rule of law.