Global Policy Forum

Pinochet Still Haunts Chile's Civilian Government


By Larry Rohter

New York Times
July 19, 2004

In theory, the Augusto Pinochet era here ended long ago, and this is now a modern and prosperous country that has healed the scars inflicted by the dark years of his dictatorship. But Pinochet refuses to cooperate and keeps coming back to haunt those who wish he would just fade away into silence and obscurity. A new problem has been added to the headaches of a civilian government that is already having difficulty grappling with the general's legacy of human rights abuses. On the eve of what was meant as a triumphal visit to the United States by Chile's president, Pinochet's name has again surfaced, this time in a possible financial scandal.

According to a U.S. Senate report made public last week, from 1994 to 2002 Pinochet maintained at least six personal and corporate accounts at the Riggs Bank in Washington, with deposits of $4 million to $8 million. The report accuses the bank of helping Pinochet shelter his money in two offshore shell companies and of allowing him to open accounts under an identity other than his full name to hide the existence of the accounts from U.S. bank examiners. The Senate report, which caused an outcry in Chile, was released less than two months after a Chilean appeals court stripped Pinochet of the immunity from prosecution that he was granted in 2002. That reopened the possibility that he may be brought to trial in connection with human rights abuses committed during his tenure, from 1973 to 1990.

The democratic governments that have ruled Chile since then have dealt gingerly with Pinochet's responsibility for the 4,000 people killed by the forces he led and for the torture and exile of thousands of others. But almost against the government's will, the issue was thrust to center stage late in 1998, when Pinochet was arrested in London on a Spanish warrant that resulted in his being held until early 2000.

Pinochet, now 88, was then allowed to return to Chile, where he was initially ruled incompetent to stand trial because of senile dementia. That decision allowed his case to recede again into the background, where military and civilian leaders, intent on improving their relations, hoped it would remain. But late in May, a court reversed that position, in part because of a television interview in which Pinochet defiantly declared that "everything that I did, I would do again." That ruling must now be submitted to the Chilean Supreme Court. No matter how the court decides, criticisms and complaints are assured.

For President Ricardo Lagos, elected in 1999 as the first nominally Socialist head of state since the overthrowing of Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, the timing of the latest Pinochet controversy could scarcely be worse. He was to meet with President George Bush in Washington on Monday and had hoped the focus would be Chile's booming economy and a free trade agreement with the United States that took effect in January. Whether for that or other reasons, the government has chosen to play down the U.S. investigation. At a news conference in Santiago on Thursday, Lagos was cautious, and not particularly enthusiastic, in responding to suggestions, from human rights groups and others, that a new fiscal front be opened in the campaign to bring Pinochet to justice.

"If the results of the U.S. Senate investigation establish the level of the accounts and there is certainty about the owners of the accounts, then there would probably be some sort of commission set up by different government bodies in Chile to investigate," he said. "But the first thing that has to be established is what is the character of these accounts." But Lagos also faces pressure from within his own governing coalition to act more decisively. Legislators representing all three of the main parties in that alliance said that when Congress meets next week, they would immediately introduce a bill to set up a commission to investigate the Riggs accounts.

"There has always been suspicion of money overseas," Juan Bustos, a Socialist Party deputy, told reporters. "Society must have a clear picture and verify whether or not there has been illicit enrichment." Spokesmen for Pinochet denied there was anything to investigate and accused the Lagos government of organizing a "political montage" to divert criticism of its difficulties, including a corruption inquiry.

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