Global Policy Forum

Pinochet’s Legacy Dims Under Cloud of


By Monte Reel

Washington Post
February 24, 2005

The Eternal Flame of Liberty, christened by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1975, was one of the most visible monuments to his dictatorship. Recently, it was extinguished without fanfare during renovations outside the presidential palace, and the government does not plan to relight it. Today, very little associated with Pinochet's 17-year rule is proving eternal.

The ailing retired general, 89, is the target of multiple judicial investigations into allegations of murder, torture and secret foreign bank accounts full of stolen money. This month, lawmakers proposed a measure to erase his signature from the country's constitution. The Pinochet Foundation, an organization in Santiago that promotes his legacy, recently had its bank accounts frozen as part of investigations into Pinochet's financial dealings. In late January, Gen. Manuel Contreras, the retired head of Pinochet's secret police force, was hauled to prison as protesters pelted him with eggs.

"There's definitely a sense of momentum against Pinochet," said Sebastian Brett, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Santiago. "Even if the realists say that it's unlikely he'll ever actually go behind bars himself, his inner circle -- like Contreras -- is now falling, and that seems like the next best thing." Still, Pinochet is praised by some Chileans who say his free-market reforms helped their economy become one of the strongest in Latin America. And in recent months, some have begun to question whether the pursuit of criminal charges against Pinochet and his military commanders has stretched on too long.

"All the work Pinochet did is intact," said Christian Labbe, a former army colonel and one of Pinochet's closest advisers. "Nobody is fighting to change the free market that we built, not even the Socialists. We need to give credit to the person who made all of this." The Supreme Court three weeks ago ordered that charges in more than 350 pending investigations against Pinochet's military government be filed within six months. The action was intended to speed up cases that have lingered in the investigative stage for years, leaving those accused in legal limbo. But human rights groups argue that the deadline could result in valid cases being dropped and abuses going unpunished.

"It's absolutely illegal, and cases will be lost," said Patricia Silva Soto, president of an advocacy group called Relatives of Victims of Political Executions. "These are crimes against humanity, and they shouldn't impose any sort of statute of limitations on them." Many in the government said viewing the six-month target as a strict deadline was a mistake, and Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza said worthy cases would be granted extensions by the courts. "We've been at this for so long, it would be completely silly to put an artificial end to it," Insulza said. "But at some point, formal charges have to be brought against a person."

The order came a week after German Barriga Munoz, a former army general charged in the disappearance of nine leaders of the Chilean Communist Party in 1976, jumped to his death from a Santiago apartment building. His suicide note suggested that he felt hounded by inquiries into the case and by demonstrations held outside his house. Retired military personnel rallied around the issue and argued that it was time to end what they consider inhumane persecution. They contended that monetary reparations, approved by the government after the November release of a report detailing the torture and imprisonment of more than 27,000 Chileans, should allow the country to move beyond its past. "After the suicide note was in the newspapers, finally attention was paid to a subject that we've been talking about for 20 years," Labbe said. "We need to finish this. It's not necessary to destroy the past to build the future.

Two weeks ago, Labbe published a book called "Pinochet in Person," a flattering portrait of the former dictator. He said the scandal involving Washington's Riggs Bank had been especially damaging to Pinochet's reputation in Chile, where many of his supporters excused the human rights violations as necessary measures to combat a war against communist terrorists in the 1970s. Because his supporters always championed Pinochet's fiscal and moral discipline, the banking allegations are "maybe the most difficult to answer," Labbe said.

Pinochet in December was declared mentally fit to undergo investigation into the murder of one person and the disappearances of nine others related to Operation Condor, in which South American military governments sought to assassinate prominent leftist dissidents in the 1970s. He was indicted and placed under house arrest in January.

In a separate investigation, he lost immunity from prosecution in a case involving the assassination of Gen. Carlos Prats, who commanded the Chilean army before Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973. Prats and his wife were killed by a car bomb in 1974 in Buenos Aires. Pinochet also is being investigated for possible tax evasion for secretly depositing up to $8 million in Riggs Bank. This month, Banco de Chile said it would close Pinochet's accounts in Miami and New York after U.S. officials said the bank had concealed accounts that had been controlled by Pinochet.

Pinochet's defense so far has centered on arguments that he is too frail and mentally feeble to stand trial. Labbe, who visits Pinochet often, said the former general rises at about 9 a.m., takes daily walks and spends a lot of time at his desk looking at books. Often, he said, they sit in silence, each flipping through a different book. Labbe said Pinochet has accepted that he will likely die an outcast in his own country. "He knows very well that these things happen to great men," Labbe said. "The great men need to wait for history's judgment, not [current] justice."

That position infuriates those who have monitored human rights atrocities during the Pinochet dictatorship. "It's an unbelievable dynamic. . . . The military is managing to project itself as victimized rather than victimizers," said Peter Kornbluh, director of the Chile project at the private National Security Archive in Washington.

Kornbluh said that despite recent efforts to resuscitate Pinochet's image, evidence being gathered in many legal cases has tied a noose around his legacy. He said the demise of the Eternal Flame of Liberty, and official statements that a funeral with state honors is now "unthinkable" for Pinochet, have given the former dictator a glimpse of how history will judge him.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Augusto Pinochet
More Information on the Rogues Gallery


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.