The Half-Life of a Despot

12 December 2006

Is Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s former dictator, really dead?

Though there can be no doubt that his body has been proven to indeed be mortal, I fear that his spirit may live on interminably in the Chile he misruled from 1973 to 1990 and then continued to terrorize as commander in chief of the army for eight more years. In order to truly exorcise him from our existence it would have been necessary that he stand trial, that he defend himself from the accusations of murder and torture, kidnapping and grand larceny, which have been brought against him in innumerable court cases in Santiago.

In order to cleanse his image from our land, we would have had to witness him looking into the face of each and every one of his victims, the mothers whose children he disappeared, the wives whose husbands he massacred, the sons who were persecuted and exiled. In order to be rid of his dire influence, we should have left the job of mourning him to his family and few close friends. Instead we must watch the sad spectacle of one-third of the country lamenting his departure, one-third of Chile still silent accomplices to his crimes, still justifying his crimes, still rejoicing that the general overthrew Salvador Allende, the constitutional president of Chile.

And the even sadder spectacle of the minister of defense of the democratic government of Chile being sent to the tyrant’s funeral rites today by President Michelle Bachelet, a woman who was herself imprisoned and tortured by the secret police of the man she is now honoring, a woman whose own father, Alberto Bachelet, was tortured and died in one of General Pinochet’s prisons. Military honors, young cadets marching by, rifles fired off, for a man who has been branded an international terrorist, who ordered the assassination of Orlando Letelier, Allende’s former minister of defense, in the streets of Washington in 1976. Only a country still full of fear would dare to stoop so low, pay public homage to such a despot.

And yet, in spite of all these signs of General Pinochet’s continuing dominance from beyond death, I feel that something has in fact changed quite categorically with his demise. What convinced me were the thousands upon thousands of Chileans who spontaneously poured into the streets here to celebrate the news of his extinction. I tend to be wary of any attempt to turn the death of anyone, no matter how despicable, into an occasion for joy, but I realized that in this case it was not one man’s death that was being welcomed but rather the birth of a new nation.

Dancing under the mountains of Santiago there was one word they repeated over and over and it was the word shadow. “La sombra de Pinochet se fue,” one woman said, his shadow is gone, we have come out from under the general’s shadow. As if the demons of a thousand plagues had been washed from this land, as if we were never again to be afraid, never again the helicopter in the night, never again the air polluted by sorrow and violence.

For those who were celebrating (most of them young), it was as if something had been definitely, gloriously shattered when Augusto Pinochet’s bleak and unrepentant heart ceased beating. They had spent their lives, as I had spent mine, awaiting this moment, this day when the darkness receded, this December when our country would be purged, ready to start over again. This moment when we need to grow up and stop blaming General Pinochet for everything that goes wrong, everything that went wrong, this moment when he disappears from our horizon.

Has the general really died? Will he ever stop contaminating every schizophrenic mirror of our life? Will Chile ever cease to be a divided nation? Or is she right, that future mother, seven months pregnant, who jumped for joy in the center of Santiago, was she right when she shouted to the seven winds that from now on everything would be different, that her child would be born in a Chile from which Augusto Pinochet had forever vanished?

The battle for the soul of this country has just begun.

Ariel Dorfman is the author of “Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet.”

Published by The New York Times © 2006