Pinochet Still Stirring up Chile

10 Marzo 1998

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, one of the last representatives of South America's age of military domination, will retire Tuesday as Chile's army commander after 24 years.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, one of the last representatives of South America's age of military domination, will retire Tuesday as Chile's army commander after 24 years - including 17 as dictator of a country now bitterly divided by his role in its history. The landmark retirement of Pinochet, 82, who allowed a transition to a democratically elected presidency in 1990 after a national plebiscite voted down his dictatorship, represents the passing from the military of one of Latin America's most significant personalities of this century. But his retirement ceremony, scheduled to take place in front of 8,000 people under tight security at Santiago's Military Academy on Tuesday morning, has been overshadowed by Pinochet's decision to use an option in the Chilean constitution, written during his tenure, that permits him to assume a new job as senator for life starting Wednesday.

That decision has spurred thousands of Chileans into the streets in shows of protest-and of support-underscoring just how deeply Pinochet has polarized this nation since he took power in a coup in 1973. For several days here in the capital, there have been hordes of police, demonstrations and massive media coverage, such as a series in one national magazine about the 'secrets' of Pinochet's army, including details of the brief kidnapping of a crusading politician's son in 1992 to silence his investigation into military wiretapping. 'We will not be able, to move on in Chile as long as Pinochet remains in some form of power,' said Teresa Herrera, 47, a torture victim from the Pinochet era, who chanted protest slogans at a rally outside the National Library today. In recent weeks, opponents have felt emboldened enough to file legal petitions against Pinochet, seeking to hold him accountable for the thousands of dissidents who 'disappeared' or were tortured during his rule.

Members of the center-left coalition now governing Chile are debating a challenge to the general's right to a seat in the Senate, despite an effort by President Eduardo Frei this week to quell the move on the grounds of 'national unity'. 'I feel a lot of shame for my country,' said Juan Pablo Letelier, a member of congress whose father Orlando Letelier an opposition figure and onetime Chilean ambassador, was assassinated in Washington in 1976 by Pinochet's secret police. 'This must be the only case in the world where an ex-dictator ends up retiring with a seat in the same congress he himself closed down,' Letelier said.

But Pinochet's supporters, who are in the minority but tend to be some of the most powerful and wealthiest people in Chile, view him as a national saviour, a man who toppled a leftist government and transformed this country into the region's economic dynamo. And they have been just as vocal. Indeed, this week, Pinochet received a vow of loyalty and an additional title from the army, which made him 'meritorious commander in chief.' While largely symbolic, the move was viewed by some here as saber-rattling by the most domestically powerful army in South America. lt was a sign, experts said, that the military would protect their patriarch from any serious threat.

But most agree that Chileans, who went through much of the 1990s with a collective amnesia, choosing not to focus on the violence of the past, will not push the Pinochet issue to the point of putting him on trial. Although there are unprecedented investigations underway against Pinochet, and some feisty lawmakers are calling for legislation that would force him to reveal financial holdings he obtained during the dictatorship, he is widely considered untouchable because of amnesty laws, his, ample military backing and right-wing support in the Senate.

In Pinochet's speech Tuesday, sources close to the general said, he will attempt to put his dictatorship in context, as well as outline his vision for Chile's future-a future he will continue to preside over after he trades in his Prussian-style general's uniform for a civilian's suit and take his lifetime seat in the upper house. 'The general is feeling quite emotional right now,' said retired Gen. Alejandro Medina Lois, a former Pinochet aide. 'He sees this as his opportunity to portray his role in Chilean history. And whether you are for him or against him, you cannot denyy that he has had a permanent impact on our country.'

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post