The Death of the General

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At 2:15pm on 10 December,
General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte died of heart failure and pulmonary
oedema at a military hospital in Santiago. Although a minority of
Chileans and international admirers (such as Baroness Margaret
Thatcher) may beg to differ, the General’s gravestone, if written
honestly, should read as follows:

Here
rests a brutal and corrupt dictator who betrayed the Chilean people,
their democratically elected President Salvador Allende and the
country’s Constitution. Bereft of a serious intellect, he was a coward
who had friends and civilians murdered, tortured and exiled while he
looted State coffers of millions of dollars. A servant of powerful
interests, he will best be remembered as a spineless opportunist.

 

No
matter how hard one tries to understand the General, a thuggish and
colourless character always appears. He was a poor orator whose
speeches during his 17 years in power were short and riddled with bad
pronunciation. His favourite topic was always the same: hacking
rants about his war on communism.

In early 1974, Pinochet told Lutheran Bishop Helmuth Frenz and his Catholic counterpart Bishop Enrique Alvear that:

The
plague of communism has invaded the people. That’s why I need to
exterminate communism. The most dangerous communists are the extremists
of the MIR [Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario, the
Revolutionary Movement of the Left]. They have to be tortured, or they
won’t sing, if you get my meaning. Torture is necessary to exterminate
communism. For the good of the fatherland.

Chilean culture also suffered greatly under the General, beginning with the murder of folk singer and political activist Víctor Jara
— whose body was found on the outskirts of Santiago riddled with
bullets and with his hands smashed — and followed by the exodus of
countless artists and intellectuals. As compensation, Chileans were
treated to ghastly military parades, beauty pageants with women who
looked anything but Chilean, US televangelists, empty football stadiums
with poorly performing teams and grinding poverty.

Many myths surround the General and his regime. One of the most childish is the one he created in his 1980 book The Decisive Day,
where he claimed that he had planned the 11 September coup that brought
him to power in 1973, just 19 days after President Salvador Allende
appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

In reality, as
numerous investigations have shown, the coup was orchestrated by Air
Force General Gustavo Leigh and Navy Commander Admiral José Toribio
Merino. Pinochet himself vacillated until the very end when he knew he
would be playing for the winning team.

Historically, the role
of the Nixon Administration, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the overthrow of Allende have also
been a point of contention. But internal US Government documents that
have been scrutinised by the Director of the National Security
Archives’ Chile Documentation Project, Peter Kornbluh, reveal what many
suspected from the beginning: that the US Government was heavily
involved.

One of the greatest distortions about the General’s
rule, however, was his Government’s economic policies. Chile today is
often presented as one of the models of neo-liberal economics and the
General is credited with implementing the necessary changes. Greg
Palast, a journalist and former student of economist Milton Freidman,
points out in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy that after nine years of economic policies guided by Freidman and his ‘Chicago Boys’, Chile
saw the abolition of minimum wages, an outlawing of trade unions’
negotiating rights, and a 22 per cent unemployment rate. Real wages
declined by 40 per cent.

Palast also notes that once the
Chilean economy went into a depression in 1982, the General "nationalised banks and industry on a scale unimagined by the socialist
Allende. The General expropriated at will, offering little or no
compensation".

When he was arrested in London in 1998, the old
dictator pleaded he could not stand trial due to ill health and an
unsound mind — then miraculously walked unassisted out of his
wheelchair once he was on Chilean soil. On a right-wing US television
show in 2003 he showed no regrets stating: "Everything that I did, I
would do again, everything was thought through". Modesty not being one
of his strengths, he concluded the interview by stating, "I’m a good
person, I feel like an angel".

But not all were lies and deceit
with the General, and it would be unfair to deny that he had a sense of
humour. When a Chilean journalist asked him in the mid-1990s if he had
any comments about the discovery of two bodies in the one coffin, the
General laughed and replied "good economisation!".

At the end of
his life, while he was under house arrest on his 91st birthday, a
statement was read out by Pinochet’s wife Lucía in which her husband
assumed "full political responsibility for what happened" under his
reign.

Again, it was "done [with]no other goal than making
Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration". Stating that he "gladly
offered" all of the "humiliations, persecutions and injustices that
affect me and my family, for the sake of the harmony and peace that
should reign among Chileans", the General at 91 had not lost his
grotesque sense of humour.

Australia , like many other
countries, has its share of the General’s victims (which official
numbers have at 3000 people dead or disappeared and approximately
35,000 tortured). Last Monday a group of about 50 Chileans gathered to
celebrate the General’s death outside Town Hall in Sydney. They chanted
¡Lucía, Lucía, se fue tu porquería!’ (Lucía, Lucía, your rubbish is gone!), drank champagne and danced — yet the mood in essence was sombre.

Sandra Pinto Silva with her son and a picture of her father who disappeared in 1976. Photo: Danijel Boskovic

Sandra Pinto Silva was there with a
photo of her father, who disappeared in 1976. What was his crime? He
was a member of the Communist Party and a driver of Luis Corvalán, a
communist politician who served in Allende’s Government. Ten years
after Sandra’s father disappeared, her sister Gloria was killed by the
secret police. A year later Sandra herself had to flee Chile after an
attempt was made on her life. Reflecting on the General’s death she
said, "My father died alone unlike that criminal. Pinochet’s death is a
relief but I’m still sad that justice was never done".

Another
victim at the gathering was Carlos Alberto Mendoza whose brother was
accused of having kidnapped a colonel and was eventually murdered.
Carlos was imprisoned at San Miguel jail in Santiago. Philosophical
about his plight, he recalls how fortunate he was to have arrived in
Australia during a Labor Government. Carlos doubts he would have been
accepted as a political refugee today, and said that in contrast to
when he was there, Villawood Detention Centre is now like a ‘concentration camp’.

Eduardo Figeroa, tortured by the Pinochet regime. Photo: Danijel Boskovic

The most moving story was Eduardo
Figeroa’s. As a trade unionist, Eduardo was a prime target of the
General’s henchmen. Fleeing to Peru with one of his sons in 1974, he
returned to Chile four years later to reunite with his wife and other
child. Fighting back tears he described his experience:

I
was tortured, electric shocks. Twelve days. I lost eight days of my
life. I cannot remember where they are gone. My son was tortured in the
room next door and I could hear his screams.

Pinochet
did not directly bloody his hands with the day-to-day mechanisms of his
job. He simply had breakfast with his head of intelligence every
morning to discuss who would live and who would disappear.

The
General was dull on many levels, but he was also cynical, a thief,
cunning, an opportunist interested in personal power and essentially a
petty thug who reached the apex of power through little skill of his
own.

Now that the tormentor is dead, only a few words keep circling in my mind: good riddance to human garbage.

New Matilda

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