There is no surprise in the clashes that are taking place in the streets of Chile in the wake of former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s death last Sunday. The Chilean strongman’s passing probably triggers the same strong sentiments of hurt, anger — and even pride, for some — that he evoked during his lifetime. Several people were reportedly injured in violence that broke out in Santiago between police and rioters, who stoned vehicles and set up fire barricades in the city and its suburbs. General Pinochet was in power until 1990 — first as head of a military junta and then as president — a reign that left a legacy of abuse, which apparently took years to chronicle.
Even after he stepped down from the presidency, he hung on to power as the chief of the army for a while before becoming a self-styled ‘senator-for-life’ — a position he retained till 2002. There were few buyers for his retirement on health grounds as he had proven by then that, for all his khaki swagger, he was at heart just another power-hungry politician who feigned illness to avoid trials in hundreds of court cases filed against him.
So it’s intriguing why General Pinochet, unlike many Latin American dictators, remains popular with many Chileans even now, given the cruelty of his regime that allegedly went beyond pulling out opponents’ finger nails and dumping people from helicopters into the Pacific. The only plausible explanation could be the success of his initial economic policies, which turned Chile into the richest country in Latin America.
Ironically, the tales of horror he leaves behind could also have been instrumental in making the largest advance towards an international jurisprudence of human rights in recent history. For, his case is a clear warning to previous heads of State or government who have committed torture and political murder that no one can claim immunity from prosecution under international conventions. The international community clearly will not sit by and let crimes of the past be forgotten.