Change in the times ensnared Pinochet Arrest: The ex-ruler of Chile is in custody because the importance of human rights is eclipsing the principles of diplomatic immunity and national sovereignty.

Sun Journal

October 22, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

The arrest of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in London at the request of a Spanish magistrate was a surprising thing, not least to the general himself, and likely to trouble the minds of the keepers of the international order, the guardians of the immunity of ambassadors and protectors of the sacred sovereignty of states.

As a senator in Chile's congress, Pinochet thought he had diplomatic immunity. Whether he did is unclear, and many an arcane argument over his status will be advanced in days to come.

There he sits, detained against his will, much as he had thousands of others forcibly detained through his long, shameful career. Those who know anything of Pinochet's work must feel a warm glow.

But the story on him is not so pat. Pinochet is more than just another former Latin American despot. He is a salient figure on the periphery of modern history, a factor in the Cold War.

His impact on his country is immense, and not only for the evil it brought. He became both an instrument and a victim of historical forces.

Not many people outside Chile knew of his existence until he overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973.

The socialist president died in the ferocious bombardment of the Moneda Palace in Santiago, and thousands of his followers and sympathizers were rounded up, tortured and murdered in the months and years that followed.

(Among them were a significant number of Spanish nationals, which is what moved the Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzon.)

Pinochet's coup, though sudden, was not unexpected. The world in 1973 had been watching the struggle of an activist, socialist president -- supported by Chile's large, venerable Communist Party -- to remain in power against unrelenting and violent rightist opposition.

There was reason for sustained interest in Allende's fate in Western Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States.

It was a time when communist parties in Europe were advancing electorally and, in Italy in particular, trying to win a role in national governments. Eurocommunism, as it was called, was touted as a gentler version of that creed than Soviet communism.

Washington did what it could to stop it, but its influence was not so commanding in the stronger countries of Europe as it was in weaker states of Latin America.

The question presented was whether a communist party, or a revolutionary socialist one like Allende's, could win power through the electoral process, and then remain in power until its constitutional term ended.

Allende had already taken the first step. Pinochet, with U.S. support, forestalled the second.

Allende's death lent strength to the argument of the revolutionaries of the left -- the political heirs of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and all the others militating in Africa and Asia, that violence was the only path open to them.

It also doused the hopes of the Eurocommunist parties, and eventually the movement, such as it was, languished.

It turned out to be a tremendous victory for capitalism, for when the smoke cleared in Chile, Pinochet -- averse to all the left-wing ideologies of economics that had dwelled for so long in Chile -- contrived to have their direct opposites imposed.

Chile became a laboratory for the ideas of the economist Milton Friedman. For a while pure, unrestrained capitalism reigned there.

The "Chicago Boys," Chilean economists wedded to Friedman's theories, were given a free hand. They utterly annihilated the state-dominated economy. They abolished the tariff: Domestic industries died in their thousands; hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and sank into poverty.

Chile's communally oriented society was shredded.

But the economy took off like a rocket. Chile became one of the most prosperous countries in the world. In a way, that is Pinochet's legacy, as are the torture, kidnapping and murder.

And there is an irony that reaches all the way from the worst months at the end of 1973, when the streets of Santiago were often filled with smoke and gunfire, to earlier this week when Pinochet, denied diplomatic status, was nabbed by Scotland Yard as he recovered from a back operation in a London clinic.

In the aftermath of the coup, hundreds of people in and around Santiago, pursued by Pinochet's troops, fled into embassies for asylum. The French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Mexican and other delegations took them in.

A lot of people thus escaped an ugly fate, for Pinochet and his counterparts in the military junta then being formed generally respected the conventions on the sanctity of embassies.

Asylum was acknowledged, and eventually nearly all those sheltered in the embassies were given safe passage out of the country.

But the world has changed greatly since then. Had Pinochet been more sensitive to that, he might not have traveled so readily to Europe. (He was denied a visa to France.)

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