Seeking justice for Pinochet

April 26, 1999|By William Pfaff

SANTIAGO, CHILE -- While he remained in Chile, as retired dictator and senator for life, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was a not entirely powerless monitor of those who have replaced him since his defeat in a 1988 plebiscite restoring democratic government. The army, under his influence, continues to exercise constitutional authority over national security matters.

His incautious journey to London, and what followed, has left the army disconcerted and angry. However, President Eduardo Frei's government has conducted itself in a manner that allows no military criticism. It has demanded that the general be sent home to trial in Chile, saying this is a matter of national honor.

Chile's foreign minister, Jose Miguel Insulza, himself a Socialist who spent 14 years in exile while Pinochet was in power, said in mid-March that "we absolutely do not defend Pinochet . . . or his regime. However, we assumed the responsibilities of power in 1990, and no one can demand that an independent state accept that the courts of another country arrogate to themselves the right to judge what occurs in our country."

He and many foreign commentators argue that the general's trial in Spain would interfere with the democratic political transition still under way in Chile. The Pinochet detention has already halted the old right's reconciliation with democracy. Business circles that backed the dictatorship were drifting away from the general's ideas and coming to terms with those of the Christian Democratic leaders of the new government, who stand for the future. Now they are indignant.

What the government did was inevitable: a matter of national self-esteem as well as a political necessity in terms of its electorate. However, those Chileans who criticize Spain and Britain in public may rejoice in private. The general's trial inside Chile could be dangerous. The farther away it is, the safer.

Sixty percent of Chile's present population was born since the Pinochet dictatorship ended. The general is an old man of no consequence to them. The country was economically polarized as a result of the Pinochet regime's economic policies, by which the middle class and what we may call the International Monetary Fund economy prospered, but the poor paid.

The country was in disastrous economic condition when the coup d'etat took place in 1973. The president Pinochet overthrew, Salvador Allende Gossens, had worsened a difficult economic situation through a doctrinal socialism, largely irrelevant to the real Chilean economy, but was also subverted by enormous pressures mounted from Washington. Those were the days of Fidel Castro's glory, and Washington trembled before the threat Castro and Allende together were supposed to pose to the Western hemisphere.

This is why the Pinochet trial threatens to involve the United States, which was undoubtedly implicated in some of the more sordid of the Pinochet programs to "disappear" the South American left. Thus the Clinton administration's order earlier this year that archives be opened concerning U.S. government knowledge of human rights abuses and terrorism in Pinochet's Chile is likely to find -- as the New York Times has put it -- "cooperation from the Pentagon and the CIA . . . a question mark."

This is one more case in which an evolving conception and practice of international jurisdiction in human rights cases threatens not only those directly accused and their foreign backers, but also their successors, responsible for stabilizing representative government.

There is no political crisis in Chile as a result of the Pinochet affair. There is a certain undesirable political and ideological repolarization, but on issues that now are largely of the past. Thanks to the Spanish demand for Pinochet's extradition, and the British government and British judges' willingness to see this take place, the Pinochet case has been exported to scenes distant from Santiago.

Thanks to Home Secretary Jack Straw's decision April 15 that the extradition demand can go forward, appeals will inevitably follow, and the time that will be consumed before a final judgment has been indefinitely extended.

It may be that this provides the best possible solution. The point is firmly established now that if a responsible political figure orders torture of his opponents, he faces unlimited liability to prosecution in courts in any country in the world.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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