Pinochet continues to haunt Chile’s civilian government

Larry Rohter
New York Times
July 18, 2004

Santiago: In theory, the Augusto Pinochet era here ended long ago, and this is now a modern and prosperous country that has healed the scars inflicted by the dark years of his dictatorship. But General Pinochet refuses to cooperate and keeps coming back to haunt those who wish he would just fade away into silence and obscurity. A new problem has been added to the headaches of a civilian government that is already having difficulty grappling with the general’s legacy of human rights abuses. On the eve of what was meant as a triumphal visit by Chile’s president to the United States, General Pinochet’s name has again surfaced, this time in a possible financial scandal.

According to a United States Senate report made public on Wednesday, from 1994 to 2002 General Pinochet maintained at least six personal and corporate accounts at the Riggs Bank in Washington, with deposits of $4 million to $8 million. The report accuses the bank of helping General Pinochet shelter his money in two offshore shell companies and of allowing him to open accounts under an identity other than his full name to hide the existence of the accounts from American bank examiners.

The Senate report, which caused an outcry here, was released less than two months after a Chilean appeals court stripped General Pinochet of the immunity from prosecution he was granted in 2002. That reopened the possibility that he may be brought to trial in connection with human rights abuses committed during his reign, from 1973 to 1990.

The democratic governments that have ruled Chile since then have dealt gingerly with General Pinochet’s responsibility for the 4,000 people killed by the forces he led and for the torture and exile of thousands of others. But almost against their will, the issue was thrust to center stage late in 1998, when General Pinochet was arrested in London on a Spanish warrant that resulted in his being held until early 2000.

General Pinochet, now 88, was then allowed to return to Chile, where he was initially ruled incompetent to stand trial because of senile dementia. That decision allowed his case to recede again into the background, where military and civilian leaders, intent on improving their relations, hoped it would remain.

But late in May, a court reversed that position, in part because of a television interview in which General Pinochet defiantly declared that “everything that I did, I would do again.” That ruling must now be submitted to the Chilean Supreme Court, and no matter how it decides, criticisms and complaints are assured.

For President Ricardo Lagos, elected in 1999 as the first nominally Socialist head of state since the overthrow of Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, the timing of the latest Pinochet controversy could scarcely be worse. He is to meet with President Bush in Washington on Monday and had hoped the focus would be Chile’s booming economy and a Free Trade Agreement with the United States that took effect in January.

Whether for that or other reasons, the government has chosen to play down the American investigation. At a news conference here on Thursday, Mr. Lagos was cautious, and not particularly enthusiastic, in responding to suggestions, from human rights groups and others, that a new fiscal front be opened in the campaign to bring General Pinochet to justice.

“If the results of the U.S. Senate investigation establish the level of the accounts and there is certainty about the owners of the accounts, then there would probably be some sort of commission set up by different government bodies in Chile to investigate,” he said. “But the first thing that has to be established is what is the character of these accounts.”

But Mr. Lagos also faces pressure from within his own governing coalition to act more decisively. Legislators representing all three of the main parties in that alliance said that when Congress meets next week, they would immediately introduce a bill to set up a commission to investigate the Riggs accounts.

“There has always been suspicion of money overseas,” Juan Bustos, a Socialist Party deputy, told reporters. “Society must have a clear picture and verify whether or not there has been illicit enrichment.”

Spokesmen for General Pinochet denied there was anything to investigate and accused the Lagos government of organizing a “political montage” to divert criticism of its difficulties, including a corruption inquiry. “The best way to distract attention from the country’s economic and judicial problems is with General Pinochet,” said Gen. Luis Cort├ęs Villa, of the Pinochet foundation. But none of General Pinochet’s partisans have been willing to explain precisely how he could have accumulated a fortune while earning a soldier’s salary during the 17 years in which he was Chile’s dictator. The origins of his wealth, according to the version most often heard, is that businessmen grateful for his economic policies cut him in on real estate and other lucrative deals after he stepped down, but documentary proof has not been made public.

“Someone may say that the origin of this money is private,” said Eugenio Tuma, another congressional deputy who belongs to the governing coalition and wants an investigation. He cited an old Latin American proverb to express his own suspicions, “The church sexton who sells candles but doesn’t own a candle factory himself, where can he have sinned besides in the sanctuary?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s