Robert J. White
December 21, 2004
An encouraging breeze blew north this month, fanned by the case against Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. Ruling that the 89-year-old former dictator is fit to stand trial, a judge in Santiago charged him with kidnapping and murder.
The decision means that justice delayed need not always be justice denied.
Among the coups that riddle Latin American history, the one in Chile 31 years ago stands out. The military overthrow of an elected civilian government on Sept. 11, 1973, was emblematic for its bloody severity, its encouragement by the United States, its occurrence in a country with generations of democratic tradition, and for another reason that came clearly to light only this year: the tawdriness of its leaders.
The last point deserves emphasis, if only because Pinochet and his allies all along portrayed their seizure of power as the ultimate act of patriotism.
Not only did they view the Socialist government of Salvador Allende as economically disastrous (they were right); they also saw themselves and the armed forces as Chile’s austere saviors. They were wrong.
Credit for deflating that myth is due in no small part to Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman’s subcommittee on investigations. After a year’s probing, Senate investigators found that Riggs National Bank, headquartered in Washington, helped Pinochet hide millions of dollars in accounts while he was in Britain in the late 1990s, under house arrest as international prosecutors sought vainly to bring him to trial.
While the Riggs story is intriguing, literally, the light it sheds on Pinochet is equally important. The Senate investigation, and one conducted later last summer by Riggs itself, revealed that beginning in 1985, accounts for the general and his family were from $8 million to $12 million – a bit more than could be expected from even a general’s 401(k).
Pinochet’s name did not appear on the accounts. He preferred to be known as José, or sometimes as Daniel Lopez. The bank’s records identified him as a “retired professional.” More whimsically, the bankers gave him such code names as Red Fox or APU.
Whatever his alias, Pinochet, by the amounts he hid, gave credence to reports over the years of his links to drug trafficking, illegal arms trading and corruption. And this is to say nothing of the austere savior’s links to the murder of political opponents during his 17-year reign.
The notion propounded by Chile’s military was one of purification rather than revenge. The generals sought to stifle dissenters, and they chose victims in organizations ranging from the Catholic Church to rural communities.
Among the most viciously targeted were former government officials and members of leftist political parties. In the early 1990s, after the Pinochet era ended, Chile’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation found that more than 3,000 people had been killed or “disappeared” by government agencies.
In a plot named Operation Condor, the purge extended beyond Chilean borders, famously in the United States to the 1976 assassination of former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and a U.S. aide 14 blocks from the White House.
Another notable, Gen. Carlos Prats, opposed the coup and fled to Argentina; he and his wife died there in a 1974 car-bombing.
In those peak years of the Cold War the Nixon administration was understandably apprehensive about Communist inroads into Latin America. But apprehension led to sinister tactics. U.S. officials actively sought the downfall of President Allende, giving money and encouragement to his opponents including the military. The United States did not stage the coup, as rabid critics sometimes assert. But with direction from Henry Kissinger, then the national security adviser and secretary of state, this country was a prime enabler.
Along with Chile’s human tragedy has been a continuing political fallout.
For example, last year the journal Foreign Affairs reviewed the book “The Pinochet File.” The review by Kenneth Maxwell, director of the Latin American Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (Foreign Affairs’ publisher), was favorable but not uncritical.
The next issue brought a bitter reply from William Rogers, vice chair of Kissinger Associates, who was assistant secretary of state in the mid-1970s. Maxwell appended a supplement.
After publication of those comments Rogers insisted on replying to the supplement. Maxwell demurred, saying in effect, “He’s had his say; I’ve had mine; let’s drop it.”
Foreign Affairs’ editor disagreed. Maxwell resigned from the council. But the Pinochet fallout is broader and, happily, positive.
To Joseph Eldridge, a Methodist minister forced to leave Chile after the coup, the December decision “transcends geography.” It “adds one more consideration for despots: that justice eventually will prevail.”
Justice does not mean that Pinochet will recant. As recently as last year he found nothing to regret. But that was before the exposure of his secret bank accounts in Washington.
Robert J. White, retired editorial page editor, writes on foreign affairs.