Pinochet dies untried

Former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-1990) died of heart failure at the age of 91 in the Santiago Military Hospital the afternoon of Dec. 10. Dozens of his right-wing supporters gathered outside the hospital as soon as they heard he had died. Heavily guarded by the police, they sang the national anthem, waved flags and photographs of the dictator and tried to assault reporters and photographers. Dozens of Pinochet's opponents gathered in the nearby Plaza Italia, embracing each other and carrying signs celebrating the general's death.

By the early evening police agents were using tear gas, water cannons and a tank to try to push back a column of more than one thousand anti-Pinochet demonstrators advancing down Santiago's main avenue, the Alameda. Protesters responded by throwing rocks and bottles.

Pinochet led the bloody Sept. 11, 1973 military coup that overthrew the leftist government of elected president Salvador Allende Gossens (1970-1973). The 17 years of military rule that followed were characterized by severe repression and neoliberal economic policies, both supported by the US government. The total number of deaths and disappearances in the coup and the dictatorship was 3,197, according to a commission set up after the restoration of democracy. Pinochet was forced to step down in 1990 as the result of a 1988 plebescite; he continued to head the military until 1998.

Pinochet's death ended a series of efforts to bring him to trial for crimes committed under his rule. He was held under house arrest in London on an international warrant from Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon from October 1998 to March 2000, but was released because of poor health. He was arrested in Chile in January 2001 in connection with the murder of 75 leftists in the so-called "Caravan of Death," but the case was halted in July of that year; he was arrested in December 2004 for the disappearance of 10 leftists in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay under "Operation Condor," but that case was halted in September 2005.

In November 2005 Pinochet faced two new cases, one in connection with the disappearance of six government opponents arrested by security services in late 1974 in "Operation Colombo," and the other in connection with an estimated $27 million he allegedly kept under false names in secret bank accounts in the US and other countries.

In October of this year Pinochet was charged with 23 cases of torture, 35 disappearances and one homicide in the secret Villa Grimaldi barracks, and in November he was put under house arrest in connection with the kidnapping and murder of two of Allende's bodyguards.

"There isn't a leaf that moves in this country if I'm not moving it, let it be clear," Pinochet said in 1981 when he was in power. Later, he tried to evade trials by claiming mental incapacity due to age. "I'm not a criminal," he told the first judge to charge him, Juan Guzman. "I consider myself an angel." But on his 91st birthday, on Nov. 25 this year, he admitted his "responsibility for everything that was done." (AFP; AP; La Jornada, Mexico, Dec. 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 10

See our last posts on Chile and the Pinochet legacy.