Chile without Pinochet: Freer at Last?

By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

Chile without Pinochet: Freer at Last?


Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


With the prospect of Gen. Augusto Pinochet being tried soon in Spain and never returning home, Chileans are feeling freer to complete a transition from authoritarian state to democracy that even their leaders say is unfinished.

"Three months ago people were afraid to bring up human rights, for fear of looking like an extremist or because it just wasn't 'in,' " says public opinion analyst Marta Lagos. Now, with Britain's decision on Wednesday to extradite Mr. Pinochet on charges including torture and terrorism, "people know it's an issue that is well- viewed outside the country," she adds.

It's perhaps the only issue that could deliver a big enough majority in December 1999's presidential elections to set off reform of Pinochet's 1980 constitution, Ms. Lagos says. The news of the former dictator's continued detention delighted some Chileans and deeply disappointed others. For some, the lingering aura of Pinochet's 17-year rule has been one of fear; for others, one of reverence. "Pinochet has been a bit like the fearsome, ever-present dictator who never dies, but this situation is dissipating the fear" of that looming force, says political analyst Raul Sohr. The return of human rights to Chile's national agenda is one result of more than a month of looking back at a regime that is respected for restoring order after a chaotic Marxist experiment but reviled for horrific excesses. That could open the door to a deeper reexamination of the 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende and subsequent years of battling between the Pinochet regime and leftist subversives that left more than 3,000 dead and disappeared, according to official findings. The current Pinochet crisis began Oct. 16 when the retired commander of the Chilean Armed Forces was placed under arrest in a London clinic on a Spanish judge's request. It has not led to the acts of violence or political instability that some had feared. "We have an imperfect democracy, it is incomplete, but it is sufficiently solid to resist this crisis," says Francisco Rojas Aravena, director of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in Santiago. "People took their position on Pinochet on Oct. 5, 1988," says Ms. Lagos, the public-opinion analyst, referring to the date of a referendum that determined if Pinochet would remain president or leave office after multiparty elections. "There hasn't been much change since," she adds. Pinochet lost that vote, 54 to 43. A NATIONAL survey published last week showed 71 percent of Chileans stating they and their families were not affected by Pinochet's detention. The survey - by the Santiago Market Opinion Research International (MORI) office that Lagos manages - also found that about two-thirds of Chileans believe Pinochet is personally guilty of crimes committed under his regime, with a somewhat smaller percentage saying he should be tried for them.

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