Autumn of the General

Article excerpt

Although General Augusto Pinochet handed power back to civilians in 1990 after nearly 17 years of dictatorship, he remains a polarizing force in Chile. His continued presence as commander in chief of the army proved problematic for establishing civilian supremacy over the armed forces. Once he retired from the army in March 1998, he was entitled under the military-penned 1980 constitution to become a senator for life, thus ensuring his active presence in politics until his death. When Pinochet was arrested in London on October 16, 1998 on the orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, the Chilean government was dealing not with an aged and discredited dictator, but a senator who continued to command considerable support from the Chilean right.


Pinochet's case presented the administration of then President Eduardo Frei with a difficult situation. Frei is a Christian Democrat (as was his predecessor, Patricio Aylwin) but part of the ruling party coalition known as the Concertacion, which includes the Socialist Party and the Party for Democracy. Both are left-leaning parties that have clamored for more active efforts to bring to trial those military officers who committed human rights abuses under the military regime. The coalition was already showing signs of strain; the Pinochet arrest made unity even more problematic and complicated Frei's policy choices.

Supporting the arrest would antagonize the military, and especially the army. Pinochet is revered within its ranks, and the new commander in chief, General Ricardo Izurieta, would have been forced to react. Throughout the 1990s, the army resorted to shows of force, veiled threats and intense media campaigns to protest government policies it believed were contrary to its interests. Consequently, the threat of a new crisis was very real. It would necessarily politicize Izurieta, whom the government considers a more "professional" officer and who refrained from the constant political pronouncements that characterized Pinochet. However, Izurieta also faced considerable pressure from the officer corps to retain a hard line and to protect the commander in chief benemerito, a title granted Pinochet before he retired that has no legal basis other than to demonstrate his elevated status.

The army did not hesitate to make its concerns known to the government. The day after the arrest, it issued a statement expressing its "permanent support and solidarity" with Pinochet. Izurieta met several times with the commanders in chief of the other branches of the military, and all watched the government closely. There was little immediate reason for complaint: President Frei, former President Aylwin, Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Insulza and the Archbishop of Santiago consistently demanded Pinochet's release. Genaro Arriagada, a prominent Christian Democrat, wrote in an editorial that a "peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy is not a judicial problem. Rather, politics must discriminate among the differing and sometimes antagonistic objectives that society demands." Even Raul Rettig, the former head of a commission that investigated and published the details of human rights abuses, stated that the issue should be left to Chile to resolve. In other words, foreign judicial proceedings would upset the delicate political balance so carefully constructed since 1990.

The government was also acutely aware that popular support for Pinochet was far from negligible. Polls demonstrated that nearly 40% of the population considered themselves Pinochet supporters, while 31% opposed him and 29% either didn't know or didn't respond. Despite the fact that a significant minority of Chileans opposed the arrest, however, the Concertacion's leftist parties criticized Frei's stance, stretching the integrity of the coalition to its limits. Yet, while fissures had always been evident, rumors of the Concertacion's death were greatly exaggerated. …