Thirty-three Years of Vengeance
*He's the most highly honoured military officer in the whole southern cone - every medal symbolises a bank account in Switzerland.
Garcia Marquez’s famous opening lines from his acclaimed novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, set the score for an unending cycle of violence spread out between irregular bouts of past, present and future in a rural Latin American fantasyland.
Sixteen years after the cycle of violence that consumed Chile between 1973 and 1990, the past has also come back to haunt Chile’s ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet. This time, however, the memories are far less nostalgic. As criminal courts find increasing evidence for the arrest of one of South America's bloodiest ex-leaders and his family, questions arise about the mood of the procedures. Can the downfall of the Pinochet clan be regarded as a case of divine retribution? Could it be that justice is being served as a side dish to vengeance, or is it the other way round?
To understand this situation we must look back at the history of the procedures from the beginning.
After a brief detention in England back in 1998, the aged General was for the first time charged for the atrocities committed during his regime. It was a shocking event for the “Pinochetistas” of the Chilean right wing and the General himself. The tired cold war arguments and self-made legitimacy of their illegal government had successfully blinded people at home (“by reason or force,” like the suspiciously authoritarian motto in the national coat of arms), but failed to convince the rest of the world, who still looked askance on the dictatorship’s history of torture, censorship and human rights abuses.
The General had thought himself untouchable, but proof of the contrary seemed to sprout everywhere. Glimpsing a window of opportunity during a routine medical visit by Pinochet to the UK, it was Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon who cast the first stone. He ordered the immediate arrest and detention of the ex-dictator in the hopes of making him stand trial in Spain. Before anyone could say “bloody coup”, Pinochet was under house arrest in a lavish northwest London mansion, facing prompt extradition into Garzon’s hands.
The Chilean right wing was quick to respond. Shifty rhetoric about national sovereignty flooded the local press. “No one can try Pinochet but Chileans themselves,” cried the powerful allies of the General, as if to say “this has nothing to do with you.” Populist images of past European imperialism were conjured, while Congress reactionaries and powerful industrialist groups bullied the government to back up the petition for Pinochet’s release.
A few lost souls even flew to England to protest with gaudy handmade banners in front of the Houses of Parliament, about twenty odd people shivering in the cold of winter, chanting in thick Chilean Spanish dialect. It was a preposterous sight. Busy Londoners, in their typically English manner, pretended not to notice the quaint protesters, swiftly quickening their pace as they strode by.
After much lobbying by Tory ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher –herself a good friend of the General, dating back from the Reagan days- and shady medical excuses concocted by sympathetic doctors (what would later become a staple of the defense in the Pinochet trials), the British government gave in to external pressure and, not without a canned sigh of relief, sent Pinochet back on the first plane home.
Old and sickly, Pinochet left the UK sporting a drop-dead complexion, hunched on a wheelchair pushed by grieving relatives. As soon as he stepped off the plane, however, he seemed to recover his youthful vitality almost instantaneously. He sprang up to greet the crowd of suits at the airport, beaming with cocky pride on what he thought was literally a safe return home.
Photos of Pinochet’s miraculously regained health circled the globe to the shock of the liberal media. It was an outrage –the defense had blatantly lied about the General’s condition. Meanwhile, the right wing’s fiery nationalist oratory began to slowly shift from “let the Chilean courts handle this” to a conveniently Christian “forgive and forget” sermon.
Voices of dissent had previously predicted that a proper trial in Chilean territory would be impossible. The democratic institutions were still coming to terms with remaining pockets of military authority, and the right wing lobbies were too powerful. Most importantly, however, is that most Chileans –terrorised for decades under the dictatorship’s bloody rule- found it hard to believe that Pinochet could ever stand trial. Even almost ten years after the end of the dictatorship, fear of reprisals lingered and belief in the judicial power, so abused by the military in the past, was scant.
Nevertheless, the General’s detention in London had set a historical precedent, enough to start the snowball of events that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Although human rights trials against military officers had been set in motion since the return to democracy in 1990, it was the first time anyone had frontally attacked the ex-leader. Judge Garzon had shown the Chilean public that Pinochet was not impervious to international law. He was urged to continue the procedure on the General and the large Chilean exile community called for more international pressure.
At home, as the fear accumulated for two decades gradually disappeared, more and more voices started calling for justice and the due criminal processing of Pinochet. Soon, the government reacted and, after much battling with the conservative elements in Congress, managed to finally strip the General off his self-appointed senator-for-life status. This meant he could now stand trial like any other citizen.
In the light of this sudden social outburst, the General’s lawyers were faced with ever more predicaments. A mass grave with the remnants of several political detainees was found, and ex-officers started testifying against him during their own trials. As increasing evidence suggested Pinochet’s direct involvement in several campaigns of planned genocide, things started turning –as a picturesque Chilean expression goes- ant-coloured for the old General. Their best bet was to press on the claims of Pinochet’s illness, making him default from criminal procedures and therefore putting the trials on hold indefinitely.
Repeated medical exams showed vague evidence of real illness, but thanks to Pinochet’s advanced age his doctors managed to find a loophole in abstract mental diagnoses. Thus, in 1999, the General was officially charged with senile dementia. The once feared leader of the formidable Military Junta, the man who had once claimed that in Chile not a leaf moved without him knowing, had been reduced to the status of a ranting old coot. Unfortunately, this also gave the defense leeway for protecting their client on medical grounds.
The few liberal publications available at the time welcomed this turn of events with marked irreverence. Popular newspapers ran headlines such as “Esta Loco!” (he’s insane!) and “Loco Por Ti” (crazy for you). Soon, jokes about the incontinent, rambling General had become a staple in universities and left-wing circles. National catharsis had never felt so good.
Still, the human rights trials had yet to bear fruit. Pinochet’s lawyers managed to maintain a game of hide-and-seek with the justice system for several years, where the General would always suspiciously suffer from mild strokes or health complications before a court hearing. Given the cunningness of his lawyers and Pinochet’s old age, it was feared that he would die before ever facing trial.
Talk of the general’s imminent demise swamped the media. The soon-to-be presidential candidate for the Socialist party, Michelle Bachellet (famous for losing her father to the dictatorship), was even asked at an interview if she would go to Pinochet’s funeral were she elected president. Such talk shocked the right wing, who considered “of bad taste” to refer to the ex-dictator’s death while he was still alive. No one else seemed to mind.
But with presidential elections just around the corner, the liberal agenda had to be delivered. The families of the victims claimed for justice, and the Pinochet trial represented a cornerstone in bringing back legitimacy to democratic institutions, especially the Supreme Court; they would not rest until Pinochet could be done for something –anything.
As soon as his impunity started becoming less and less evident, old friends started turning his back on the General. He was now a dangerous man and any personal implications with the dictatorship and its former leaders meant trouble. The biggest shock came when in 2003 the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces aired a public apology for the events of 1973 under the historical words: “never again”. But it was more than a mere apology, for behind the “never again” lay the insinuation of a sullen “no more” to Pinochet.
The final blow was delivered in 2004. Pinochet, still thinking he was immune to court procedures (some would say, a product of his alleged dementia) decided to attend a talk show in Miami. Acting meek and convalescent in Chile, he appeared lucid and healthy on American TV. Most of all, he talked with particular venom about the courts, who in his mind had not taken into consideration his role as a national saviour. This last act of foolish arrogance delivered a coup-de-grace to his already shady mental illness allegations, and the court finally had enough evidence to strip him off his medical immunity.
Around the same time, an investigation led to a series of hidden accounts in the US-based Riggs bank, belonging to Pinochet and his family, each one containing several million dollars. The Untouchable one had perversely fulfilled his own prophecy: just like Al Capone decades before, Pinochet was now accountable for fraud and tax evasion.
The repercussions in Chile were momentous. Until then, supporters of the dictatorship had grounded its legitimacy on economic arguments and the transparency of the neo-liberal economic model impulsed by Pinochet’s cronies. Unlike other South American dictators, Pinochet had been thought by many of his supporters as incorruptible. Yet here was evidence of what the opposition had suspected all along: the General, his family and friends had systematically ransacked the public treasury, altering official documents and bending the laws to their own benefit.
The scandal reached colossal proportions, not without certain skepticism from the liberal media. It had taken almost six years to try Pinochet for genocide charges, but the courts had been swift in tackling him for his financial misdeeds. Many writers and journalists lamented this gloomy edge of Chilean democracy, where apparently money was given more importance than human rights.
The right wing, on the other hand, accused a campaign of smears against Pinochet and questioned the lawfulness of the trials. By that time, however, the General’s reputation was at an all time low, and the proof of his crimes was too solid to dismiss as mere vengeance. There was, however, a quiet feeling of accomplishment in seeing the ex-leader finally go down. Dusty tax books and balance sheets were doing what muddy ribcages and cracked skulls couldn’t do for years.
Pinochet’s eldest son was swiftly put in prison for massive tax abuse, while his wife Lucia was charged with fraud and forgery of legal documents. The plot kept thickening to the delight of the General’s enemies. At the time this article was written the Pinochet family had been ordered to pay 3500 million pesos (about 8 million dollars) as temporary bail, and Pinochet’s eldest daughter was on the run from the law, seeking asylum in the US. She was stopped by Interpol, who reportedly impeded her entry into the North American country.
"Families condemned to One Hundred Years of Solitude do not have a second chance on this earth." Thus are the final words of Garcia Marquez’s novel. The cycle of destruction has winded down, ready to cease forever and dissolve into oblivion along with the fantasyland where the story takes place.
Many years later, people will still look back at the time when the sole mention of General Pinochet inspired bone-chilling terror in their hearts. While the firing squad has been all but replaced by financial auditors armed with calculators, the memories –good for some, bad for most- will never go away completely.
Violence and social unrest – they stand at the heart of Latin America’s curse. But the cycle has to stop somewhere, or at least pause before its course reverses. Divine retribution might sound rightful in the ears of what is a largely Catholic country, but there is nothing supernatural about the state of law. Vengeance alone cannot explain the Pinochet trials; the delay of the investigations and the legal battles are perhaps cumbersome effects of their legitimacy. They demonstrate that the days of the firing squad and show trials are finally over.
Yet vengeance still remains in the hearts of many, for it would be irresponsible to forgive and forget the crimes of the dictatorship. Coming to terms with the past is paving the way for a hopeful future. The trials may go on forever. It is, however, in everyone's interest that they do so, because families who condemn their fellow man to twenty years of crime and murder do not have a second chance on this earth.