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Chilean Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet is a former exile and daughter of a legendary air force general who was tortured to death by the Pinochet regime for opposing the coup. On September 30, she participated in a solemn ceremony marking the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of another general killed by the military regime, former commander-in-chief Carlos Prats. Bachelet joined Chile’s current commander in chief, General Juan Emilio Cheyre, who has been widely praised for proclaiming that the military must “never again” allow political enemies to be slaughtered and for declaring that the military was not the heir of any particular regime. While General Cheyre has gone further than other high-ranking military officials in admitting military culpability for systematic human rights violations under the dictatorship, he has simultaneously sought to put the past behind in the mind of the nation while restoring the military’s reputation. The past, however, refuses to easily fade away, as can be clearly seen in renewed efforts to bring former dictator Augusto Pinochet to trial. Whereas Pinochet was able to artfully avoid standing trial in the past, his prospects appear much weaker this time around and regardless of his legal fate, the general’s historical legacy is certain to be justly tarnished by the scrolling of his human rights violations and corruption charges that can only serve to smirch him.
In August, the Chilean Supreme Court decided to strip Pinochet of the immunity which he enjoyed as a former head of state, paving the way for his possible indictment in the case of “Operation Condor,” a covert Southern Cone conspiracy designed and coordinated by the rogue military regimes of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to hunt down prominent political refugees who were sought in each other’s countries. This led to kidnapping, murder and disappearances. Despite stalling efforts by Pinochet’s defense team, investigating Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia was able to question the retired general on September 25, a step required under Chilean law prior to any indictment. According to transcripts of the interrogation, Pinochet claimed that he had no prior knowledge of the program and that as head of the ruling junta, he was not informed about “trivial matters” such as kidnappings, tortures or disappearances. On September 30, Pinochet was examined by a team of doctors to determine whether his medical condition had deteriorated sufficiently to rule out a trial. Their findings, released October 15, were mixed; it is no surprise that the defense-appointed doctor found Pinochet to be unfit, while the doctor selected by victims of Operation Condor declared him competent to stand trial. The key diagnosis made by the judge-appointed doctor, said that Pinochet suffered from mild dementia. Judge Guzmán must now decide whether or not to go forth with a trial.
In many ways, Pinochet’s current legal troubles seem to echo the retired general’s experiences several years ago, when he was also stripped of immunity, interrogated and indicted as the intellectual author of the notorious Caravan of Death, a special body of military officers who traveled to various locations in Chile in the first few weeks following the 1973 coup. Once there, they removed certain political activists from their local holding cells, and then proceeded to torture and kill them. Pinochet’s loss of immunity in the Caravan of Death case was confirmed by the Chilean Supreme Court in August 2000, only a few months after the now-indicted general was allowed to return to Chile following his London arrest. In January 2001, Pinochet finally consented to undergo medical examinations to determine whether he was medically fit to stand trial–but only after a visit from then Commander-in-Chief Ricardo Izurieta, who insisted that Pinochet comply with the law in order to avoid losing whatever military support he still retained.
Pinochet was also forced to answer questions from the same investigating judge who is currently overseeing the Operation Condor case, Judge Guzmán. In his interrogation, the haughty general disavowed all responsibility for the Caravan of Death and blamed regional commanders for it, prompting a vehement denial from another retired general who charged that Pinochet was fully informed about the killings at the time. Judge Guzmán decided several days later to formally charge Pinochet with being the “intellectual author” of the Caravan of Death. Pinochet was spared being actually arrested thanks to the Supreme Court’s determination that his “light to moderate vascular dementia” rendered the general unable to defend himself in a trial. At the same time, the logic of Pinochet’s defense dictated that the retired general was unfit to return to his lifetime seat in the Senate and in 2002, he negotiated the terms of his resignation to ensure that he would retain immunity from prosecution. But with the Supreme Court’s decision in August of this year to once again strip Pinochet of his immunity, the increasingly despised figure now has to hope that he will once again be exempted on medical grounds from standing trial.
However, a decision against Pinochet appears increasingly likely. For one thing, the composition of the Supreme Court has changed, with fewer justices ideologically predisposed to defend Pinochet; for another, Pinochet’s medical examination this time will be conducted by independent experts rather than military doctors, as in 2001. Finally, Pinochet’s personal credibility has been damaged by his own actions and statements. In November 2003, he granted a rare interview to a Spanish-language television station based in Miami in which he lucidly recalled events which occurred thirty years earlier. In his characteristically provocative style, Pinochet not only refused to ask for pardon, but claimed that he had acted like an “angel”, insisting that his opponents should be the ones asking for pardon for trying to assassinate him.
In July 2004, Pinochet’s personal plight took a dramatic turn for the worse when a U.S. Senate Congressional subcommittee issued an investigative report that revealed information about a secret, multi-million dollar bank account which he and his wife had at the Washington, D.C.-based Riggs Bank. The scandal not only raised questions about the source of Pinochet’s secret funds–which have recently been estimated to have been as high as $16 million–but also about his ability to stand trial, given the fact that Pinochet himself apparently signed and cashed $1.9 million worth of checks that had been drawn from his Riggs Bank account. These financial transactions occurred between 2000-2002, at a time when the Pinochet account was frozen by order of Spanish investigating magistrate Baltazar Garzón and after Pinochet had been deemed medically demented.
Chilean authorities also began to belatedly look into charges of money laundering and tax evasion against Pinochet–a move that would have been denounced as persecution in the past. The investigating judge assigned to the case, Sergio Muñoz, also has looked into possible kickbacks that Pinochet may have received from European weapons manufacturers who won major contracts from the Chilean military as well as from Chilean firms who had sold weapons to Iran. In light of these investigations, politicians on the Right and Left have raised questions about the propriety of Pinochet’s conduct in office. Former President Patricio Aylwin noted that Pinochet’s extravagant lifestyle had already been apparent during the military regime and that Pinochet “had not been consistent with the tradition of austerity traditionally associated with presidents of Chile.” Indeed, Pinochet built luxurious residences in several parts of the country for himself and his family, including a particularly grandiose estate in Lo Curro, which was constructed in the midst of the 1983 economic crisis. Aylwin also pointed to the fact that Pinochet had consistently protected not only his military “family,” but his immediate personal family, ensuring their material success and arranging for them to be protected from anti-corruption investigations. Indeed, Pinochet orchestrated military maneuvers in 1990 and 1993 to intimidate the civilian government, aimed at pressuring the government to void pending human rights trials and also to drop investigations into charges of corruption against one of his sons, who was accused of accepting a $3 million payoff from a munitions company.
Charges of corruption arguably have done more to damage Pinochet’s legacy than his human rights violations. Whereas Pinochet’s supporters were willing to concede that human rights abuses were necessary in the “war against communism,” they rigidly believed that the military regime was not corrupt and that its economic management of the nation was impeccable. Senate President and UDI (Unión Democrática Independiente) member Hernán Larraín noted that this scandal goes to the very heart of the military regime’s own ideological defense, namely that the individuals who participated in the military government did not enrich themselves but governed “honorably.” Should an investigation into the source of Pinochet’s funds reveal improprieties or illegalities, the historical judgment of the conservative backers of the military regime “would be blemished because a black mark would be added to a history that has been perceived to be very good in this respect.”
Pinochet’s current troubles, as well as the ongoing legal proceeding against other officials of the former regime, demonstrate that the unfinished business left over from the era of the military rule continues to preoccupy Chile. This has frustrated military officials like General Cheyre, who recently criticized the fact that the military has been made the scapegoat for all the excesses committed under the military regime and called for an end to interminable human rights trials. Yet so long as officials from the previous regime deny responsibility and information on the fate of the disappeared only comes to light in periodic, fortuitous finds–such as the recent discovery of sections of rail track that had been used to weigh down the bodies of dissidents dumped at sea–the search for truth and justice will have to continue.
REBECCA EVANS is a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.