April 29, 2003


The Trials of Pinochet: a review of Pinochet: La Biografia (Pinochet: The Biography) By Gonzalo Vial Correa (Patricio Navia , Foreign Policy)
Nearly 30 years after Gen. Augusto Pinochet deposed the democratically elected President Salvador Allende in a bloody military coup, Chile continues to live with the dictator's controversial dual legacy-a strong, vibrant economy and painful memories of horrific human rights abuses.

Gonzalo Vial Correa's recent two-volume biography of the dictator exemplifies the dilemma of many Chileans who seek to make peace with thepast. Indeed, the book's appearance in late 2002 followed four years of public debate (in Chile and abroad) over the proper fate of the dictator. In March 2000, after 16 months of house arrest in London on charges of human rights violations, Pinochet was released by the British government and allowed to return to his homeland. And following a prolonged legal, political, and public relations battle between those seeking to prosecute Pinochet and those attempting to protect him, Chileans were ready to move on. So was Ricardo Lagos, the new president-the first socialist elected since Allende-who took office just nine days after Pinochet returned to Chile. Facing human rights charges in domestic courts, the aging Pinochet was excused from trial for medical reasons but had to renounce his lifetime senate seat. Neither side felt victorious when he finally retired from public life, and many Chileans began acting as if the dictator had ceased to exist. Even Vial's Pinochet: The Biography treats the general almost as a late leader-all that can change now is history's judgment of his legacy. [...]

[T]he final chapter of the second volume includes a superb essay describing Pinochet's ambiguous legacy in unambiguous terms. Tacitly acknowledging that Pinochet's dismal human rights record inevitably taints his record of audacious neoliberal economic reforms, Vial reproaches the dictator for not curtailing the power of his notorious secret police. But the author is less forthright when speculating on whether Pinochet's advisors could have persuaded the general to take human rights more seriously. "It is also true that those who surrounded him, for a short or a long period of time-ministers, generals, close advisors-did not have the pertinacity that we should have had to press him to overcome that character trait," writes Vial,
with predictable understatement.

It's all well and good to be honest about the failings of the men who ceded us our freedoms, as Americans have learned to be honest about the way in which the slaveholdings of men like Washington and Jefferson make their legacy more complicated than we would prefer. But to obssess so completely over the shortcomings that you can't recognize the good they did, or even to try to forget them completely, is a sign of immaturity. Chile is of course an immature democracy though, so presumably the next generation and the ones after will be able to think about Pinochet more clearly. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 29, 2003 8:49 AM
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