Pinochet Goes Home

Augusto Pinochet’s return to Chile in early March ended an involuntary exile in the United Kingdom that lasted 503 days. The former dictator’s release eased a diplomatic headache for President Ricardo Lagos. But regional analysts concur that Britain’s decision to release the general on grounds of poor health will force the new administration to come to terms with Pinochet’s bitter legacy. At the least, he has escaped prosecution in Europe for human-rights violations committed by Chilean security forces during the 1970s.

Lagos’s displeasure with Pinochet’s warm reception  by military leaders  has set the tone for a difficult balancing act by the administration, which seeks to clear the path for possible legal action in Chile, even as Lagos maintains a certain distance from the case. “Lagos’s strategy is to keep the case focused in Chilean courts, where the senator must face some 60 complaints brought against him,” says Santiago’s financial Estrategia (March 17). Juan Guzmán Tapia, the judge overseeing the Pinochet investigation in Chile, has submitted a formal request to the court of appeals to lift the immunity from prosecution that Pinochet currently enjoys as a member of the Senate with lifetime tenure.

Estrategia (March 14) reports that the new president’s highest priorities in “completing [Chile’s] unfinished transition and achieving the country’s return to democracy” include the successful conclusion of roundtable negotiations and an overhaul of the Pinochet-era constitution. “Lagos has left open the possibility that he will submit to a national plebiscite those political reforms on which parliament cannot achieve consensus,” Estrategia notes, alluding to Lagos’s proposal to eliminate constitutional restrictions on presidential authority to remove military leaders.

Most Chilean commentators agree that Pinochet’s return should be seen as an opportunity for national reconciliation rather than as a wedge producing renewed division. “The problems and tensions of the past decade, of which Pinochet’s detention is the most important example, show that it is time for the country to close the wounds of the past,” asserts Santiago’s conservative La Tercera (March 3). The conservative El Mercurio, fiercely critical of European efforts to bring Pinochet to trial abroad, concedes that the general must face his accusers in Chilean court, as “no one in Chile is above the law,” but warns his domestic opponents not to seek political advantage from his case (March 3).

Editorial opinions outside Chile place greater emphasis on the international legal precedents established by the case. Despite the legal complexities of the attempt by courts in Spain and several other European countries to gain Pinochet’s extradition for trial in domestic courts, the conservative La Nación (March 4) of Buenos Aires observes that the case has demonstrated the growing recognition “that certain offenses to the dignity of individuals affect humanity as a whole and cannot be territorially limited by national frontier....The moral lesson of the episode...shows that an autocratic general, having submitted his people to an ironfisted and bloody dictatorship, saw himself for a time in the situation of rendering account for his past acts before the world community.”

Felipe Sahagun, writing in Madrid’s centrist El Mundo (March 4), views Pinochet’s conspicuous erosion of support as an encouraging portent for the future of Chilean democracy. Says Sahagun, “Those who saw in the detention of Augusto Pinochet a threat to Chilean democracy were wrong. It has had the exact opposite effect.”