The trials of Pinochet

Patricio Navia.

Foreign Policy. Washington:  May/Jun 2003. , Iss. 136;  pg. 76, 3 pgs






Pinochet: La Biografia (Pinochet: The Biography)

By Gonzalo Vial Correa

742 pages, Santiago: Editorial

Aguilar/El Mercurio, 2002 (in Spanish)


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 the past. 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.


A historian by training, Vial pens a column in the conservative Chilean newspaper La Segunda, where he defends militant Catholic views, supports censorship, and remains a sharp critic of the ruling center-left coalition. An unrepentant Pinochet supporter, he boasts a controversial history of his own. Shortly after Pinochet's coup on September 11, 1973, Vial helped write the new regime's "White Book," a document justifying repression against political opponents. Published anonymously, the book accused the Allende government of conspiring to impose a communist dictatorship. And in 1979, when Pinochet sought to incorporate more civilians into his own dictatorial government, he tapped Vial as education minister. Yet after a democratically elected government took office in 1990, Vial served on Chile's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with investigating the past regime's human rights violations. (Apparently Vial did not consider his then unknown involvement with the "White Book" as a conflict of interest with the Truth Commission.) In writing Pinochet's biography, Vial acknowledges that he is "too old to believe that I can overcome my own and other people's passionate views on Pinochet."


The first of the biography's two volumes examines Pinochet's life before his rise to power. The portions on Pinochet's childhood and his uneventful decades in the ill-paid and poorly trained Chilean army are filled with powerful insights, through which Vial demonstrates his profound understanding of Chilean history and his unparalleled access to Pinochet's family records. The author is at his best when he draws on Pinochet's childhood memories to illuminate the future dictator's personality. For example, Vial cites an interview during which Pinochet recalls a question from his youth. "`What is eternity?' I asked myself. A Jesuit priest answered: `Eternity is something that never ends, as if a fly flew over a continent every year and slightly touched it. After a million years, that fly would have only eroded a small piece of the continent. That's a second of eternity . . . ." Vial reflects on that statement, noting that "the comparison was commonly used in catechism classes early in the 20th century. Yet the fact that Pinochet could remember it so vividly more than 60 years later demonstrates the devastating impression caused by the analogy upon the secret and sharp sensibility of the child."


Such childhood pondering notwithstanding, Vial offers no evidence of any significant intellectual pursuits on the part of Pinochet as a young military officer, nor any interest in the promarket economic policies that would so mark the general's tenure in power. Indeed, the author seems to accept that Pinochet only converted to neoliberalism after he took the presidency by force. Even then, Vial insists, the dictator's embrace of economic reform remained secondary to his ultimate objective-- prolonging his rule. When an economic crisis unleashed massive protests in Chile in 1982, Pinochet showed little compunction in sacking his neoliberal advisors. He reinstated them later but made clear that fulfilling economic philosophies remained secondary to the permanence of his regime.


On a personal level, Vial portrays Pinochet as reserved and impenetrable. "Being cautious with his opinions became such a central component of Pinochet's personality that he expressed his real views as little as possible," explains the author. But the dictator prided himself on divining the intentions of those around him. "Lies can be spotted by looking straight at the eyes," Pinochet once remarked. Vial also underscores Pinochet's intense and long-held dislike for all politicians, and for communists in particular. He points out that Pinochet was careful to prevent the emergence of an alternative political figure, particularly a civilian, who could overshadow him. Oddly, though, Vial refrains from labeling Pinochet a "politician"-Pinochet, the man who transformed a mediocre military career into the longest lasting rule in Chilean history!


Vial's political biases further mar the second volume of the biography, in which the author highlights Pinochet's positive contributions to his country while minimizing the dictatorship's more painful legacies. His portrayal of Pinochet after the general lost the 1988 plebiscite and surrendered power is particularly inadequate. For instance, how did the ex-dictator feel when the new center-left government-filled with politicians Pinochet had forced into exileappropriated his economic model and its successes? The author barely considers this question. Vial offers even fewer insights about Pinochet's trip to England in 1998 and his eventual house arrest; the two pathetic open letters Pinochet sent to his country from London seeking national reconciliation go unmentioned. Finally, Vial offers few new perspectives on what happened after the general's return to Chile, completely ignoring the efforts by many Pinochet supporters to remake the general's image and legacy. (These efforts include the creation of a Pinochet Foundation, which claims to promote the values of "personal autonomy, free initiative, and free exercise of rights" that the Pinochet regime allegedly granted all Chileans.) In short, Vial misses an excellent opportunity to complement the wealth of information that exists about Pinochet's time in power with new perspectives on the general's life in the 1990s and beyond.


Fortunately, the 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.


Ironically, in today's Chile, Pinochet: The Biography is suffering the same fate as the former dictator himself: indifference. Perhaps Vial's involvement in the events he seeks to explain makes it impossible for him to be fair and objective. Nonetheless, in struggling to address the military regime's painful and complex history, Vial embodies the question that will forever define Pinochet's legacy: How can Chile celebrate Pinochet's pathbreaking economic reforms without feeling sorry-or guilty-- for the severe human costs the regime imposed? "I believe," Vial concludes, "that history will thus remember the obscure darkness and shining lights of the Augusto Pinochet era."


[Author Affiliation]

Patricio Navia is a columnist for the Chilean newspaper La Tercera and a visiting lecturer in the department of politics at New York University.