by Peter Kornbluh
The Nation magazine, September
In years past, the cronies of Gen. Augusto
Pinochet-fellow generals, right-wing politicos and wealthy Chilean
businessmen who profited from his seventeen-year dictatorship-have
gathered on September 11 to fete the memory of his bloody rise
to power. But this year's anniversary of the military coup in
Chile is a lonely time for the retired strongman.
Long condemned as a pariah abroad, Pinochet
has now been abandoned by his friends at home. The legacy he hoped
for among his own military and the Chilean elite has desaparecido-disappeared,
like so many of his victims. Today, Pinochet is as close as he
has ever been to being prosecuted for crimes ranging from "illicit
enrichment" to international terrorism.
Until only a few weeks ago, the 88-year-old
general appeared destined to live out his remaining years beyond
the reach of justice. In July 2002 the Chilean Supreme Court closed
down the long legal process against Pinochet that had begun with
his October 1998 arrest in London, ruling that he suffered from
"irreversible" dementia. "I have a clean conscience'
Pinochet then declared in a rather coherent statement. "The
work of my government will be judged by history."
Instead, his "work" is again
being judged by Chilean tribunals. On August 26 the Supreme Court
essentially reversed itself; in a 9-to-8 vote, the court stripped
Pinochet of his immunity, giving the green light for a special
magistrate, Judge Juan Guzman, to prosecute Pinochet as the "author
of the crimes of kidnapping, conspiracy and torture" in the
disappearances of nineteen people during the mid-1970s.
The sudden reversal of Pinochet's legal
and political fortunes is the result of the dramatic exposure
of his hidden fortune in the United States. On July 15 a Senate
subcommittee released a report on "Money Laundering and Foreign
Corruption' which detailed evidence of secret bank accounts Pinochet
had kept between 1994 and 2002 at the Washington, DC-based Riggs
Bank. Riggs had been Pinochet's "personal banker," according
to the report, and "deliberately assisted him in the concealment
and movement of his funds while he was under investigation [during
his detention in London] and the subject of a world-wide court
order freezing his assets."
Some $8 million passed through these accounts.
Although Pinochet's official tax returns showed that he earned
only $90,000 a year as a retired general, one Riggs client profile
estimated his total personal net worth at "US$ 50 to 100
Revelations of his hidden, and still unexplained,
wealth created an instant uproar in Chile. Pinochet had enjoyed
the image of austere, selfless incorruptibility. A declassified
US intelligence biography reflected this popular perception, describing
him as "honest, hardworking... lives very modestly."
But with the "Pinocheques" scandal,
as it has come to be known in Chile, Pinochet joins the ranks
of the Somozas and Duvaliers as a greed-driven tinhorn despot.
Both his military and the Pinochetista political party, UDI, have
moved to distance themselves from their besieged patriarch. In
the past six weeks Chilean authorities have opened inquiries into
the unidentified sources of Pinochet's riches. Like a Chilean
Al Capone, Pinochet now faces the prospect of being convicted
of tax evasion.
The corruption scandal clearly had an
impact on the August ruling to lift Pinochet's immunity for human
rights crimes. Internal Riggs memorandums show that between August
2000 and April 2002-the very time frame during which the Chilean
courts were evaluating Pinochet's claims of mental infirmity-Riggs
officials surreptitiously sent thirty-eight cashier's checks,
totaling $1.9 million, directly to Pinochet, who then cashed them
at various Santiago banks. The image of the general orchestrating
the secret transfer of funds and personally cashing the $50,000
checks, even as he submitted brief after brief to convince the
courts that he was crippled by dementia, provided significant
ammunition for his victims to argue that the court had been snookered.
"How can he be mad to kill, but sane to steal?" as one
lawyer, Eduardo Contreras, put it to the justices during oral
The Supreme Court ruling opens the way
for Judge Guzman to pursue Pinochet for acts of terror related
to an insidious component of his military regime: Operation Condor.
Under Pinochet, the Chilean secret police organized what declassified
US intelligence documents described as an "international
Murder Inc." among the Southern Cone countries to track down
and kill leftist opponents in the region-and beyond. Guzman's
investigation into the disappearance of nineteen Condor victims
promises to reveal new details of how Pinochet's dictatorship
collaborated with Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and other regimes
to create and operate in the mid-1970s what amounted to the world's
largest state-sponsored network of international terrorists.
General Pinochet, of course, will resist
being held accountable to the bitter end. As The Nation went to
press, his lawyers were filing motions to remove Guzman as special
prosecutor and had blocked, at least temporarily, the judge's
subpoena for Pinochet to submit to a formal interrogation on his
role in authorizing and overseeing Condor operations. But while
Pinochet could eventually manage, through legal maneuvering or
death, to escape final judicial reckoning, it is clear that the
impunity of his actions, and the immunity of his legacy among
his closest supporters, has been stripped away once and for all.
Peter Kornbluh is the author of The Pinochet
File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, just
published in paperback