Picture Homer Simpson's boss, naked, a scrawny figure bent with age, covering his genitals with his general's hat. The caption: “You've stripped me, but don't take my hat!”
Augusto Pinochet, former President, Generalissimo, King of the World, now naked, stripped of immunity. The Chilean Supreme Court has removed the imperial armor that has covered his treacherous butt since he led the September 1973 coup to overthrow the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende.
Pinochet, head of the army under Allende, didn't join the coup plotters until the last minute. He vacillated, procrastinated, anguished. Then, when he understood that the armed rebellion had strong US backing and would succeed, he joined the conspiracy and, as head of the largest unit in Chile's armed forces, he declared himself head of the military junta. Overnight, he became more fanatic than the most rabid of the fascist ideologues inside the military.
Shortly after the military takeover, Pinochet established DINA, a secret police and intelligence agency, answerable only to him. DINA thugs began their caravan of death, committing wholesale murder. They also tortured tens of thousands suspected of “subversion.” Some members of the original cabal began to complain about the “excesses.” By June 1976, however, Pinochet understood: he had gotten away with murder — mass murder.
In June, according to declassified documents, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Chile, symbolically blessing the illegitimate government. Kissinger met with Pinochet and obsequiously pleaded for the General's understanding that he had to make a human rights speech to the OAS meeting in Santiago, but that his excellency should not take this in any way as directed against his government. “We approve of your methods,” Kissinger told Pinochet.
Did Kissinger refer to the free market economic model that he had imposed through military fascism, or the method of eliminating his political opponents by murdering, torturing and exiling them? US Embassy and CIA officials had carefully reported the data on Pinochet's efficient death squads, torture chambers and concentration camps. Kissinger understood these “methods.” Kissinger also had information on Operation Condor, a sinister collusion of secret police and intelligence agencies from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. The CIA and FBI had both assisted Condor agents in rounding up “subversives.” On several occasions, as Kissinger knew, Condor agents had gone beyond their boundaries to assassinate enemies.
In late June, just after Kissinger's departure from Chile, a Condor mission from Santiago commenced. Its target: Orlando Letelier, Allende's former Defense Minister. Did Pinochet interpret Kissinger's approval of his methods as a green light to kill Letelier? On September 21, 1976, just three months after Kissinger's visit, Pinochet's secret police agents detonated a bomb under Letelier's car in Washington, DC. Ronni Moffitt, Letelier's colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, also died in the explosion.
In 1978, the Justice Department indicted Chile's secret police chief and eight other conspirators. Privately, the FBI agents concluded that Pinochet had authorized the hit on Letelier, but unfortunately he would “get away with it.”
Indeed, Pinochet had gotten away with 3,192 murders during his 17-year rule. He made some concessions to US power. Two high DINA officials ultimately went to prison in Chile for the Letelier hit, but in 1990, Pinochet, as he stepped down from the presidency to become army chief, had wrapped himself and his military minions in an amnesty decree — absolving the killers and torturers. Pinochet, almost everyone in power and out agreed, had gotten away with murder.
In 1996, former Allende advisor, Juan Garces, representing families of Pinochet's victims, and a Spanish law team, filed charges against Pinochet and other high military officers — in Spain. The political and legal community laughed at this act of futility.
In 1998, Pinochet retired as army chief and made himself Senator for Life, adding yet another immunity blanket for his old age. By now he had accumulated a sizable fortune and enjoyed the routine of the fearful bowing and scarping before him. The once deferential army officer behaved as if he had been born Emperor of Chile.
The Spanish case proceeded. In the Fall of 1998, some of his legal advisers worried about the proceedings in the Spanish court, which the Spanish government had tried and failed to derail. But Pinochet dismissed such concerns as he prepared for his annual voyage to London to visit his dear friend, Lady Margaret Thatcher. Pinochet sipped tea with the former British Prime Minister who hailed him as an ally in her 1982 war against Argentina over the Malvina/Falkland Islands.
Pinochet and Lucia, his wife, shopped and tasted the fine cuisine of London’s posh restaurants before the general entered a high-priced clinic to repair a back problem.
Meanwhile, the Spanish judge issued an order to British authorities to arrest Pinochet. They held him for 15 months, accused in Spain of violation of international law, and torture. The House of Lords upheld the arrest, thus affirming a sea change in international law. A torturer, like a pirate was fair game for any court in the world. In March, 2000 Home Secretary Jack Straw, after cutting a deal with Chilean and Spanish authorities, released Pinochet on flimsy health grounds.
Now, at age 84 and in Chile, no one can touch him, said the cynics. But the determination and courage evinced by those who had pressed the Spanish case and the judgment by the House of Lords proved infectious. Those who once trembled before Pinochet, now filed suit against him — in Chile. Once timid Chilean judges upheld the newly discovered international law. And Pinochet's victims and their families can laugh at the naked, former tyrant, whose lawyers maneuver desperately to keep him out of court. The lessons: Aspiring human rights violators have also learned this lesson and aging criminals like Kissinger checks carefully with foreign governments before traveling abroad. For those who pressed the case: Sometimes, with courage and determination, you can achieve a measure of justice — and change international law.