By now the world has had enough time to reflect on the irony of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s death Sunday, December 10, International Human Rights Day. Now the dictator responsible for the death, torture and disappearance of thousands will never face justice.
It’s been over 33 years since Pinochet rose to power in Chile through what is generally recognized as one of the bloodiest coups of the 20th century. On September 11, 1973, Gen. Pinochet led the bombing of the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Socialist, Salvador Allende. To those mourning his death, Pinochet was a hero and patriot who saved Chile and its waning economy from the clutches of Marxism and Soviet influence. But to me and countless others he’s the reason I grew up with one less family member.
In 1973, in the weeks following Pinochet’s coup, my uncle, Cristián Montecino, was abducted from his apartment by the military police and executed in a military barrack for no reason other than taking pictures. Throughout the 17-year dictatorship, Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA, murdered and kidnapped approximately 3,000 people, ranging from leftist dissidents to clergymen, university professors and journalists. Even today, many of the victim’s family members still deal with the pain and uncertainty of not knowing if their disappeared loved-ones were killed or not.
When I was still a child an Argentine woman came over to my house to ask my father to help her find her long-lost lover, disappeared since 1973. My father wasn’t home at the time and so I helped her search through his archive of pictures of political prisoners in Santiago’s national stadium. Still clutching a half-faded picture of her lost lover, the woman patiently watched my father’s computer screen as I zoomed in and out of the faces of those who most likely never made it out of the stadium alive. But the hundreds of pictures yielded no clues and the woman had no choice but to live on with her solemn conviction that one day, if not reunited with her missing lover, at least she’d know his fate for sure.
When I was teenager growing up in post-Pinochet Chile, I struggled to convey my feelings about the dictatorship to my friends and classmates, many of them who were pro-Pinochet. Some of them, no doubt instructed by their wealthy parents, said things like: “Pinochet is a hero” or “it’s too bad so many had to die but it was in our country’s best interest.” Now I am continually shocked at how often I hear the same defenses from educated adults, people who cowardly refuse to see the thousands dead as more than mere faceless numbers or collateral damage.
Was my childhood babysitter and close family friend, Rodrigo Rojas, who was burned alive and left to rot in a roadside ditch, merely collateral damage? Can economic growth offset the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity or the pain suffered by Rodrigo’s family?
The good thing is most people don’t think so anymore and the overwhelming public reaction in Chile to Pinochet’s death was celebration as news reached the U.S. that Chilean liquor stores have sold out of Champagne. But even though Pinochet’s corruption and crimes are now almost universally condemned and Chile has even elected a former torture victim, Michelle Bachelet, as its President, I for one am not celebrating.
His death is far too convenient for him and his supporters because now he will never be convicted for his crimes. Those on the Right callous enough to still stand by their “General” can now forever live in fantasy. Fortunately, Bachelet’s government spokesmen have announced that Pinochet will receive no special funeral from the state. Now the cult of Pinochet is finally in decline and this year’s International Human Rights Day can go down in history as a truly appropriate one indeed.
Perhaps Pinochet’s death marks the true end of the Cold War in Latin America.
Juan Antonio Montecino is a student at the University of British Columbia and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. This article first appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus.