The Independent on Sunday, 10.10.99
Chile's future hangs on the General's fate. By David Smith
THE Ministry of Defence in Santiago is an architectural monstrosity with a history all of its own. Augusto Pinochet set up his government behind its giant steel ramparts after the 1973 coup, because, he said, there was nowhere else to go. (This was because his air force had bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace.) It was here too that General Pinochet's advisers conceded ungracious defeat after the Chilean people rejected him in a plebiscite, claiming all the while "moral victory".
Last week, as Chile digested the reality of Friday's court decision in London - that General Pinochet will almost certainly die in detention abroad - we walked into the ministry to find scenes unthinkable a year ago, before the old man's arrest - unimaginable even a few months back, when Chile still believed he might return.
In one room, generals and human rights lawyers were discussing where, when and how thousands of people disappeared under General Pinochet's rule. In another, more generals were meeting a delegation from South Africa: lawyers, soldiers and investigators who worked on Nelson Mandela's Truth Commission.
"I'm not sure the Chilean army gets it yet. Dealing with the past, you know, it's a shock to these people," said Professor Deon Fourie, once an adviser to Mr Mandela's government. "But they'll learn, like our people did, that they have no choice." At his side, Chile's immaculately uniformed Colonel Francisco Ember looked bemused. "We have so much to learn," he said, nervously fingering a Pinochet-style moustache, "and we are only just beginning."
A year after the general's arrest, at the end of a critical week in the legal wrangle over what to do with an ageing dictator, Chile is living through some remarkable times. Not only are generals having to talk with those they used to call enemies of the state, some are being taken to court. Some are even in detention in Santiago.
"This is a key moment for our democracy," said Pamela Pereira, a human rights lawyer, as she scuttled away from a meeting with the present high command of the army. "Believe me, the army now understands they have to accept the judgement of history for Los Desaparecidos [the disappeared]."
Sceptical as London or Madrid or Washington might be, there is clear evidence that the Chilean government means what it says about bringing General Pinochet and his henchmen to some kind of justice. The arrest here last month of General Humberto Gordon, a member of General Pinochet's inner junta and chief of intelligence, represents a dramatic departure: the highest-ranking officer ever detained here has been indicted on a charge of murder, for that of the trade union leader Tucapal Jimenez in 1982.
"What's so positive about the past year is that we've at last found the strength to look at ourselves in the eye, and face our crisis," says Ignacio Walker, a bright-eyed parliamentarian who masterminded the "No to Pinochet" campaign in 1988. "Honestly, Britain should trust us. Give us Pinochet and we can put him on trial."
However, Friday's court ruling means that Chile's clampdown is too little and too late, and that if General Pinochet lives, he will face justice abroad. But the political danger for Chile is equally clear. In enforced exile, he is a martyr for the right wing back home, a wild card in the presidential election, which is just weeks away and now too close to call.
Ten years into democracy, this was always going to be a tricky election for the coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists and Radicals that has run Chile since General Pinochet stepped down, but what is so striking is the government's fear of the Pinochet factor. The economy is in serious recession, with unemployment at 12 per cent and rising, but the government's main problem is its candidate. Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist warhorse,was nominated simply because, in coalition politics, it was the Socialists' turn. "I can't tell you how many people I know who will not vote for a Socialist," said a civil servant. "People won't say it to anyone, but they will vote for the right because socialism was such a filthy word for so long."
Certainly opinion polls show a race narrowing every week, with the right-wing candidate, Joaquin Lavin, in a position to win if, as the latest numbers suggest, he can capture Santiago. Mr Lavin, 44, is straight out of the spin doctor's manual: all denim and open-necked shirts, offering a glitzy, 10-point contract with Chile, very much the new generation of Pinochet heir. "I know we can win this election," he told me last week. "This country does not want a Socialist. It's that simple."
In fact the ruling coalition remains the favourite, but with last week's decision from Bow Street, General Pinochet's fate will be central in the final weeks of the campaign. This weekend Mr Lagos will be trying to call Tony Blair, a man he thinks of as a friend from days together at Socialist International meetings. "We want Pinochet back home," he said. "Our democracy is mature enough to handle this."
Edmund Perez Yoma, the Defence Minister, however, is fearful. "If Pinochet dies in Britain," he said, "there will be a terrible backlash against the government, the Socialists in particular." Even from his sick-bed in London, the dictator still holds a gun to the head of the democratic process.
David Smith is the Washington Correspondent for Channel 4 News.