Pinochet in Suburbia

spiked-TV: The BBC drama on Britain’s detention of Pinochet was nostalgic for Blair's brief ‘ethical foreign policy’.

James Heartfield

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Pinochet in Suburbia (BBC2, Sunday night) – about the house arrest of the former dictator of Chile while on a visit to Britain in 1998 – featured some fine British stagehands overacting like mad. Pop-eyed Anna Massey made a raging, diminutive Margaret Thatcher, Derek Jacobi a piss-sodden pensioner Pinochet, leaving Peter Capaldi a relatively mild-mannered head of Amnesty International for those of us used to his swearing Alastair Campbell impersonation in Armando Iannucci’s spin-doctor comedy, The Thick Of It.

The play, though, was melancholy, nostalgia for the days when there were things worth fighting over. Indeed it was nostalgia for nostalgia – nostalgia for the ethical foreign policy of the late 1990s, and its high point: the detention of that monster of the 1970s, General Augusto Pinochet.

The months of Pinochet’s detention on a Spanish extradition order, backed by former ‘student radical’ Jack Straw, came early in the first Blair term. The idea was that ex-dictators would no longer get a free pass when they travelled abroad. No immunity for former heads of state would be respected. Rights were not decided in national administrations. Rather, human rights knew no boundaries. So when ‘honoured guest’ Pinochet arrived, he was arrested for torture – despite the fact that the Chilean government had given him amnesty for the massacre of thousands of radicals in a deal to reintroduce democracy.

The policy was always self-serving. It seemed to honour the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship. But all it really meant was that Britain got to tell the Chileans once again how things should be done – just as they did when they backed the imposition of dictatorship back in 1973. The noble suffering of the Chilean exiles was supposed to be the driving force of the action, but it was at such a remove as to be faintly absurd, like the pygmy-sized crosses the campaigners stuck in the lawn in Parliament Square to represent their missing relatives.

Played out in the late 90s, it was just the echo of the radicalism of the one-time student lefties (and, as it happened, Jack Straw was never that left wing). The image of Straw flinching before the sneer of his teenage son, soon to be busted drug dealing, was more convincing – as was the eventual humiliation of having to give way to the impracticality of prosecuting Pinochet. But the drama was missing. The only torture we saw was the bullying of a feeble and elderly man by protesters and policemen, making the old bastard strangely sympathetic.

Over on BBC4, the story of General Pinochet’s military coup against the radical leftist Salvador Allende was told in The Other 9/11 (that being the date it happened, by ironic coincidence). It was well told, but by concentrating on the day itself the story was only half true. The best account is Patricio Guzman’s The Battle for Chile, made at the time. In Guzman’s film it is painfully apparent that Allende threw away the chance to defeat Pinochet at the time, by de-mobilising the popular militias that wanted to defend democracy against the right.

‘What has happened to poor Pinochet?’ a naive Allende was reported as asking in The Other 9/11, at the very moment the General was preparing to bombard the Presidential palace. In Pinochet in Suburbia, the struggle was reduced to the struggle of two old men – Pinochet and Jack Straw – over who was right back then.

Read on:

In spiked-TV last week, Rob Lyons on The Armstrongs.

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