Pinochet: the Ghost of Politics Past

He's dead and buried, along with his era. Time to get over it and move on.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The death of a 91-year old man would not normally be considered a cause for international outrage. Yet this week’s news of the death of General Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, sparked political furore – and not only in Chile. Around the world governments spoke out to condemn Pinochet, while leading human rights campaigners queued to protest that he had been ‘allowed’ to die without being hauled before an international court for his crimes. One might have thought that the old General had just marched back into Santiago, rather than shuffled off the mortal coil.

Pinochet was a tyrant, and his death is no loss to humanity. The bloody 1973 coup in which the Chilean military – led by Pinochet and backed by the US government and corporations – overthrew the elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende remains one of the most infamous episodes of the Cold War, marked by torture and executions. An unknown number of opponents were ‘permanently disappeared’ during the early years of the Pinochet regime, which remained in power until 1990.

But there has been something else going on this week other than the remembrance of past horrors. Pinochet has been turned into the Ghost of Politics Past, to be used for therapeutic shadow boxing.

It is as if many political and legal activists in the West can only really get excited now about the hard-fought issues of 30 years ago. In our age of sanitised, passion-free managerial politics, there is little to stir the blood. So they try to re-run the old political battles from a time when some divides were clear-cut and big principles were often at stake – even though there is nobody remaining to fight those battles against today, except a corpse like Pinochet and perhaps an ailing old lady like Margaret Thatcher.

Such a ‘battle’ could only be an empty caricature of what went before. So instead of a struggle for political power between a popular movement and the military on the streets, in the West the Pinochet question became a lawyerly debate about how such issues should be settled quietly by judges in international courts.

Since he left office 16 years ago, Chile itself has been governed by the centre-left Concertación, a consensus-seeking coalition that has sought to avoid controversy whilst deepening many of Pincohet’s pro-market economic reforms. The ex-dictator’s death has provided an opportunity for the fragments of both the old Right and Left to stage-manage events and remind everybody that they still exist.

It was inevitable that Pinochet’s death would spark a big reaction in Chile, which still bears the scars of his regime and where victims and their relatives are still seeking retribution. Even there, however, the calls for a Pinochet trial to be used as a form of national therapy to bring ‘closure’ for Chilean society shows how degraded political debate has become. Who exactly is supposed to benefit from being perpetually trapped in the terrible moment of 1973?

In the West, meanwhile, much of the reaction has looked like self-serving posturing of the worst kind. Governments of every stripe have rushed to demonstrate their human rights credentials by suddenly condemning what he did more than 30 years ago. For their part, human rights organisations have tried to use his death – or ‘escape from justice’ – as evidence that the world should let them set up a much more powerful system of international courts to bring such rulers to trial, as a warning to governments elsewhere that they cannot escape the legal crusaders.

In fact, Pinochet’s death should act as a reminder, not of how old conflicts remain to be resolved, but of how far politics has changed since the end of the Cold War era. See how the Republican Bush administration in Washington, which many now claim as a uniquely malevolent force in world politics, was at pains to distance itself from the Pinochet years this week, and to praise Chilean democracy. That sounded a far cry from the days when the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford backed Pinochet’s anti-democratic coup. Only Thatcher was left to make a show of support for her old pal Pinochet after his death, her statement seeming as other-worldly today as the General’s own death-bed declaration that he took full responsibility for all that had happened during his presidency.

Or look at the contrast between anti-Pinochet politics, then and now. In 1973 it was a popular movement in Chile, supported by a wave of international solidarity. (Indeed the big mistake of the Allende government and its supporters in the Communist Party was arguably their failure fully to mobilise that movement to defend democracy, instead relying on legalistic compromise with the military, with terrible consequences.) In recent years in Chile it has been reduced to a low legal drama, with judges placing the dying general under house arrest while they worry about whether finally to prosecute him for kidnapping or corruption. Elsewhere, Western solidarity has been reduced to demands for international justice, to be dispensed not by the Chilean people but by a handful of international judges and lawyers who have appointed themselves to act on Chile’s behalf. The fact that the Chileans themselves have never been able to agree on how to deal with their former dictator is here considered beside the point.

Perhaps this is the legacy of the Pinochet era that we should worry more about today – the way that his case has been kept alive to justify giving Western and international courts more authority over sovereign states and governments. Pinochet was famously detained whilst visiting Britain in 1998 and held under house arrest for several years after a Spanish magistrate issued a warrant for his arrest. The case became a landmark in the movement to empower international over national law (and the law of Western nations over those of the developing world). The New Labour government’s eventual fudged decision to release Pinochet on medical grounds left the legal principle intact. This week, leading UK human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, whilst assuring us that ‘I don’t think he is going to heaven, if there is a hell he is in it, which is not dissimilar to his own torture chambers’, noted that the ‘one noble thing’ Pinochet did was to help the world ‘work out how to put tyrants on trial. His case was the first to break sovereign immunity.’

But if the West’s support for Pinochet in the 1970s can be seen as a brutal case of illegal imperialism, then these developments in the name of Pinochet’s victims should also be opposed as creeping legal imperialism. The fate of Pinochet, like that of his regime, should have been for the Chilean people to decide rather than Geoffrey Robertson QC. As some of us argued at the time of his arrest, we would perfectly understand if one of the old man’s victims were to try to throw him out of a window; but that was no excuse for Spanish and British lawyers and judges trying to throw him in jail for their own purposes. Criticising this ongoing creep of legal imperialism remains an urgent priority.

The spectre haunting the West today is not communism or fascism, but the moribund state of politics that means passions can only briefly be stirred by exhuming old issues, and authority is increasingly invested in the bloodless deliberations of courts, inquiries and commissions. Pinochet is dead and buried, along with the era that gave birth to him, and they are not coming back. Good riddance; now let’s focus on breathing some new energy into political life.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

Pinochet in Suburbia, by James Heartfield

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Topics Politics


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