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The Poison of Pinochet

The one distinctive mark left by General Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s be-shaded terrorist, will be the celebration of his death. That’s not accorded to many, and I can’t off-hand think of another who’s been granted it recently, at least not after dying in bed. The BBC’s radio obituary slot turned to a Swiss entrepreneur who had the honour of interpreting between Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher – another candidate for the same accolade, I suppose. Evidently, they never said anything memorable.

Pinochet was, after all, a preening despot on a continent that had no shortage of them at the time. On 9/11 (1973) he set about the organized slaughter of much the same number of people as died in the Twin Towers – and tortured thousands more – in the name of democracy and in purported response to a civil war that he and his chums were anxious to wage: some time before, the word ‘Djakarta’ had been daubed on walls to invoke the slaughter in Indonesia a decade earlier.

He did so under the tutelage of that celebrated Peace Laureate, Henry Kissinger, in homage to the Godfather of Neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, and with helping corporate hands from the likes of ITT – good capitalist, American patriots all. A patriot indeed, was Augusto Pinochet, and cunning too, if his ability to prolong the liberty of his own diseased life or hoard his laundered swagger is any indication. The display of grief by his undying fans, its cultish hysteria, reminds me of nothing so much as the crazed opponents of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

I arrived in Chile in 1971 and lived there for a year. The atmosphere of this country, the most beautiful I had ever seen, was like that described by George Orwell in republican Barcelona during another ‘civil war’. You could sense what it might feel like if people were ever accorded some dignity: subversive, because laden with possibility; poignant, in disbelief or anticipation of its end.

My daughter was born there. No more than a few days into her life, she and I set out in search of a Chilean passport for her. The tribulations of Chilean bureaucracy ensured that we arrived at our final destination some eight hours later, without her having fed all day. At the centre of a dour building was a courtyard where a queue wound in a spiral, awaiting the official passport photo; but apparently in vain, since by now, it was rumoured, only one piece of photographic paper remained in all Chile.

I am not good at such situations; I despair quite easily. But my daughter, sound asleep for so long, suddenly awoke with the most alarming yell. Chileans being as they are, the queue parted, the official photo was taken on the last piece of photographic paper in the country, and I have loved my daughter deeply ever since.

Within a year, after we had left, I learned that the building had been turned into a torture chamber by DINA, the secret police. My academic career – thankfully enough – in ruins, my adult education only just underway, I suppose I have Pinochet to thank for showing me the true preposterousness of personal power. It drives people mad and tries to take everyone else with it.

One day, returning to Santiago from Valparaíso, we saw the Chilean army out on the streets, setting up roadblocks in the overbearing manner adopted - together with the techniques of torture - by their officers from the US-run ‘School of the Americas’. The soldiers were acting as extras in a movie called State of Siege, then being shot by the director Costa Gavras, about terrible events already happening in Uruguay. I suppose Costa Gavras must have found support for his project in the Popular Unity government, and the film was intended as some kind of a warning. The soldiers were, in truth, not acting but practicing.

I have not returned to Chile since. Some of the thousands who were forced to flee have gone back, but only the most fortunate can have escaped the reflection of their devastated lives in the country they found on their return. Beneath the scars, in the bloodstream, must run the lingering poison of betrayal and fantasy spun by people who endured a state of fear, in which no-one can be certain even of themselves.

Traces of this poison still run through the bloodstream of Europe, long after Mussolini, Hitler and Franco departed. Few people in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina or Brazil, any more than in Germany, Italy, France, Greece or Spain, can have anticipated how quickly this poison becomes lethal. Like Polonium, it leaves a tell-tale trace in people who claim to have been powerless, not to have known what was being done in their name, or that nothing ever happened.

Its lingering presence was there in that mansion by a golf course south of London where Pinochet and Thatcher had themselves filmed saying nothing memorable to each other all over again. It is detectable now in the Bush White House and the Blair East Wing.

The poison is brewed by people who believe themselves, like the late, lamentable General Augusto Pinochet, to be immune.

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