The Common Good
March-April 1999

Lessons of a Dictator

by Marcus Raskin | March-April 1999

What does Augusto Pinochet have to teach us?

Eighty-three-year-old former dictator Augusto Pinochet hoped to fade into Chilean history as a hero of the free market and poster boy for strong man rule. He had become acclaimed by those, such as the former communists in Russia, who wanted to have a "Pinochet solution" for their own nation—that is, a combination of oligopoly and casino-capitalism backed by brute force. Instead of kudos, in 1998 Pinochet's past thrust him into the category of world class villain.

The immunity that Pinochet had negotiated for himself with Chilean politicians (as "Senator for Life") before he gave up military rule was not enough to protect him from claims that a Nuremburg-like trial should be held since he was responsible for the deaths and disappearance of thousands of people. Some claimed he should be tried according to the standards of domestic law where victims were found or crimes committed.

The most aggressive nation to call for extradition, Spain, has tied the British House of Lords in knots because of the Spanish request that Pinochet, who was visiting Great Britain on a combined business and health trip, be sent to Spain for questioning. Several other nations have also requested his extradition, all claiming that Pinochet is a mass murderer who ordered the killing and "disappearance" of thousands of his opponents and bystanders.

The United States, which supported and coached Pinochet to plan and execute the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende, has been reluctant to seek extradition of Pinochet—even though there is important evidence that he was the principal conspirator in two murders in this country. The 1976 car-bomb assassination of Ronni Karpen Moffitt, my assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), and Orlando Letelier, a colleague and former ambassador to the United States from Chile, was performed in Washington, D.C., by hired killers of the Pinochet government. After considerable prodding Attorney General Janet Reno has said that the Justice Department is reviewing the case to decide whether extradition efforts should be attempted so that Pinochet is brought to trial in the United States.

THE MURDERS CAUSED GREAT concern internationally and at IPS where Moffitt worked. In the wake of this terrible act, the members of the Institute were left without two of their colleagues—a newly married 25-year-old woman of great promise and a gifted diplomat who had become director of the Institute's transnational program—and with the felt need of fulfilling the requirements of justice. And so two generations of IPS fellows—especially Saul Landau, the filmmaker, historian, and poet—began a 22-year odyssey to ensure that justice would not die with the victims of Pinochet's treachery.

While others served some prison time—including Pinochet's director of DINA (which was a combination hit squad, FBI, and CIA)—for their part in the murders as well as other assassinations, Pinochet seemed to escape responsibility. But there is a change of political climate in the world. This time, Pinochet's way of "doing politics" was not allowed to be brushed off—it was understood as mass murder and crimes against humanity.

For two generations the judgments at Nuremburg had hung over the international legal community. Would they ever become relevant again? Perhaps because of the wanton killing in Rwanda and Bosnia and Cambodia and the reality of genocide and seemingly unimaginable brutality, many national leaders thought it time to take a leaf from the Nuremburg tribunals and establish an international criminal court. But the United States, fearing that its international role would be inhibited, demurred. As in other matters, however, the United States eventually will be brought along kicking and screaming to support the International Criminal Court idea, in keeping with the glacial progress of international law.

The Pinochet case, as it relates to the Washington, D.C. murders, raises ordinary and typical questions of domestic criminal law. There is ample evidence to show that Pinochet was the ringleader in the conspiracy. It was his purpose to hunt down and kill opponents and, if necessary, to do so with reckless disregard for others.

If Pinochet were to be tried in the United States and convicted of murder, I would personally favor mercy for him on the basis of his advanced age. However, compassion must not get in the way of the deep lessons that Pinochet's life has taught—for the sake of humanity, future generations must see that leaders cannot conduct themselves in that manner, either in power or on the way to it.

The human rights, religious, legal, and academic communities throughout the world have made clear their intentions in this regard. They will not let future generations learn the wrong lessons from the terrible events that Augusto Pinochet caused. All people may seek—and be given—mercy and compassion, but not before the truth of justice is served. —Marcus Raskin

MARCUS RASKIN is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and was a close associate of Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier at the time of their murders.

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