The arrest of Pinochet has brought my generation in from the cold

Our optimism, our desire for justice, was strangled by men with grim faces and operatic epaulettes
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ONE SEPTEMBER day, 25 years ago, I was in a large, old Renault, with four other long-haired teenagers, driving back from Scotland to London. We must, I worked out later, have been somewhere around Newark, at the moment that the Chilean armed forces led by Augusto Pinochet seized power from the elected government of Salvador Allende. By the time we got home, Pinochet was settling into the serious business of rounding up the folk- singers, the trendy priests, the activists, the hopeless idealists, and the lefties - and killing them.

Today, as I sit here writing this, a quarter of a century later, tears of anger and sorrow still start to my eyes. All that optimism, that desire for justice - however naive - strangled by men with grim faces and operatic epaulettes. Three weeks later I went up to Oxford, where my fellow students (though I didn't know this at the time) included Peter Mandelson and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.

For many young people in the early Seventies, the Allende government offered the possibility of something better than either capitalism or Eastern bloc Communism - an elected socialism that elevated the poor, while respecting human rights. (Well, we were young.) And then we saw this vision of guitars, flowers, smiles and poems, replaced by the tales of the stadium, by the disappearance of intellectuals, by unmarked cars, by scrabbled graves in dusty valleys, by electrodes and unheard screams. The refugees arrived, with their stories of missing lovers.

Time passed, and injustice not only prevailed, it took tea with Mrs Thatcher. After 18 years of dictatorship, Pinochet divested himself of formal powers, while maintaining his links to the military and ensuring his immunity from prosecution in Chile. Not, of course, that he had anything to feel guilty about. Despite 3,000 known deaths, and another 1,000 desaparecidos (disappeared, presumed dead), he had, he said, "never ordered the killing of anyone". Last weekend we arrested him, in Britain.

Most of us are not what we once were. The Cold War is over, and the old polarisations are mostly gone. No-one should feel a need to defend the indefensible. So it was sobering to open yesterday's Daily Telegraph and read an editorial on the Pinochet affair in which it lambasted the "inarticulate rage" of campus radicals, and the "inchoate hatred" of Labour MPs for the Chilean dictator. These emotional people just kept on going on about how old Augusto overthrew a democratically elected government. But, opined the Telegraph magnificently, "this statement, while literally accurate, is misleading". Why? Because Allende "embarked on a series of measures that were neither foreshadowed in the manifesto, nor compatible with the Chilean constitution". Furthermore, "there were ominous signs that elements in the government intended to dispense with future elections and establish a Marxist dictatorship. It was this that prompted the military coup."

As history, this piece of writing, fashioned last weekend by an intelligent Briton, displays a casual mendacity that would not disgrace a Zhdanov or a Ribbentrop. The truth is that, from the moment that Allende was elected (and even before), the CIA waged a campaign of destabilisation against him. This claim is no product of Spartist paranoia; it happened. In September 1970, Nixon, Kissinger and John Mitchell got together with Richard Helms, director of the CIA. "Make the economy scream," said Helms's handwritten note of the meeting. A month later a CIA wire to their man in Santiago said: "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown in a coup."

The Daily Telegraph recognises, however, that bad things occurred: "Many Chileans lost their lives," it admitted blithely, "some of them guilty of nothing more than left-wing sympathies or trade union activities." Some of them? What then were the others guilty of? Perhaps the editor of the Telegraph could write and tell us. But it is his purpose to exculpate the general, by maintaining the fiction that right-wing, bombastic, patriotic, semi-mystical, religious dictators are nicer than left-wing ones.

The dragon may be arthritic, but it is not dead. Last year, the octogenarian general addressed his own huge birthday party, attended by many army officers. They cheered when he warned those who criticised the armed forces. "It must be known," he said, pleasantly, "that we are perfectly aware of who is acting with destructive intentions and what they are after." And where they live, I'll be bound. For Pinochet does not regard his historic role as finished. "Lamentably," he told The New Yorker, "almost everyone today is a Marxist, even if they don't know it themselves. They continue to have Marxist ideas." Many of his supporters believe that.

The lack of any guilt represents, for me, the main danger in a certain type of right-wing nationalist mentality, and the reason why - beyond revenge - I rejoice to see Pinochet restrained. Like many on the left, I have made bad mistakes in whom I supported, and what I was prepared to believe. For a year (partly because of Chile) I refused to accept the horror stories coming out of "liberated" Cambodia - and the piles of skulls still mock my stupidity.

But I learnt that life is not fair. I learnt that no section of society is more deadly and dangerous than the middle class cornered. I learnt that, to help the poor, you need more support from more people than you do if your intention is to ignore poverty. Allende's government had too narrow a base for some of the reforms he planned. The coalition needed for change was not there. It might have been better for Allende not to have become President in 1970.

Some, of course, didn't see it that way. The first time I ever encountered Tariq Ali was outside the Chilean embassy, a few days after the coup. He and his comrades, from a fashionable Trotskyist group, had a little chant going, criticising (somewhat pointlessly) the dead president's refusal to hand weapons to the workers. "Armed Road the Only Road", sang Tariq. I wonder if that's still his view.

Today, a few of the young men and women who lamented the death of Allende, who attended meetings of the Chile Solidarity Campaign, and who read, helplessly, the support given to these repressions by The Times and The Daily Telegraph, occupy interesting positions in Britain. The least exalted are columnists for newspapers; but one is Secretary for Trade and Industry, another is Home Secretary, a third is Chancellor of the Exchequer - and a fourth is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

A few minutes ago, after locating a couple of websites belonging to Chilean supporters of Pinochet, I e-mailed them this message: "Don't worry. Your beloved general is safe with us. He will not be tortured, stabbed or shot, or have electrodes attached to his genitals. We will not drop him from a helicopter into the sea, kidnap his grandchildren, break his hands or gouge his eyes. Our most vengeful hope is that he and his family may feel - if only for a second - one billionth part of the terrible pain and mental agony that he so pompously and callously visited on others."

Tony, Peter, Mo, Gordon and Jack could all - I'm sure - agree with that. The Chile generation has come in from the cold.