The day Augusto Pinochet got my neighbours drunk

It was a Thursday night, and there was work the following morning, but the hangover was worth it
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MY NEIGHBOUR Alejandro and I share an interest in the poetry of Pablo Neruda. In the days when he lived in Chile's Isla Negra, Allejandro would occasionally see the old poet in the garden and wave to him. Neruda would wave back, and in this way and through reading his work Allejandro came to feel he knew Neruda.

This must have been in the early Seventies, towards the end of Neruda's life when he had gone back to Chile after serving as Salvador Allende's ambassador to Paris. In those days Allejandro was an idealistic young leftist in a country sliding towards dramatic confrontation. He loved the Canto General (1950), filled with mystical evocations of the landscape and of animals and laments for the native world torn apart by the conquistadores. The following lines from They Come for the Islands are a rich example of Neruda's disavowal of the horrors inflicted by his Spanish forebears on Chile's indians. In view of Chile's later history they seem especially chilling:

The children of the clay saw their

smiles smashed,

battered their stance light as deer's,

all the way to death they did not

understand.

They were trussed up and tortured,

they were gnawed and buried.

waltzing among the palms

the green hall was empty.

Nothing was left but bones

rigidly fastened

in the form of a cross, to the greater glory of God and of men.

One of the great regrets of Allejandro's life was that he did not attend Neruda's funeral, which took place just 12 days after Pinochet's coup. The burial became the focus of the first major demonstration against the new military regime. Soon after, rightists broke into Neruda's Santiago home and destroyed many books and papers.

"I have always regretted not going to the funeral... but the atmosphere was one of terror, pure terror , and I was afraid to go," he said.

Until we met for Christmas drinks at a friend's house the other night, I did not really know Allejandro and his wife Paolina. I knew they had come to London as exiles from Pinochet's Chile back in 1973. One daughter had returned to Chile after Pinochet gave way to a democratic government, but the rest of the family still lives in Britain. They are quiet people and, beyond the usual daily pleasantries, we saw little of each other. In fact the discussion of Neruda at the drinks party was the first real conversation we'd had.

Allejandro may have only watched Neruda from a distance, but he was a close friend of Victor Jara, the songwriter arrested and killed by Pinochet's forces after the coup. They had played in a band together. "Pinochet and his people, they feared art, they feared musicians and writers, and that is why they wanted to stamp out people like Victor," he said. Allejandro and Paolina fled Chile four months after the coup as the net was closing in around the left-wingers and student activists still at large.

Inevitably the subject of Pinochet's extended stay in Britain came up. Paolina said that she had been at the House of Lords on the day the appeal was allowed. The children, all of whom had been reared in Britain, went with her. They could not believe the decision, and that night they went out and got drunk to celebrate. It was a Thursday night, and there was work the following morning, but the hangover was worth it.

"All of this thing has been a bit like a dream. None of it could have been expected," she said. "And if Pinochet is extradited to Spain, it will be the best thing that has ever happened." Allejandro, who was sitting next to her on the couch, nodded his head in vigorous agreement.

I have previously written in these pages that I did not expect Pinochet to be extradited. That was before the Law Lords' judgment. I am still inclined to that view. So are Allejandro and Paolina. What did I think would happen, they wanted to know. I said that Jack Straw is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is a member of a government that has loudly proclaimed its belief in human rights; his own political sensibilities suggest that he should take the side of the disappeared and tortured; and the highest law officers in the land say that the old dictator should face his accusers in Spain.

But there is a feeling, not just on the part of the right, that Chile's business is Chile's business, that how the country deals with its past really is a matter for the people of Chile. If their elected representatives agreed to give Pinochet and his cronies an amnesty, the argument goes, then what right has the British government to insist that they take another course. Allejandro said he knew all that. He had obviously been through these arguments countless times.

But, even if there is no extradition, they don't believe that Pinochet should be simply packed on to a plane and sent home to Chile. There must at least be a moral sanction. So I have a suggestion. Agree to send him home but under the South Africa option: insist that, in return for for a one-way ticket to Santiago, he apologises to the families of the three thousand or so people who disappeared under his rule. Send a camera into the walled estate where he is resting, set it up in the sitting room and let General Pinochet do some talking.

It is said that he is a proud old man who believes he saved his country from communism and economic ruin. True, Chile is now a prosperous place. But the price in dead and tortured is a price that should not and need not have been paid. And there has been no disclosure of the facts, not even a shred of remorse for the horrors of the coup years.

Too many dictators - on the left and right - have gone to their graves without even the vaguest sanction. Think of the monster Mao, who sent millions to their deaths, or Stalin, the master of terror. They died in their beds, with no accusing fingers to trouble them. Pinochet is clearly not in the same league, but he shared with them an arrogant contempt for human rights. Had Mao and Stalin also managed to deliver prosperity and stability to their people, would we be told (as we are with Pinochet) that the sacrifice of human life and freedom before state power was justified?

Those who have suffered directly will feel that such a compromise is dishonorable. However, we must face some uncomfortable facts. Pinochet may well be dead by the time the case comes to trial in Spain. And even if he does make it to trial, it is inconceivable that a Spanish court would send him to jail. I am reminded of a piece of writing by Primo Levi who, having survived the Holocaust, was asked by another survivor whether he had been right to refuse forgiveness to a dying SS officer in one of the concentration camps.

Levi wrote: "Under these conditions, it is not always easy, indeed it is perhaps impossible, to assign an absolute value to right and wrong: it is in the nature of crime to create situations of moral conflict, dead ends of which bargaining and compromise are the only conditions of exit; conditions which inflict yet another wound on justice and on oneself." Allowing Pinochet to go home will be a wound on justice. But if he talks before he goes, if he faces the world with a full statement of remorse for the suffering he caused, then something meaningful will have been achieved. From the mouth of Pinochet, at last, the truth.

Fergal Keane will present a human rights special on `Correspondent' at 7.15pm on BBC2 tonight

Comments