Will Mr Straw join the pantheon of our heroes in Latin America?

Now Pinochet's spell has been broken by the British, as Galtieri's was by the Falklands war
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"LET HUMBLE Albion, with an awkward shame/Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame."

The (slightly doctored) lines of Alexander Pope in his aptly named Work To Augustus are a better text than most for the Home Secretary to ponder as he settles down this week to decide the future of Pinochet. They could remind him that, if he comes to the right decision and sends the baby- torturer of Santiago to a well deserved trial in Spain, he would join the large group of people from these islands who have, knowingly or unknowingly, done a great deal for the cause of decency in Latin America.

One can of course get excessively lyrical and overestimate the extent to which Britain has aided the course of independence, peace and democracy in the region. I will never forget the shame that I felt a few years ago as I sat in Chatham House among a group that was made up predominantly of businessmen who had gathered to hear an Argentine minister by the name of Martinez de Hoz. He was, if I remember correctly, an Old Etonian.

At that time Argentina was in the hands of a pitiless gang of military tyrants who were throwing their political prisoners to their deaths from aircraft over the South Atlantic and doing vile things to their citizens that possibly, just possibly, might have made even Pinochet blanch. I asked the speaker a mild-mannered question about human rights in Argentina and was treated by him to a defence of torture, at the end of which the British businessmen and bankers broke into spontaneous applause.

And many people are too lyrical about Britain's role in Latin America. Innumerable are the dinners I have attended in Bogota or Caracas or Mexico which have been drawn to a somnolent conclusion by an address from the British ambassador dwelling on the glorious contribution of British troops to the emergence of the republics from the imperial grasp of Spain two centuries ago. After all, is it not the case that to this day and in recognition of their support of Simon Bolivar, the liberator, British troops may parade through the streets of Venezuela under arms and with drums beating and colours flying?

British diplomats tend to lay less emphasis on the fact that after the wars against Napoleon ended and he was packed off safely to St Helena a host - or, perhaps better, a horde - of desperate British ex-servicemen of all ranks who were facing destitution at home swarmed across the Atlantic to seek their fortunes in battles between what they must have considered as one sort of dago and another.

Never mind, Latin America was helped to independence by British soldiers, and that independence was thereafter guaranteed by British sailors. And, much more recently, the British response to the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the drunken General Leopoldo Galtieri ended up by bringing a good measure of democracy back to Argentina. The defeat of the Argentines by British forces was from the first a foregone conclusion if only these forces could be landed on the islands.

The wretched, untrained Argentine garrison in the Falklands, comprising as it did untrained men whose equipment and rations had been stolen by their officers, was shown after the war to have been the victims more of its own side than of the fury of an outraged Margaret Thatcher. The unconscionable bungling of the Argentine generals meant they were tossed out by popular fury in Argentina the year after the British returned to Stanley to be replaced after fair elections by a civilian president Raul Alfonsin.

To this day the British resolve to keep the Falklands Islands from Argentina unless and until the Falklanders themselves decide to throw in their lot with their neighbours over the water to the west is serving to exercise a moderating influence on Argentine leaders. Did we hear President Menem last month repeating in London his pre-election claim that he would take back the Falklands if necessary by fire and sword, an operation that could not be undertaken without vast new investment in the Argentine military and its political rehabilitation? No, thank God, we did not.

Now, with a certain amount of awkward shame, the same phenomenon is happening in Chile. It is, on the face of it, a surprising development. I spent much of Tuesday 11 September 1973 in the British embassy in Santiago. I had gone there that morning with my friend, Stewart Russell, of Reuters, on a fruitless hunt for a way to send the story of Pinochet's putsch back to London after his men had cut communications with the outside world. As we munched sandwiches in the corridors many of the staff, and notably the military personnel, drank toasts and whooped with delight at the overthrow of the left-wing president, Salvador Allende, and the arrival of the smack of firm government in uniform.

This was the first day of 17 years of horror for the Chileans. Worse, it was the day when the Chilean body politic underwent a lobotomy which was not reversed until the House of Lords gave its historic verdict against Pinochet last week.

From 1973 the Chileans have been, as I saw most recently in Chile in September, in a mental daze. There were indeed noisy demonstrations before the television cameras by rich right-wing housewives most of whom banged in the cause of Pinochet the saucepans which they were unable to use with any skill themselves and which are routinely cleaned by their ill-paid domestic servants. However, these women constituted a tiny minority of the country. The majority were opposed to Pinochet. But, lobotomised, they were incapable of throwing off their fear of another coup, either under Pinochet himself, until he surrendered command of the army in March this year, or under his successor - the handsome, rich and callous General Izurieta. After he laid his grey military cape aside Pinochet, immune from prosecution under a constitution that he wrote, took up the senatorial seat he had created for himself, one of a number which ensured that that the Congress was comprehensively emasculated.

Now Pinochet's spell has been broken by the British, as Galtieri's was in 1982, and things will never be the same again. The Chileans may recover from their lobotomy and, as my friend the Chilean foreign minister has suggested, put the man on trial themselves. Humble Albion might not have set out with that in mind. But it has happened.

As the Lady said in 1982: "Rejoice, rejoice!"