The fizz goes out of the Pinochet party

Never keen on the rule of law, the former Chilean dictator's ardent supporters, who blame every setback on a Marxist conspiracy, found last week's ruling hard to handle, writes Isabel Hilton (above)
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SUN rose on a desolate scene at the Pinochet Foundation on Wednesday morning. The place had been decked out for the birthday party of all birthday parties; white awnings had been erected, drinks and canapes laid out and an enormous birthday cake prepared for what General Augusto Pinochet's most ardent supporters had been convinced would be their moment of triumph.

Visiting the foundation earlier in the week, I had listened to General Luis Cortes Villa (retired) describe the festivities they were planning: the world's press assembled, the direct phone line to Grovelands Priory Hospital on which the vindicated leader would deliver a personal message to the world. After the moment of triumph, there would be other parties to be planned: a welcome at the airport, a ceremony at the military hospital where Gen Pinochet was to be taken on his return. There didn't seem to be any doubt.

Now, as I looked at the wreckage - the broken glass, the remains of flyers, now torn and sticky, scattered like grubby confetti, the stained surface of the dais, specially erected outside the gate, from which the Gen Pinochet supporters had planned their speeches - it almost seemed sad. It was like the aftermath of a wedding party that had gone horribly wrong.

As I was wondering whether General Villa would keep his appointment, his car pulled up. He stepped out, freshly showered and immaculate, preceded by a faint whiff of cologne, his face set in a mask of strained courtesy. I followed him inside through the wreckage of the main hall where enraged Pinochet supporters had attacked the press as the news came through. The general straightened the chairs, an attempt to restore a little order to a world that was now in ruins.

"What do you put the judgment down to?" I asked him.

The general straightened up. "The bad image of Chile that has been perpetrated over the years by the Marxist press," he replied.

Gen Cortes Villa could be said to be in denial, but it is a denial with a long pedigree. I once came across a visiting New York Times correspondent in Santiago. He was in a state of light hysteria after being told by one of Gen Pinochet's officials that he had incontrovertible evidence that the New York Times was financed by the Kremlin. The edifice of fiction that the Gen Pinochet regime built up had been proof against any reality, as long it could control what the armed forces believed and terrorise the rest of the population into silence.

There were dissenters, of course. Those who had voted for Salvador Allende's government in the 1970s - a third of the nation - and those who suffered directly, or through their friends and families, the repression that followed the 1973 coup, knew that they were being told lies, but quickly learned to keep their thoughts to themselves.

There were dissenters closer to home, too, who suffered the consequences of questioning the dictator: General Carlos Prats, for instance, Gen Pinochet's predecessor as head of the army, who insisted on his loyalty to the constitution despite his dislike of the Allende government, and refused to support the coup. He went into exile in Argentina, where he and his wife were blown to pieces by Gen Pinochet's agents.

There were the officers who planned the coup, imagining that, once order had been restored, elections would deliver a government more to their taste. They persuaded Gen Pinochet to join them two days before the coup, only to be horrified when the last-minute guest took over the party.

There was Colonel Renato Cantuarias, who was murdered in September 1973 for refusing to bomb a copper mine, and Major Ivan Lavendero, who was shot for releasing a group of Uruguayan prisoners from the National Stadium.

Then there was General Alberto Bachelet, the leader of a group of air force officers who were accused of treason and tortured because they were suspected of warning President Allende that the coup was coming. Gen Bachelet died in prison; the rest were exiled. Scores of other military officers were jailed for failing to prosecute Gen Pinochet's bloody war against real and imagined Marxists with sufficient zeal.

But these men, like the disappeared, had become unpersons, erased from the regime's official history. What was left was a blind devotion among the general's supporters that would admit no questions. For those who felt it, it became the truth. Anyone who questioned it was a Marxist. Now Gen Cortes Villa was grappling with the thought that Marxism held sway even in the House of Lords.

Earlier in the week, sitting among the memorabilia of a long army career, he had told me, with apparent sincerity, that the army were all good Catholics. "How could they have been killing people?" he had asked. "They were saving people." There had been abuses, he admitted, but the military were powerless to identify who had committed them and they were emphatically not the responsibility of the man he continues to call "my general". It was a conviction that he thought all reasonable people must share.

We parted, politely, and he returned to the forlorn task of straightening the wreckage of his illusions.

A long wait, page 25