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The Chilean Le Pew

Pinochet Biodegrades Satisfactorily

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 12, 2000.

The ethical horrendoplasty known as Chilean General Augusto Pinochet seems to have escaped the courtroom and noose, at least for a while, at least by legal means. Pinochet led a military coup in that nation, overthrowing a freely elected but communist leaning Prime Minister, and instituting your basic, boiler plate Latin military dictatorship, during which untold numbers, but at least 3000, of revolutionaries, wannabes, camp followers, loud mouthed punks - the vast majority utterly innocent of any crime - simply vanished. All statistics should be viewed cancerously from Latin America, and a reasonable guess is that many, many more than that were killed by Pinochet's thugs. Certainly many thousands were tortured.

When Pinochet left office, he was prohibited from being prosecuted because of laws he himself had had passed by a compliant government. He, in fact, was made a Senator for life and given the immunity of that office. Given the transient respect for rule by law south of the Rio Grande - sorry, but it is true - no Chilean ruler would want to repeal Pinochet's protection in case the new leaders themselves might require it later.

But last year, Pinochet had to travel to England for medical help. Already in his eighties, the man was clearly on a fade out, but as we know, some players take forever to leave the stage. During his stay, a rather courageous Spanish judge in a nation undergoing a well deserved parade into the front ranks of democratic nations granted some Spanish citizen's requests that Pinochet be extradited to face Spanish courts for offenses against and the murders of Spanish citizens in Chile during Pinochet's tenure. Britain, who tends towards rather objective if fanciful notions of justice, accepted Spain's request, and held the aging thug, his hospital nightie no doubt covered with medals from non-existent wars, while objective doctors decided if he was fit to stand trial.

The verdict is back, and he is not. Pinochet will probably return to Chile with only the odd assassin to fear. This, even in the age of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, was a hugely interesting case.

As always, the Left didn't care about law any more than the Right. The Left simply wanted Pinochet killed or at least convicted in vengeance for Allende and give a slap against the western powers. If our current understanding is correct, such an event would be far from inappropriate, even at his advanced age. The problem here is stare decisis, the rule of precedent. What is the line of culpability for a nation's leader, and would it apply to the freely elected leader whose nation commits arguable crimes. In that case, wouldn't a voting citizen of that nation be culpable as well? And how would free trade, much less actual justice, survive in a world where people can, essentially, be legally kidnapped? Noriega, a right wing thug for one, wants to know.

So does Fidel Castro. What happens if in the future, for example, Castro travels to Europe? Could the Mafia Cubans of Miami, who have connections, request he be held for trial for charges not entirely dissimilar from those against Pinochet? They could go to an American court, make their case, and America could request the nation of Castro's visit to hold the man for extradition to this country. Requests from the US get considered. You never know, as Pinochet would say. Of course, Castro would be protected by diplomatic immunity, and this is the reason he has stayed and will die in office. He knows he cannot lose that immunity. In all the chat about Castro and Cuba, you never hear that discussion, do we? How come?

In no way, I feel obligated to point out, do I consider Castro a Pinochet, but it is a question of degree and, frankly, because few can deny that the Cuban revolution, in the cold light of history, was a necessary event brought about by a corrupt and fascist government not hindered by the United States. Still, under law, there are serious charges that can be brought against any number of government leaders, including our own, that must be viewed as potential criminals under the laws of certain nations. The Japanese, for example, instituted mass aerial bombing of civilian targets while invading China, even before the Nazis did it to England which - it can be argued - exonerates the United States, under war law, from prosecution for nuclear bombs delivered against that country. I tend to agree with the verdict on Pinochet. Just holding him, and then granting him leave because he is too sick to defend himself, seems the civilized thing to do. Punishment is unlikely to change an 85-year-old. Death is his dinner partner anyway, and more likely to be more painful and ghastly left to nature. In any case, Anglo American law prohibits else. Chilean law, however, amended mightily since Pinochet's days of power, do not. It is quite possible Pinochet will stand trial in his own homeland, where it should and ought to take place. His detention helps a future Chilean prosecution. It would be a show trial, since he cannot defend himself coherently, but perhaps it is the thing to do.

In this nation that legally electrocutes mentally retarded men and women who cannot understand any more than Pinochet - and probably a lot less - coupled with a built in behavior excuse, this case is troubling, or had better be.

You feel the cinch of law getting tighter around the world - it might be the delusions of wistful thinking - and you cannot help but feel good about that despite these cognitive dissonances. For the first time, perhaps, a nation's leaders may be thinking about the consequences of their actions beyond election returns and historical glory, especially when Leader for Life is not a common job requirement anymore. It is an undecided and unagreed upon set of standards, but it is commonly discussed now that the means exist for enforcement. In objective hands, a good thing. In other hands…..well, maybe no worse than what we have now.