Shadow of a dictator

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 October, 1998, 12:00am

When General Augusto Pinochet's peaceful stay in a posh London hospital was rudely interrupted by the news he was under arrest, the noise echoed around the world.

From the outrage in Santiago to the cheers of the world's leftist politicians and human rights activists, the bravado of the Spanish prosecutors - and the surprising accommodation of the British authorities - has ignited a debate which is slowly reaching fever pitch.

In the United States, however, the silence has been deafening. The Clinton administration has distanced itself from the subject. The only comments from State Department spokesman James Rubin were offered in denial of a London newspaper report that Washington was working behind the scenes to get Britain and Spain to drop the matter.

One explanation for the tight lips came last week from Diane Orentlicher, international law professor at American University in Washington, who wrote: 'Behind its [America's] neutrality surely lie the same apprehensions that led the US delegation to join only six other states in opposing the permanent international criminal court approved in July.

'If Spanish and British courts can collaborate to prosecute Pinochet for crimes committed in Chile more than two decades ago, who can be sure that a rogue regime will not someday press charges against a US leader on spurious charges?' There may indeed be an element of truth in this analysis, and there is certainly a perceptible link between the Pinochet case and the longstanding campaign to set up a world human rights court to try cases exactly like that of the retired dictator.

But the more exact answer to the riddle is surely obvious to the Nixon administration officials - especially in the Central Intelligence Agency - who were running the shop when Pinochet came to power in a violent coup in 1973 which ousted the democratically elected Salvador Allende.

Washington's direct involvement in the installation of Pinochet as Chile's leader is no secret; the CIA has long celebrated it as one of its greatest successes, while successive administrations have grown increasingly uncomfortable about the historical legacy of Pinochet's reign of terror.

And now, after Chile's transition to democracy seemed to have succeeded in putting the bloody ghosts of the 1970s to rest, out of the blue have popped the London police to reopen the painful old wounds. But while, throughout Chile, the pain is felt by relatives of those who were murdered, tortured or who disappeared, the sensation in Washington is likely to be one of acute uneasiness at having the files reopened on its role in one of Latin America's worst political tragedies.

South America was the US' front line during the Cold War, when the policy of halting the spread of communism at all costs made for some difficult choices between quite possibly benign Marxist regimes and the iron boot of military dictatorships.

Recently declassified CIA files have shed new light on the Nixon administration's determination to unseat Allende and crush all signs of communism.

Idon't see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible,' then National Security adviser Henry Kissinger was quoted as having told intelligence chiefs in one meeting, as the White House approved a US$10 million covert operation to drive Allende from power.

That policy, which reaped a bitter harvest in other Latin Cold War zones, such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, still has the doggedly surviving Fidel Castro - and the anachronism of the Cuba embargo - to remind Washington of those nervous times.

Nowadays, the continent serves as a different front line - an economic one, as any one witnessing the White House's paranoia about Brazil keeling over with the Asian flu will recognise. In this respect, Washington is naturally going to have concerns about the Pinochet dispute sparking social unrest in Chile which could spread into financial markets.

But while the US maintains a tactical silence, it could be wishful thinking to expect it can remain above the political fray. Just as it is specious of London to claim the decision on whether to extradite Pinochet to Madrid has nothing to do with politics, so will Washington need a miracle to deflect the political fallout if the judges come calling.

The Spanish prosecutor handling the case has already asked for US documents relevant to Pinochet's human rights crimes - files which may constitute perhaps the most complete historical document of the regime's excesses. But according to human rights activists, the Justice Department has agreed only to turn over files which have already been made public, and not classified CIA documents.

'It is regrettable the US Government is not taking a more active step to support the judicial investigation by the Spanish judges,' according to Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch/ Americas.

Pressure is also coming from Capitol Hill, which is urging the White House to release classified material to help the Madrid judges do their job. 'The case against Pinochet presents a significant opportunity to work with the world community to punish those responsible for international crimes in Chile, the US and elsewhere,' Congressmen said in a letter to President Bill Clinton.

While Washington may feel itself tainted to some degree by its links to the Pinochet regime, it is interesting to note it is willing to flex its judicial muscle when it feels the need. The one act linked to the dictator which particularly irked his allies in the US came in 1976, when an exiled opposition activist, Orlando Letelier, was killed by a car bomb in the American capital.

Because the crime occurred on US soil, Washington pursued the matter with vigour - even after Chile's democratic leaders had long signed off on the amnesty Pinochet granted himself and his associates. It was Washington's pressure which ensured Pinochet's secret police chief went to jail for ordering the assassination - one of the few prosecutions to emanate from the abuses of the old regime.

Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote of the Pinochet case: 'Pinochet . . . is a murderer who presided over one of the worst episodes in Latin American history - one in which the US Government played a shameful part.' Many US officials may well agree with that assessment. If so, they are likely to agree in private.