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Sic semper tyrannis

December 11, 2006|Marc Cooper | MARC COOPER is a visiting professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. In the early 1970s he worked as translator to Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and died in the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power.

NOT WITH LITTLE irony did the gods choose to reclaim former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on Sunday, which was International Human Rights Day.

The heart attack he suffered a week ago had initially seemed quite convenient. By landing him in a military hospital, it short-circuited an imminent court hearing into two killings he was accused of ordering more than 30 years ago. Indeed, his house arrest, decreed just last month, was lifted so he could be hospitalized. Nor was this the first time his failing health had worked to his advantage: Twice before over the last five years, Pinochet was spared trial on charges of murder, kidnapping and torture because he claimed he was too ill to face the courts.

But if human justice failed on previous occasions to fully snare Pinochet, the greater forces of nature and biology this time imposed the maximum sentence -- and on the most appropriate day of the calendar.

By the time of his death at age 91, Pinochet's name had come to symbolize all that can go horribly wrong when dictatorship supplants democracy. Once celebrated as a prophet of free-market economic policies, he died disgraced and reviled, saddled with criminal accusations ranging from human rights violations to money-laundering and tax evasion.

Whatever his accomplishments or failures in the economic realm (which are destined to be debated for decades to come) there is no longer any possibility of denying the level of soul-less brutality and inhumanity that Pinochet imposed at bayonet point on Chile. It wasn't just the thousands of dead, tortured and jailed. It was rather the en masse humiliation of an entire population, forced to kowtow to a snarling dictator who had overnight reversed 100 years of civil democratic tradition.

Chileans have a saying: "The color of blood is never forgotten." Pinochet's brutality unleashed the sort of ghosts that never rest. Numerous commissions have published reports detailing the mind-numbing practices of electric-shock torture, "water-boarding," disembowelment and outright disappearance employed by Pinochet's military and police.

Pinochet's swagger, his unbridled arrogance, his flaunted impunity won him no respite. In spite of the national trauma generated by his dictatorship (and overcoming two decades of fear), a small group of relentless human rights crusaders were able to finally pierce the dictator's once invulnerable shield of impunity.

While the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet was too cowardly to prosecute him, enterprising magistrates in Spain went after him for the murder of some prominent Spanish citizens in the first years of his dictatorship. In 1998, still riding high as a self-appointed senator-for-life, Pinochet made the mistake of visiting London. The Spanish judges had him served with an international arrest warrant, and overnight Pinochet slid from having tea with Margaret Thatcher to sharing encyclopedia entries with Idi Amin and Benito Mussolini.

After 500 days in British custody, Pinochet was kicked out and sent home, and a tenuous and still-recovering Chilean civil society was finally ready to confront him. A cascade of accusations and indictments washed away any of his remaining legacy. His very presence in Chile, right up until his death, served as an electrifying stimulant to an ongoing national catharsis of restoring collective memory and providing justice. Pinochet had been indicted on multiple charges and was still facing more than 200 other criminal allegations.

Pinochet died with much of that business unfinished. A number of high-ranking military officers have been indicted for the abuses during the Pinochet period. Almost 30,000 Chileans have been officially recognized as victims of torture and have been granted monetary compensation.

But much about the Pinochet period remains unknown and unresolved. And while the civilian government now in power has shown little if no appetite to pursue these matters, Chile will never right itself until the full truth is known. No one knows for sure, just to cite one example, the origin of the millions that Pinochet stashed in secret foreign accounts. Illicit arms sales? Or drugs? Or both? And who else was involved with Pinochet in these scandals?

Likewise, there are still literally hundreds of unsolved political murders and disappearances. And an equal or greater number of former associates and beneficiaries of the Pinochet regime, guilty of a long list of human rights and criminal violations, remain unaccountable.

The death of any individual diminishes us all. There can be no celebration of Pinochet's demise, nor any mourning. The only appropriate response is to redouble efforts to uncover, review and sort out all the dirty work of his dictatorship -- and then bury it forever with its execrable author.

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