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Pinochet is given a full military send-off

Denied a state funeral, the former Chilean dictator proves to be as divisive a figure in death as he was in life.

December 13, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO, CHILE — Longtime Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was memorialized Tuesday in a military funeral designed to bolster his battered image.

But as the former strongman was given full military honors under tight security at the nation's military academy, several thousand opponents gathered outside the presidential palace to pay homage to the late Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president ousted in the Pinochet-led coup on Sept. 11, 1973.

Chileans watching the events on television were able to view split-screen footage of Pinochet being acclaimed as a hero and condemned as a despot.

The funeral and celebration underscored the divisions and dissonant memories of Chilean society that had been apparent even before Pinochet died Sunday.

"Chileans cannot forget," President Michelle Bachelet said after Pinochet's death.

Bachelet voiced hope that closure would follow.

"Only then will we have a constructive vision of our future, guaranteeing respect of the fundamental rights of all Chileans," she said.

It has been a trying week for Bachelet, who has watched as Pinochet admirers praised the memory of the man whose regime once imprisoned her and her mother, forced both into exile and jailed her father, a former general and Allende loyalist who later died in custody.

Bachelet has stayed mostly out of sight, but she made the decision to deny Pinochet a state funeral, which enraged his family and many supporters.

Flags flew at half-staff at military barracks only, and no heads of state attended the ceremony for Pinochet.

Tens of thousands of Pinochet supporters attended the general's public wake, singing his praises and demeaning Bachelet, a lifelong socialist elected in January as Chile's first female president.

The carefully calibrated funeral had its own controversy as mourners jeered Bachelet's defense minister, Vivianne Blanlot, the lone government representative.

Blanlot stood stone-faced as the boos overwhelmed a choir and the presiding bishop called for order.

Among the speakers praising Pinochet's tenure was his grandson, army Capt. Augusto Pinochet Molina, who wore his military uniform and applauded his grandfather's decision to take down "the Marxist model that sought to impose its totalitarian model."

Afterward, Blanlot called the grandson's comments inappropriate because military officers were barred from publicly discussing politics.

What punishment, if any, the grandson would receive was unclear.

Experts say the military has been reformed since Pinochet's rule and is considered firmly behind Bachelet's government.

Pinochet's funeral, attended by about 5,000 people, was held at the military academy to minimize the risk of clashes.

Speakers extolled him as a man who rescued Chile from ruin, ignoring the violence and repression that gave him a worldwide reputation as a brutal dictator.

Speaker after speaker noted that Pinochet had never been convicted of a crime -- something his critics call a travesty.

Pinochet's eldest daughter, Lucia Pinochet Hiriart, said her father's coup brought the "flame of liberty" to Chile.

But she also said the media had called her father "the worst terms and epithets that one could heap upon a human being."

She, her four siblings and Pinochet's widow are caught up in an ongoing scandal over the former dictator's overseas bank accounts, which could hold as much as $28 million.

Critics say Pinochet used his power to enrich himself and his family, but his family said the money came from legitimate sources. A judge in Chile has frozen much of the money.

After the funeral, Pinochet's body was taken by helicopter for cremation at a site near the coastal city of Valparaiso, where the former dictator was born. Pinochet chose to be cremated so there would not be a grave to desecrate.

At the anti-Pinochet gathering outside the presidential palace, musicians played dictatorship-era protest songs and relatives held photos of some of the estimated 3,200 people killed during Pinochet's 17-year rule.

Many lamented that Pinochet had escaped conviction on human rights charges.

"I have conflicting emotions," said Ernestina Alvarado, 81, whose daughter was killed by the Pinochet regime.

"On the one hand, I am angry because he died without receiving his punishment. On the other hand, I am happy to be here still looking for justice."

patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

Special correspondent Eva Vergara in Santiago contributed to this report.

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