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Spitting on a dead man

December 17, 2006|Ariel Dorfman | Ariel Dorfman is the author of "Exorcising Terror" and "Burning City."

WHEN GEN. Augusto Pinochet breathed his last on Dec. 10, this much seemed clear to everybody in Chile: The man who had lived his whole life and never paid for even one of his crimes had done it again. Once more -- one final time -- everybody in Chile thought that Pinochet had escaped judgment. Everybody, that is, except for a young man named Francisco Cuadrado Prats, who decided that some sort of punishment, no matter how symbolic, was merited. So he walked up to Pinochet's coffin and deliberately, calmly spat on the dictator's face as he lay there in full regalia.

The story of that young man is also, of course, the story of Chile. Though it culminates at Pinochet's funeral, it started 33 years ago, in late August 1973, when the grandfather of the young man, Gen. Carlos Prats, was commander in chief of the Chilean army. Feeling he could no longer stop the impending military coup against President Salvador Allende, Prats resigned his post and recommended that his replacement be the most loyal of his generals, a man he had befriended and protected his whole life -- Augusto Pinochet.

I was working at the presidential palace and can remember how glad, almost giddy, we were when Allende followed Prats' advice. At a farewell gathering honoring Prats, the name Pinochet was on all our lips. He was someone we could trust, someone who would save democracy and avoid the violence descending upon us. Among those present at the party were Allende's last two ministers of defense, Jose Toha and Orlando Letelier. They relied on their "friend" Augusto, "good old Pinochet," to rescue the republic from disaster.

One week later, Sept. 11, 1973, Allende was dead, Toha and Letelier were prisoners of a military junta and Prats had been banished to Argentina. Good old Pinochet had betrayed his president, his friends and his country.

But that was not enough. The new ruler had to be rid of the men who had believed in him, who had seen him obsequiously swearing allegiance to the president, who had witnessed his duplicity. Toha was murdered in a Chilean dungeon a few months after the coup. Letelier was assassinated in Washington in 1976. As to Carlos Prats, he and his wife were blown up on a Buenos Aires street on Sept. 30, 1974, by agents of Pinochet's secret police.

Francisco Cuadrado Prats was 6 when he heard the news that his grandparents had been killed. In the years that followed, many more Chileans would disappear, be tortured or murdered by the man who had been his grandfather's best friend.

But not all was despair. The grandson would also watch and participate in the Chileans' movement to defeat the dictator and recover their lost democracy. By 1990, Pinochet no longer ruled the country. But for the next eight years, he thwarted the emergence of a full democracy by using various authoritarian features of the system and his role as commander in chief of the army. He threatened rebellion at whim, publicly warning Chile's elected leaders, for instance, that if they dared touch, let alone prosecute, one of the men under his command, he would rise up again. There appeared to be virtually no chance that justice would be done.

Then, almost miraculously, Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 after Spanish authorities charged him with murder, torture, illegal detention and disappearances. He escaped extradition to Spain by feigning dementia, but upon his return to Chile, he found that the country had changed. Some of the fear he had inspired was gone. The judiciary and politicians, shamed before the world by the charges issued in Spain, were ready to indict him for all manner of human rights violations. Among the cases was the murder of Carlos Prats and his wife, Sophia.

But Pinochet's lawyers, often with the connivance of sluggish judges and a wary political class, successfully delayed the numerous proceedings against the dictator, and he never was convicted of anything. (Chilean judges denied on a technicality an Argentine magistrate's demand that the general be extradited for trial in Prats' murder.)

Then, just when death seemed to protect Pinochet from punishment, insult was added to injury when the former dictator was rewarded with funeral rites he didn't deserve. Although President Michelle Bachelet (herself a torture victim whose father died of maltreatment in Pinochet's prisons) refused to give the dead dictator a state funeral, she could not stop the army from burying him with full honors.

It was too much for Prats' grandson.

Let me confess that spitting on a dead man -- even if he is responsible for the deaths of so many of my friends, the devastation of my life and the agony of my country -- makes me feel queasy and uncomfortable. There is something sacred about the dead, about their sad vulnerability, about the rules and protocols that we need to honor when a life, no matter how miserable, has ended.

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