August 14, 2005

Old and infirm Pinochet still captures world headlines

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Augusto Pinochet is aging and
decrepit and his political clout in Chile has dwindled to nil,
but he still grabs global headlines as an international symbol
of human rights abuse.

When Pinochet's wife was briefly arrested last week and
charged with helping him evade taxes, the news was among the
most read on Yahoo's news Web site right after made headlines
around the world.

U.S. newspapers that rarely cover Chilean events run
Pinochet stories for readers who have long forgotten other
1970s and '80s Latin American strongmen.

"The name Pinochet became synonymous with human rights
atrocities in Latin America, even if his dictatorship wasn't
responsible for the most massive violations that took place,"
said Peter Kornbluh, author of "The Pinochet File," a book
about U.S. government backing for Pinochet.

An estimated 3,000 people died in political violence during
Pinochet's 17-year rule. By contrast, human rights groups say
Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt oversaw massacres of tens
of thousands in just 17 months.

"The level of the killing (in 1981-1983) in Guatemala was
more than El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile combined.
But the case has not generated international awareness,"
Guatemalan rights group CALDH says.


The enduring fascination with Pinochet can be perplexing to
Chileans in their 20s, who have lived 15 years in a democracy
run by the center-left and who wonder why the world isn't
talking about Chile's political stability or natural beauty.

But Pinochet, 89, fascinates people outside Chile partly
because it is human to gawk at the mighty who have fallen.

People are also drawn to the contrasting images of Chile's
stability before and after the violence of the Pinochet era
when sinister-looking photos showed the general in long capes.

"It's the imagery, the photo with the dark glasses, the
detention camps all over the country," said Kevin Hall, former
South American correspondent for Knight Ridder, a group of U.S.

Pinochet took power in 1973 after leading a military coup
that ousted democratically elected Marxist Salvador Allende.

Declassified documents show the United States covertly
backed the coup and supported the regime even as leftists and
dissidents were tortured and killed.

Chileans exiled in Mexico, Sweden, Venezuela and elsewhere
spread their stories, and nostalgia over the Pinochet Cold War
drama drives some newspaper and television editors to give the
saga continued attention.

"The Pinochet era raised the consciousness level in the
U.S. and around the world about human rights abuses," said


British media still follow Pinochet closely after his
dramatic detention there from late 1998 to early 2000 on an
international arrest warrant on genocide charges.

After Britain sent Pinochet home, citing his ill health,
judges in Chile have slowly but tenaciously pursued him for
crimes. His defense argues he cannot be charged because mild
dementia makes him unable to defend himself.

Now Pinochet, who rarely appears in public, is being
investigated for embezzlement and tax evasion over an alleged
stash of up to $27 million in secret bank accounts around the
world. The fresh scandal destroyed any remaining political
loyalty to Pinochet among Chile's right-wing opposition.

Pinochet's wife's arrest was front page news in Central
America, where he is a symbol for all the political violence
that shook the whole region two decades ago, said Celso Solano,
international editor of Guatemala's Siglo XXI newspaper.

"Guatemalans would love to see the name of one of our
(former) military leaders in international headlines because he
was arrested for misusing government money. Most people here
believe the same thing happened here," Solano said.

Marcela Aldama, international editor at Mexico's leftist
newspaper La Jornada, said Pinochet won't soon fade from their

"He's an assassin and he has yet to respond to justice."