Pinochet death shakes nation still scarred by brutal regime

The death of Gen Augusto Pinochet sparked champagne-soaked celebrations, skirmishes with police and displays of lasting devotion as Chileans took an anguished look back at the dictator's 17-year rule.

The death of Gen Augusto Pinochet sparked champagne-soaked celebrations, skirmishes with police and displays of lasting devotion as Chileans took an anguished look back at the dictator's 17-year rule.

For victims, Pinochet’s demise dashed hopes that he would ever face justice for the torture and killings that were the hallmarks of his 1973-1990 regime.

Relatives where by his side when he died yesterday at Santiago Military Hospital, where he was being treated for a December 3 heart attack, said Dr Juan Ignacio Vergara, spokesman for the medical team attending Pinochet.

Pinochet overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende at a time when the US was working to destabilise his Marxist government and keep Chile from exporting communism in Latin America. But the world reacted in horror as Santiago’s main soccer stadium filled with political prisoners to be tortured, killed or forced into exile.

Although his dictatorship laid the groundwork for South America’s most stable economy, Pinochet will be remembered as the archetype of the era’s repressive rulers who proliferated throughout Latin America and, in many cases, were secretly supported by the US.

Celebrations broke out in several parts of the Chilean capital. At a major plaza, hundreds of cheering, flag-waving people gathered to pop champagne corks and toss confetti.

Outside the hospital where Pinochet died, Chileans who believed he saved them from communism wept and hoisted posters with the general’s image. Some chanted that Pinochet and his feared secret police were Chile’s saviours. “He will live forever in my memory – I love him as much as my own children,” said Margarita Sanchez.

Meanwhile, police clashed with demonstrators who threw rocks and erected fire barricades that sent up thick plumes of smoke and blocked traffic on the city’s main avenue. Tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse the protesters, many of them masked, who quickly regrouped.

Officials blamed the violence on a small contingent among the thousands of demonstrators who poured into the streets to denounce Pinochet’s legacy. At least two bank offices were damaged.

The clashes spread past midnight to several working class districts and police said 23 officers, including a major and a captain, were injured.

Deputy Interior Minister Felipe Harboe said there had been a number of arrests but did not give a figure.

“The government makes an appeal to peace,” Harboe said. “We do not want people to be affected today by facts of the past.”

Chile’s government says at least 3,197 people were killed for political reasons during Pinochet’s rule, but courts allowed the ageing general to escape hundreds of criminal complaints as his health declined.

“This criminal has departed without ever being sentenced for all the acts he was responsible for during his dictatorship,” lamented Hugo Gutierrez, a human rights lawyer involved in several lawsuits against Pinochet.

Lorena Pizarro, president of an association of relatives of the dictatorship’s victims, called Pinochet genocidal and said it was ironic he had died “on December 10, the international day of human rights”.

While some former US presidents quietly supported Pinochet, the current administration of George Bush has good ties with Chile’s free-market socialist president Michelle Bachelet, whose father, a Pinochet opponent, died after being tortured in prison.

“Our thoughts today are with the victims of his reign and their families,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.

Chile’s government said Pinochet will not receive the state funeral normally granted to former presidents, but only military honours at the Santiago military academy.

Recently, Bachelet said it would be “a violation of my conscience” to attend a state funeral for him.

This morning, Pinochet’s coffin was transferred to the Military Academy.

The coffin, covered with a Chilean flag and Pinochet’s military hat and sword on top if it, was placed in a large hall, but the media was kept at a distance and could hardly see it through large windows.

As he requested, Pinochet will be cremated, according to son Marco Antonio, to avoid desecration of his tomb by “people who always hated him”.

The government said it had authorised the Chilean flag to be flown at half-staff at military barracks nationwide.

Pinochet took power on September 11, 1973, demanding an unconditional surrender from Allende as warplanes bombed the presidential palace. Instead, Allende committed suicide with a submachine gun he had received as a gift from Fidel Castro.

Pinochet disbanded Congress, banned political activity and crushed dissent. Chile’s economy was already in ruins when he launched a radical free-market program that at first triggered financial collapse and dire unemployment. But it opened the way for South America’s healthiest economy, which has grown by 5% to 7% a year since 1984.

Pinochet lost an October 1988 referendum to extend his rule, then lost an election to Patricio Alywin, whose centre-left coalition has ruled Chile since 1990.

Pinochet avoided prosecution for years after his presidency. But in 1998, after travelling to London for back surgery, he was placed under house arrest when a Spanish judge issued a warrant seeking to try him for human rights violations. British authorities decided he was too ill to stand trial and sent him home in March 2000.

Back in Chile, more than 200 criminal complaints were filed against him. Although he was under house arrest at the time of his death, no case ever reached trial because of his poor health.

On his 91st birthday – less than a month before his death – his wife read a statement by him saying he took ”political responsibility for everything that was done, which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration".

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