O'Shaughnessy: "Pinochet: The Politics of Torture"

"Pinochet: The Politics of Torture;"
By Hugh O'Shaughnessy;
New York University Press; 182 pp.


“I've got a sour face, perhaps that's why they say I'm a dictator.” - Augusto Pinochet, August 1986

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  4/28/2000

For all the torture - and such horrifying details as the victims of his unrepentant regime tossed out of airplanes alive or zapped by electrodes fixed to their genitals or their breasts - Augusto Pinochet differs in one crucial way from Latin America's historical brigade of depraved dictators: He gave up power peacefully.

Unlike, say, Fidel Castro, who battled his way to power 14 years before Pinochet and continues his rule a decade after, Chile's former "supreme leader" left the presidency when his people voted him out of office, even if he retained control of the military.

That's a key point missing from Hugh O'Shaughnessy's "Pinochet: The Politics of Torture," which chronicles the rise and fall of the Chilean general from the eyewitness view of a journalist. In 1973, the author watched as Pinochet lead a violent coup against the world's first elected Marxist head of state, Salvador Allende, and later was on the scene when the aging dictator made a fateful trip to London in 1998, where British police arrested him on charges of crimes against humanity.

The book - more a woven-together collection of the reporter's articles over the years - often inculpates with scant evidence, uncovers little new about Pinochet's brutal 17-year rule, and (as often is true in the tradition of British journalism) paints a rather one-sided view.

In fact, it seems little new reporting went into this aptly timed book, released just as Pinochet escaped extradition to Spain. Last month, Britain's home secretary ruled that the ailing 84-year-old wasn't fit to stand trial, and the former dictator promptly returned to Chile. The main novelty of this swift tour of the dictator's life - the book runs 182 pages - is an editorial O'Shaugnessy wrote for The Guardian the day before police indefinitely extended Pinochet's visit to London. Under the headline "A Murderer Among Us," the author called on British officials to seize their opportunity for "a marvelous coup, which will . . . strike fear into terrorists worldwide."

The narrative follows Pinochet from his modest childhood as the son of uneducated parents to his days living in poverty as a soldier to his rapid rise through the army's ranks until he haphazardly became one of Allende's most trusted military advisers, the army's commander in chief.

In describing Pinochet's betrayal of Allende, the author is at his best, succinctly detailing the rivalry between the air force and the army, the role of the truckers and the Nixon administration in fomenting discord, and the coup plotters' fears that they might not survive their treason.

But it's also at this point that O'Shaughnessy leaves many important questions unanswered. Why did Pinochet wait until two days before air force jets bombed the presidential palace to sign on with the coup plotters? Was he vacillating or playing his cards close to his vest? Was he ideologically opposed to Allende from the beginning, or was he just an opportunist waiting for a chance to seize power?

Although much of the territory has been covered before and the cases of torture and assassinations abroad have been well publicized over the two years since Pinochet's arrest, the author cogently summarizes the dictator's apparent plan to eliminate all vestiges of credible opposition. And by noting his close links to those below him and his intimate knowledge of their efforts - "Not a leaf moves in Chile if I don't move it, let that be clear," Pinochet infamously acknowledged in 1981 - O'Shaughnessy rightfully leaves little doubt about the general's culpability in the regime's flagrant crimes against humanity.

But there are pitfalls in his case, too. The author never fleshes out the reversal in US policy - how Washington helped grease the way toward Pinochet's power grab and how it eventually helped pressure him out of power - and introduces flimsy secondhand anecdotes about the US embassy's direct role in the coup. While exposing how Chile's arms industry fed the violence of the Iran-Iraq war, among other conflicts, O'Shaughnessy weakens his arguments by lending credence to widely discredited reports of Pinochet's having a hand in the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.

And the author spends far too little time looking into why so many Chileans have continued to support the dictator through the years. He gives short shrift to Pinochet's considerable successes in bolstering Chile's economic situation.

None of this should lend the impression that the end justifies the means. Even a cursory reading of this book should dispel any notion that Pinochet was an honorable leader working solely for the betterment of Chile. In fact, O'Shaughnessy casts a spotlight on how the man from modest means amassed bank accounts with millions of dollars and how he spread the wealth to his family - crimes that continue to be investigated in Chile today. The noteworthy point of this book is that it underscores the historical importance of a dictator being held accountable for crimes against humanity, regardless of the jurisdiction.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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