For Pinochet, a legacy of dishonor; Name of Chile's ex-dictator signals warning to tyrants


Of all the battles of his interminable life, there is one that Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former dictator under house arrest in London since last October, can no longer hope to win. I am not referring to the battle to avoid extradition to Spain on charges of torture and genocide. Whatever the outcome of the hearings, the general has already lost the war for something more essential and permanent: the struggle for the way in which he will be remembered beyond his death, how the hard syllables that form his name -- Pi-no-chet -- will endure and become solidified in tomorrow's vocabulary. The general has lost the battle for control of the language of the future.

During most of my adult life, I have been obsessed with how the word Pinochet would be interpreted and transmitted to that future. For me, of course, all through the 17 long years of his dictatorship and my banishment, he personified the tyrant, the general who betrayed his oath and led the coup d'etat against the democratic president of Chile in 1973 and ordered the murder and disappearance of thousands of my countrymen.

I was so haunted by the desire to predict history's judgment that in one of my novels I conjectured that 30,000 years from now, in the mythical country of Tsil (as I suggested Chile might be known someday), children would insult their rivals by calling them "Pinchot," the name of a particularly treacherous dragon in a cautionary fairy tale that parents in the faraway future would presumably tell their offspring.

And yet, even while I was merrily prognosticating Pinochet as an expletive for generations to come, I was aware that in the duel for a place in the common tongue of our time, he was, in fact, carrying and conveying an import that was rather less to my liking. Pinochet was not only being associated with sudden military takeovers (such as in the usage "Pinochetazo"), but with the iron fist supposedly needed to force an underdeveloped country into accepting an economic model that would drag it, kicking and quite literally screaming, into modernity and progress. How often would I not hear in my travels of exile the admiring and admonitory phrase: "What this country needs is a Pinochet!" Meaning: This sad land needs a real macho man who will put potential troublemakers in their place. Yes, I thought, and terrorize them so they will not offer resistance to the shock therapy decreed by the global system as a precondition for foreign investment.

Arrest in England

So both the man and that word, Pinochet, in spite of a worldwide campaign by the human rights community, managed to escape a connotation that was unequivocally negative. Overlapping and often superseding the image of the bloodthirsty and callous dictator was Pinochet as benevolent father figure to all those infantile inhabitants of a land who do not know what's good for them and require discipline. A modernizer, even a liberator, one who is not afraid to spill some blood in order, as Henry Kissinger once infamously remarked, to save a nation from its own irresponsibility. A warning signal -- what is what, up until the moment when he was arrested in England, Pinochet had come to symbolize to millions around the globe. Warning rebels not to dream of subversions and alternative versions of humanity, warning the poor about the dire consequences of being too unruly or libertarian or lazy or demanding.

The events of the past year, however, have drastically reconfigured the semantics of Pinochet. His confinement, trial and public abasement have led to an extraordinary transformation of that word warning, resignifying it. It is now the petty and grand tyrants of the world who, instead of their subjects, are filled with fear at the thought of Pinochet.

I would have to be more of an optimist than the history of this century warrants to convince myself that Pinochet's example will instantaneously stay the hand of those who, empowered by their governments to feel invulnerable, commit crimes against humanity.

But I also believe that the image of Pinochet stripped of his immunity and arrested by Scotland Yard has infiltrated some part of their brains, creeping into their eyes and sinews to remind them of the ominous destiny that could await them.

If human rights abuses will not cease because of the general's exemplary punishment, a subtle shift has nevertheless been verified in the way in which the world imagines power and equality and memory. I think of the many men and women who fought for freedom and who have been maimed or hurt beyond repair and murmured to themselves in the solitude of their pain or moments before their death that perhaps, one day, there will be a measure of justice, that perhaps they are not condemned to be perpetual victims, perpetually forgotten. And now it turns out that their slight flicker of hope was right! And I think of those who inflicted that sorrow and ruin and walked away smoking a cigarette or popping some candy into their mouths and in any case shrugging their shoulders, sure that, like Pinochet, they would never be held accountable. And now it turns out that they might have been wrong!

Change of great magnitude

An alteration, however slight, has therefore occurred in our collective imagination, along with a more visible change, of potentially enormous magnitude, in international jurisprudence. Even if Pinochet is freed tomorrow or the next day. Even if he is returned to Chile because he is too old or infirm to stand trial or because it is convenient to those who govern us to pretend that this is so. Even if he has not repented for his crimes. Here is what the general can no longer change or control: His name no longer belongs to him.

For decades, I was ashamed that Chile had unfortunately given humanity the word as well as the person Pinochet. Who would have thought that the word, at least, would end up being one of our gifts to the planet, fervently notifying every child who is born on this Earth that they must never, under no circumstance whatsoever, not ever, be a Pinochet?

Ariel Dorfman is the author of the play "Death and the Maiden" and the memoir "Heading South, Looking North." He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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