Of all the dictatorships visited on the people of Latin America during the Cold War, the one led by Augusto Pinochet in Chile was easily the most hideous. On September 11, 1973, General Pinochet, who was head of the Chilean armed forces at the time, attacked the Moneda presidential palace in Santiago and overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The coup was staged with the blessings and active assistance of the Nixon administration. By threatening to nationalise the assets of multinational companies in Chile, Allende had earned the enmity of Washington even before he became President. The Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. firm, ITT, held secret consultations to try and prevent Allende from coming to power. After he assumed office, economic chaos was orchestrated and the army encouraged to take over. In the ensuing violence and repression, more than 3,000 valiant Chileans lost their lives in the dungeons of the dictatorship. Several thousands were tortured, raped, or forced into exile. Several hundred more simply disappeared. As if these crimes were not bad enough, the general stole several million dollars from his country and deposited his loot in bank accounts round the world.
After ravaging the political opposition, Pinochet soon turned his sights on the economy. Here too his regime brought disaster. He set about dismantling the public health and education systems and introduced other `reforms' that hit his people's livelihood savagely. During the period of his dictatorship, the percentage of Chileans below the poverty line grew from 20 to 40. While the economy saw bouts of growth, Chile's per capita output in 1989, the year Pinochet was replaced by a civilian president, was barely at the 1970 level. When he left office after losing a referendum, Pinochet wrote in a provision of immunity for himself and his accomplices. For years, this provision held. But when a Spanish magistrate in 1998 tried unsuccessfully to have him extradited from Britain where he was receiving medical treatment under the principle of universal jurisdiction, pressure grew within Chile for the ex-dictator to be put on trial at home. Eventually stripped of his immunity, the general was formally charged with a number of crimes, including kidnapping, torture, and murder. By succumbing finally to sickness and old age on Sunday, Pinochet managed to escape the judgment of the courts. Rather than closing the file, however, the Chilean authorities must press ahead with the demand for truth and justice. The hangman is no more but those who supplied him the rope and gallows need to be exposed and held accountable to humanity.