Now bury the myths

Writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman was forced to flee Chile when the government of Allen

There can be no doubt that his body has been proven to be mortal, but I fear that the spirit of Augusto Pinochet may live on interminably in the Chile he misruled from 1973 to 1990 and then continued to terrorise as commander-in-chief of the army for another eight years.

To truly exorcise him from our existence would have entailed his standing trial to defend himself from the accusations of murder and torture, kidnapping and grand larceny, which have been brought against him in innumerable court cases in Santiago. To cleanse his image from our land, we would have had to witness him looking into the face of each and every one of his victims - the mothers whose children he "disappeared"; the wives whose husbands he massacred; the sons who were persecuted and exiled.

In order to be rid of Pinochet's dire influence, his death should have been mourned only by his family and close friends. Instead we had the sad spectacle of one-third of the country lamenting his departure, this one-third still accomplices to his crimes, indeed still justifying his crimes and still rejoicing that Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende, Chile's constitutional president. And we have the even sadder spectacle of Chile's minister of defence attending the tyrant's funeral rites, sent there, incredibly, by President Michelle Bachelet, a woman who was herself imprisoned and tortured by the secret police who worked for the man she is now honouring, a woman whose own father, Alberto Bachelet, was murdered by Pinochet's men.

Military honours, young cadets marching by, a rifle salute - all for a man who has been branded an international terrorist, who ordered the assassination of Orlando Letelier, Allende's minister of defence, in the streets of Washington, DC. Only a country still full of fear would dare to stoop so low, and pay public homage to such a despot.

And yet, let me also confess that, in spite of all these signs of the man's continuing dominance from beyond death, I feel that something has changed quite categorically with Pinochet's demise. What convinced me were the thousands upon thousands of Chileans who spontaneously poured into the streets to celebrate the news of his extinction. I tend to be wary of attempts to turn anyone's death, no matter how despicable, into an occasion for joy, yet I realised that, in this case, it was not one man's death that was being welcomed but rather the birth of a new nation.

Dancing under the mountains of Santiago, there was one word they repeated over and over and it was the word shadow. "La sombra de Pinochet se fue," said one woman, and it was echoed by a man and then others repeating the same phrase: "His shadow is gone." We have come out from Pinochet's shadow. It was as if the demons of a thousand plagues had been washed from this land, as if we were never again to be afraid, never again hear the helicopter in the night, never again breathe air polluted by sorrow and violence.

For those who were celebrating (most of them young), it was as if something had been definitely, gloriously shattered when Augusto Pinochet's bleak and unrepentant heart ceased beating. They had spent their lives, as I had spent mine, awaiting this moment, this day when the darkness receded, this December when our country would be purged, ready to start over again. This moment when we need to grow up and stop blaming Pinochet for everything that goes wrong, everything that went wrong, this moment when he disappears from our horizon.

Has the general really died? Will he ever stop contaminating every schizophrenic mirror of our life? Will Chile ever cease to be a divided nation? Or is she right, that future mother, seven months pregnant, who jumped for joy in the centre of Santiago; was she right when she shouted to the seven winds that from now on everything would be different, that her child would be born in a Chile from which Pinochet had for ever vanished?

The battle for the soul of this country has just begun.

Ariel Dorfman was writing from Chile. His latest books are "Exorcising Terror", a memoir about Pinochet, and "Burning City", a novel written with his son Joaquin