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14 February 2000

Waiting for the general

What happens when Pinochet finally goes home? Stephen Smith in Santiago finds that the left wants hi

By Stephen Smith

The Chilean general was a short man with a dapper moustache. He said, “Can I offer you a cup of coffee? Or perhaps,” and here his face twinkled happily, “perhaps you would prefer tea?”

The people of Chile have been called the English of Latin America, and appear to regard this as a compliment. The general had told me at some length of his visit to Augusto and Senora Pinochet in Surrey (“It was a delightful house, but there was only one bathroom upstairs, which is not so good for people who are old.”). And the pneumatic sofa on which the general sat, his feet not quite brushing the shag pile, was arranged beneath a daub of the Thames, the dome of St Paul’s discernible beyond the sooty stacks of river traffic. Taking elevenses with the general for some reason brought to mind that line of T S Eliot’s about a life measured out in coffee spoons. Literally and metaphorically, a great many cups of cafe con leche have been drained in the long wait for Senator Pinochet, the general’s old crony.

My military host had achieved his exalted rank comparatively late in Pinochet’s time, he wanted me to know. (I was later assured by a western diplomat: “The general knew things. To get as far as he did? He must have been involved.”) Straddling a plump cushion, the general told me: “This may surprise you, but I would prefer for the Senator to die rather than live to see this.”

He meant the trial that in theory lies in store for the former dictator when he returns home: 50 indictments and counting. Actually, the general didn’t surprise me. I was becoming accustomed to stories involving Pinochet’s premature death. Some kind of chemically hastened end for the old man is seriously entertained at diplomatic receptions in Chile – more people who’ve been hanging around for Pinochet over the daily caffeine dose.

As it was explained to me by an impeccably unhysterical embassy type, the right wing secretly craves Pinochet’s demise. The theory goes that he would be transformed into a martyr and a myth, no longer the liability he has been since well before his detention in Britain, giving vent to hair-raising opinions considered outre even in the salons of Santiago. “Between you and me, it’s already happened to one of Pinochet’s main goons,” my source murmured. “He went into the military hospital and was never seen again.”

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This is highly dangerous for Pinochet: it’s well known that the smell of a fresh coat of eau-de-Nil from the medical officer’s stores is the first (and last?) he’ll be inhaling on Chilean soil.

The families of the disappeared have measured out Pinochet’s British sojourn in marches and rallies. This is something they’re well used to: in some cases their loved ones have been missing for the better part of 30 years.

Several hundred people, accompanied by children and pets, attended one of the biggest demonstrations in Santiago during the past month. They walked down the middle of a busy avenue leading to the city centre, bringing vehicles to a staggered, tyre-smoking halt. For a moment, the mood was jittery. The families wanted to remain on the highway; the police wanted to see them off down a side street; the drivers of the capital’s ubiquitous yellow buses wanted to keep to their timetables. You half expected a volley of tear gas, a cataract of water cannon – at the very least, a bus clipping one of the marchers’ unruly dogs. But the police gave a little ground.

For their part, the protesters turned off the thoroughfare, but a block or so nearer the downtown area than the authorities would have liked. The buses got through. The families formed up around the steps of a bank, to hear one of their leaders remind them that the next rally would be the following Monday lunchtime. For all the heat of their cause, their activities have necessarily settled into a routine, as if they are so many coffee-mornings.

In another part of town, they’ve been keeping a welcome for the old dictator at the Pinochet Foundation. His supporters have his sustaining image in front of them while they work. At the threshold of the foundation – an unremarkable suburban villa – the eye is drawn to a display of well-meaning indigenous art. And there’s a sentimental landscape on a wall, a gift to Pinochet from one of his generals. Otherwise, the gewgaws and curios on view have but a single subject. A portrait shows Pinochet relaxing in outsize fatigues, wearing a beret, rap singer-style. A rack of videos includes the titles, Un Hombre, Una Historia and La Vida de un Patriota.

During my visit, a middle-aged woman with ginger hair was taking calls from media organisations. Over her shoulder, a torpid fishpond occupied a small, lightless garden. The woman noticed that I was frowning at a bronze of a mature gentleman: he looked familiar, but his features surely weren’t those on display in every other corner of the foundation. “I know what you’re thinking,” said the woman with unexpected gaiety. “It looks more like Franco than the Senator.”

Augusto Pinochet’s return to Santiago has been keenly anticipated by the old man’s admirers. But the impression given by many of their fellow countrymen is that this whole affair belongs to the past. The new year began well in Chile, with a popular – and rather pinkish – president coming to power without demur from the military, and resurgent economic confidence.

An air of well-being was reflected in the generous tips men were leaving at certain dimly lit coffee bars, which are Chile’s unique contribution to cafe society. Chileans are surprisingly prudish in matters of the flesh – they’re more English than the English in this respect – and the furthest they’re prepared to go in the way of adult entertainment is a kind of X-rated Lyon’s Corner House, with waitresses in their underwear, as though a souffle had exploded in the kitchens.

The cafes are only a couple of blocks from the Moneda Palace, which was strafed by jets in 1973 when President Allende was toppled by Pinochet.

In front of the palace, they change the guard a couple of times a week. The marching style is somewhere between a goose step and a ballroom dance: the modern army was created by German professionals, on German lines. A military band performs – not the stirring martial airs you might expect, but a repertoire of romantic dance music.

The band is watched by a desultory crowd of tourists and, here and there, elderly gentlemen in correct moustaches, men like the general whose hospitality I enjoyed. The general had impressed on me that the armed forces welcomed the new government, that they would stand by while the legal process took its course. Then he and I had shaken hands. The picture of the Thames above the general’s head turned out to be nothing of the sort: in the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas was the caption “Dresden”.

“Of course, you must understand that if the government does something wrong, I will go underground,” the general had said. “I will plant a bomb!” And he had laughed happily at this joke.

Stephen Smith is a reporter for Channel 4 News. His book on “Colombia, Cocaine Train”, is published by Little, Brown, £17.99