CHILE: Pinochet, Miracle or Ruse?

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 5 2006 (IPS) - Just two days after an accumulation of liquid in his lungs, a major heart attack and emergency angioplasty, 91-year-old former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), who is also a diabetic, is already able to get out of bed..

His eldest daughter, Lucía, says his recovery was “almost miraculous.” But human rights lawyers have speculated about the possibility that the whole thing was a ruse to keep him out of the courts.

On Monday, Pinochet’s defence attorneys sought and obtained his release from house arrest in one of the cases he is facing. Bail was set at just 1,900 dollars.

Meanwhile, Dr. Juan Ignacio Vergara at the Military Hospital said Tuesday that the former de facto leader’s “favourable evolution” was due to the “adequate and timely treatment” he received.

Vergara reported that the former army chief was conscious, breathing on his own, talking and eating. He is also strong enough to get out of bed and engage in kinesiotherapy exercises, although he is to remain hospitalised for at least 10 more days.

The retired general was brought to the Military Hospital in Santiago in an ambulance at 2:00 AM Sunday, accompanied by his wife Lucía Hiriart and his son Augusto. A massive heart attack was diagnosed, and he immediately underwent angioplasty, a procedure for clearing blocked arteries.

His condition was reported as critical, and he was given his last rites.

Besides his wife, five children, grandchildren and friends, his visitors included army chief Oscar Izurieta, retired military officers, and archbishop of Santiago Francisco Javier Errázuriz.

Some 500 of his supporters – who describe themselves as “Pinochetistas” – gathered outside the Military Hospital Sunday crying, singing and waving signs with the image of Pinochet. Some of them loudly thanked the former dictator for “saving” them from communism.

On Monday, the tension rose after one of the Pinochetistas was arrested by the police for hitting a man on a bicycle who had shouted slogans against Pinochet as he rode by.

The same woman had earlier thrown coins and water at former army chief Juan Emilio Cheyre (2002-2006), and shouted that he was a “traitor.” Under Cheyre, the army assumed responsibility for the human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.

A 1991 report released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented 3,000 murders and forced disappearances during the Pinochet regime.

Another supporter of Pinochet, 40-year-old Mauricio, told IPS that the figure of the retired general “is immortal” and that he will go down in history as “the second father of the homeland, after Bernardo O’Higgins (Chile’s first president).”

A few blocks away, a group of young socialists sang the song “Adiós General” and chanted anti-Pinochet slogans.

But it was the two parties that make up the right-wing opposition alliance, which includes many of Pinochet’s former ministers and associates, that drew the harshest criticism from the former dictator’s family and followers.

Only a handful of legislators from the ultraconservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) have shown up at the Military Hospital.

Pinochet’s daughter Lucía told the public TV station Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN) Monday night that “a while back (the rightwing parties) distanced themselves from Pinochet as a political strategy” with the belief “that it would bring them more benefits than disadvantages” – something that she said has not occurred.

Asked by journalists whether the government would grant honours to Pinochet at his funeral, President Michelle Bachelet’s spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber said Monday that the government is prepared for any eventuality, but added that “it is in bad taste to talk about a funeral when the person is still alive.”

He did not specify whether a day of national mourning would be declared, although Bachelet has indicated on several occasions that many Chileans would be “outraged” if Pinochet was given full state honours. The president is not legally bound to do so.

In August, General Izurieta said the army would grant “full honours” to Pinochet as a former army chief if he had not been found guilty at the time of his death, and thus still enjoyed the “presumption of innocence,” in any of the numerous legal cases he is facing.

The vice-president of the Group of Families of the Detained-Disappeared, Mireya García, said she and her fellow activists were not happy about the ex-dictator’s failing health because it will keep him from answering in court for the crimes committed during his regime.

The former dictator is facing prosecution in a number of cases of human rights violations, as well as for tax evasion in what is known as the “Riggs case” for the name of the Washington bank where secret accounts were found in his name and those of his family members. These accounts and others found in different banks hold an estimated 17 million dollars.

He is also being investigated for allegedly holding 9,000 kg of gold in the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (HSBC), worth 160 million dollars.

Human rights lawyer Harim Villagra doubts the seriousness of Pinochet’s condition.

“Each time an important legal decision is handed down, he suffers a health crisis,” said the lawyer.

Villagra pointed out that on Monday, Pinochet’s attorneys made a request for bail in the case involving the “caravan of death”, a special military mission that executed political prisoners shortly after the Sept. 11, 1973 coup that overthrew the elected government of Socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

On Nov. 27, Judge Juan Montiglio had him put under house arrest for the kidnapping and execution of two opponents of the military regime.

Pinochet enjoys immunity from prosecution as a former president, but the courts can strip him of this privilege, on a case-by-case basis.

“I have consulted several cardiologists, and they told me that a diabetic who suffers a myocardial infarction and acute pulmonary edema at the age of 91 would be dead,” said lawyer Hugo Gutiérrez.

“This is another of the big lies that the defence counsel, along with Pinochet, dare to mount to avoid legal persecution, and we aren’t going to tolerate that,” he added.

Marco Antonio, another of the ex-dictator’s sons, invited anyone to check his father’s health and to order all of the medical exams they want.

The retired general turned 91 on Nov. 25. That day he waved from his doorway to people who gathered outside his residence in the posh Dehesa neighbourhood on the east side of the capital.

In a letter read out by his wife, Pinochet said “Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbour no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration,” he said.

“I assume full political responsibility for what happened” during the regime’s 17 years in power, he said.

Professor Luciano Tomasini at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences told IPS that “the figure of Pinochet has been fading faster and faster in the past few years, first because of the human rights trials and afterwards because of the investigation into his fortune.”

In his view, the former dictator’s eventual death will mainly impact the rightwing opposition parties, which will feel freer to apologise for the human rights abuses committed by the military regime in which they participated.

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