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James Murphy © 1999

 

 
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[Latin America expert Hugh O'Shaughnessy's new book, Pinochet: The Politics of Torture is being published by the Latin American Bureau in London and by New York University Press in the United States around now. James Murphy, the director of Model Reasoning, talked to the author exclusively for The Voice of the Turtle].


VotT: Your book deals in essence with the theme of evil. Pinochet for most of his life -- painstakingly researched in your book -- appears to have been an undistinguished, un-opinionated figure with modest talents and ambitions. He was not one of the prime movers of the coup against Allende. And yet, he presided over the most appalling state-run brutality without, apparently, the slightest moral twinge. How should we explain and understand just how the man became so monstrous?

HO'S: I feel that the germ of evil is in us all. It would be rash of anyone to say, "I would in no circumstances do any of the evil things that Pinochet did". I don't feel that he was particularly inclined to do evil because he was a soldier, much less do I feel that he was so inclined because he was a Chilean soldier.

Pinochet, however, let the seed of evil grow when most of us would have done our best to repress it. For me the riddle of Pinochet is not that he carried out evil deeds. It is rather that he settled down to a life dedicated to evil almost from one day to the other. He was the last major military figure to join the plot against the government, yet within days he was betraying and giving orders for the murder and torture of people who had hitherto been close to him. The rapidity of his conversion is to my mind what deserves further study.

One of the reasons for the quick change was clearly the encouragement he received at home and abroad. I do not recall much in the way of criticism of his coup from the major Western powers. The US of course had for long been encouraging and planning for a coup such as his. Among the European administrations it was only the conduct of the Italians and the Swedes which stood out for their hostility towards his putsch.

To this day he has expressed no remorse for what he did. He will have been encouraged in this attitude by the actions of the Holy See since his arrest. I recount in my book the circumstances surrounding the excommunication of those responsible for torture by the Chilean bishops. Their declarations -- if words mean anything at all -- signify that Pinochet is no longer a member of the Catholic church. Nevertheless Cardinal Sodano as Secretary of State has chosen to ignore the views of the local bishops and gone out his way to seek his release. This is hard to understand. It must be viewed in the context of the continuing interference by members of the Roman curia with the pastoral responsibilities of the local bishops which has become an increasing cause of perplexity and in some cases anger in the world's diocese as the Vatican administrators attempt to arrogate to themselves powers which clearly do not belong to them

VotT: You knew Allende personally and indeed were physically close to the Moneda Palace when it was bombed in September 1973. What do you recall now about public reactions to the coup? All dictatorships rely on some measure of public support. Just how much was there for the military junta on the streets on Santiago?

HO'S: During the month of August 1973 among the politically aware in Chile there was the feeling that the tension between the government and its enemies was near breaking point. On the day of the coup I witnessed scenes of rejoicing among those who were opposed to Allende, such as rich Chileans and Western diplomats.

Among the ordinary Chileans -- that is to say the majority -- there was sense of foreboding. Though Chile had been freer than most of its neighbours of military rule, Chileans as Latin Americans were familiar with the atrocities an army coup could wreak. They had seen what the generals with explicit or tacit support of the Western powers had done in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay and they had no reason to think that a putsch in their own country would be any less brutal.

What was notable was the common impression among middle-of-the-road politicians of all parties that the military would be in power for a comparatively short time and that a parliamentary regime would be soon restored, albeit perhaps with curbs on extremists of right and left. History, of course, was to show how fallacious that impression was.

VotT: To what extent do you think that Pinochet was the creation -- inadvertently or otherwise -- of US foreign policy in the early 1970s and beyond?

HO'S: To give a strict answer to your question I would say that I believed Henry Kissinger when he declared on BBC Radio in 1999 that he had never heard of Pinochet before the day of the coup. If Allende himself trusted Pinochet right to the very morning of the putsch there is no reason to think that the US government had any better intelligence about him.

Tackling the question more broadly I would say that the circumstances which allowed Pinochet to seize power and hold it can be traced back to many decisions taken much earlier in Washington. It was, for instance, during the presidency of Harry Truman that the United States decided to try and mould the opinion of the leaders of Latin American armies in ways which would benefit US national interests. This strategy gave rise in Chile to the fight for the loyalty of the Chilean armed forces between those who wanted these forces to be at the service of a democratic state who contracted them and paid them and those who wanted them to adopt the world outlook of a foreign power. Hence the key role played by senior Chilean officers who were "constitutionalists", i.e. content to serve the government that their fellow citizens had elected. Hence, too, the long struggle waged by the US authorities to do away with constitutionalists, if necessary by recourse to violence. The cases of General René Schneider and General Carlos Prats, which I sketch out in my book, illustrate that struggle.

In the years after the Pinochet's coup he at no time seriously had to fear that Washington would opt for a return to parliamentary government in Chile and try to overthrow him. That must have been a comfort to him.

VotT: Many argued that the arrest and detention of Pinochet in the UK would damage constitutional politics in Chile. As the months have elapsed since this affair started, what is you current view about this argument?

HO'S: The physical removal from the Chilean political scene of a man who had run a reign of terror during the time he was president and who on several occasions after his departure from the presidency in 1990 had threatened violence against the elected government clearly alleviated the sense of terror he cultivated from until 1998. For instance, only after his imprisonment in Britain were Chilean lawyers brave enough to bring charges against him for his crimes.

At the same time his arrest allowed the Chilean right to preach the sort of warped nationalism calculated to portray Pinochet as a sort of hero-victim. That the pro-Pinochet presidential candidate ran the left-of-centre candidate so close in the election of December 1999 seems to indicate that this preaching did sway many voters.

VotT: Some of the stories of torture in Pinochet's Chile which you re-visit in your book make for a very difficult read.. What is your own philosophy about writing about such things?

HO'S: The depiction of horror appears to be increasingly accepted by Western society. Many cinemas and video shops would be in a bad way if they were obliged to desist from the trade in images of imaginary horror. In such circumstances I feel no compunction in reporting on real horror in the interest of presenting as faithful a historical record as I can. You cannot understand Pinochet if you do not learn about what he really did.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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