Students voice mixed reactions toward Pinochet

Krista Poplau

Depending on whom you talk to, former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet is either a saint for rescuing Chile’s economy or an oppressive authoritarian responsible for thousands of human-rights violations.
In the midst of such conflicting viewpoints, Pinochet returned to Chile last Friday after a 16-month legal battle in Britain, avoiding trial in Spain for human-rights abuses.
The decision not to extradite Pinochet because of health conditions stirred mixed reactions from students and faculty members at the University as well as from the community.
“I’m angry and profoundly disappointed,” said Pam Costain, executive director for the Resource Center of the Americas.
During Pinochet’s 17-year rule, more than 3,000 people “disappeared” because of their political beliefs contrary to the government.
Ana Gomez, a University history teaching assistant, said Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon’s actions in Pinochet’s case set a precedent.
“If you are a dictator and you violate human rights, you are held accountable worldwide,” Gomez said.
University students argued whether or not Pinochet, a Chilean citizen, should be tried in Spain.
“He should be tried in his home country,” said economics junior Emilio Modrego. He added the Spanish government shouldn’t have the authority to try Pinochet for crimes committed in Chile.
Karen Chagnon, a mechanical engineering sophomore, said Pinochet should be tried for human-rights violations, but the decision should be up to the Chilean people.
Costain, however, said Pinochet will not be tried in Chile because the country’s legal structure protects him. Pinochet’s senator-for-life status gives immunity from prosecution.
Chilean Judge Juan Guzman recently asked for the status’ removal.
“I am almost certain that he won’t stand trial in Chile,” Costain said.
She added skepticism has risen about Pinochet’s supposed ailing health since he appeared in good shape upon arrival in Chile.
But Costain championed the case as a testament to human-rights work and its power against violators.
“It’s a tremendous victory that it got as far as it did,” she said.
Javier Valenzuela, a Chilean citizen, said although it’s unlikely Pinochet will face a trial in Chile, there is no chance Pinochet will return to power.
“Politically, he’s dead. There’s nothing he can do,” he said.
For Jorge Saavedra, chief legal officer for Centro Legal whose family left Chile because of the Pinochet regime, the weekend’s outcome was unfortunate but surprising in another manner.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me so much as the reaction in Chile,” he said.
The Chilean military organized a reception for Pinochet against current President-elect Ricardo Lagos’ wishes, Saavedra said. He added such actions show Pinochet’s military power continues to this day.
Saavedra visited Chile last year and said Pinochet’s enduring power still affects the country today.
“Chile remains scarred by this incident,” he said about the disappearances. “People are still reluctant to talk about it.”
But Saavedra remains optimistic the Chilean government will go forward with its prosecution against Pinochet despite legal hurdles.
“I think Chile is at a decision point and has the opportunity to address human-rights violations in a way it never had the chance to,” he said.

— Staff reporter Ada Simanduyeva contributed to this report.