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December 13, 2006

Pinochet's Death Reminds Us Of Today's Terrors

The death of Augusto Pinochet provided us with a neat dichotomy. On one side, Lady Thatcher, with appalling consistency, was said by her office to be “greatly saddened”. On the other, global campaigners marked International Human Rights Day. The difference between those who support universal human rights and those who conveniently pick and choose is one of the most important and enduring political divides today.

On the weekend of Pinochet’s heart attack, another great polarising Latin American figure, Fidel Castro, remained too ill to join his postponed birthday party. He has his own friends in British politics. Ken Livingstone, visiting Cuba recently, lavished praise once more on its government. George Galloway, no doubt aware he hasn’t got much longer to fawn over his Middle Eastern dictator of choice, has just published a hagiography of Castro, declaring him the “most popular politician in the world.” If so, one rather wonders why he has never bothered to put himself forward for free election in his own country. For democracy is what it comes down to in all cases.

Right-wingers were attracted to Chile politically as a bulwark against communism, and economically as a laboratory for the neo-liberal policies developed by the ‘Chicago Boys’. Indeed, Pinochet’s end came just weeks after the death of the free-marketeer, Milton Friedman, who spoke of the economic “miracle of Chile.” Leftists back Cuba politically as a plucky upstart resisting US hegemony, and socially for its high-quality health and education services.

In reality even forgetting the 3,000 dead the Chilean ‘miracle’ was only a miracle for the rich. The majority suffered as unemployment swelled to 40 per cent. Cuba continues to have a better story to tell. Life expectancy is 77 years compared to 69 for the rest of the region, 2.5 per cent of the population are undernourished compared to 10 per cent regionally and the literacy rate is one of the highest. Indeed, I spent a holiday in Havana reciting this and more to my weary family. These being my more romantic political days I was somewhat taken with the revolution’s iconography. Even reaching the dizzy heights of Fidel’s speech-making podium.

But all of this is negated when democracy is absent. The problem remains that prominent British politicians have been willing to put narrow ideological concerns before democracy and human rights in Chile and Cuba. Democracy and human rights should be the first and foremost test of a government, not mere after-thoughts. Allende’s government had been democratically elected, though Thatcher told Pinochet he brought “democracy to Chile”. Nope me neither.

Henry Kissinger, Pinochet’s second most famous western supporter, is yet to comment on his death. As National Security Adviser at the time of the CIA-backed coup he infamously declared that “I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” One would have hoped that by now the US could have left behind the double standards epitomised by Kissinger’s realpolitik.

Sadly the terrorist attacks on the US, the same date as Pinochet’s 1973 coup, ushered in a new generation of human rights abuses under the guise of the “war on terror”. From Guantánamo Bay to “extraordinary rendition”, sufficient evidence has now emerged of the US engaging in the kind of systematic torture they helped bring to Chile by propping up the regime. New research by academics and human rights groups details abuses including sleep deprivation, mock executions and sexual abuse. And remember this leaves out unrecorded cases. The findings of the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project implicate more than 600 US military and civilian personnel in abuse of over 460 detainees. Only half of these allegations have been adequately investigated. It now seems that Abu Ghraib was closer to the rule than the exception; the exception was that we all found out.

The biggest irony of Pinochet’s wretched life was that it made a central contribution to human rights law. His 1998 arrest in London led to the legal precedent that former heads of state are stripped of their immunity when faced with serious breaches of international law. Such legal progress was buffeted by the creation of the international criminal court, able to step in when domestic states were either unable or unwilling to do so. That the US refuses to sign, let alone ratify, the ICC treaty is a disgrace. Though as the findings above show they have good reason to fear the court.

One by one the old human relics of the Cold War are leaving us, biology is seeing to that. By contrast, too many of the moral double standards of that age remain stubbornly entrenched. Pinochet may have escaped justice but his last days were lived out amidst a backdrop of global revulsion. Today we must similarly hound out the perpetrators of and the apologists for any abuses.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 23/01/07

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