The gray-haired general sat on a golden throne, overlooking an audience of smartly turned-out officers and fashionable women. His face was craggy and stern. His uniform was sharp and Prussian. Rising to speak, he praised his troops for liberating Chile from "Soviet tyranny" in 1973. He vowed, "with God's help" to keep going until the "destructive presence of Marxism" had been eliminated from the land.
Watching this ceremony from the press gallery, I shuddered. It was 1988 in Santiago, and General Augusto Pino-chet was demonstrating his determination to remain in power. At that moment, he seemed the epitome of a tyrant: ruthless, messianic and indifferent to the agony and humiliation he had inflicted on tens of thousands of people.
Today, I would still use mostly harsh words to describe the general, who retired last week after 25 years as commander-in-chief of Chile's army and at age 82 began a new career as an unelected senator for life. But after closer and more dispassionate study, I have added a few caveats.
Pinochet cannot be forgiven for the hideous cruelties of his secret police, whose agents kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of Chilean leftists. He is also to blame for the rigid application of free-market economic policies that devastated thousands of families and widened the gap between affluent and poor.
But the general, I came to realize, was not just a stubborn martinet. He was a soldier who believed in duty and discipline, honor and country. He was insecure and vengeful, but he was neither corrupt nor a coward. He believed he had been placed by Providence in a position of enormous responsibility.
Back in 1973, when Chile was swept up in a frenzy of revolutionary hype and reactionary hysteria, no one could have predicted that Pinochet would emerge as its dictator. He seemed so unthreatening that President Salvador Allende, a socialist, named him army commander three weeks before he died in a military coup. Among the four armed forces chiefs wh ... Read more