20 years ago today, in London…

extradite pinochet

Protesters in London after Pinochet was placed under house arrest.

It was a trip he had been looking forward to, surgery and shopping in London. Britain, he told the journalist Jon Lee Anderson, was his favorite country.  He had just retired as Chile’s army commander, a post he kept after being forced to turn the presidency over to an elected civilian eight years earlier. He and his retinue visited Fortnum and Mason, had a drink with Margaret Thatcher before checking into a private clinic for hernia surgery.

And then he was arrested, held for 15 months while his lawyers and British authorities haggled over a Spanish judge’s extradition request. His supporters argued he was too frail and sickly to stand trial. But when his plane touched down in Santiago General Augusto Pinochet stood up from his wheelchair and walked briskly to his well-wishers, making little use of the cane he was carrying.

Pinochet survived another six years, eluding prosecution for human rights abuses, arms trafficking and corruption, hiding behind vague claims of illness and memory loss.  But his legacy still lives on in some sectors of Chilean society. Earlier this month a ceremony honoring one of his dictatorship’s most egregious human rights abusers,, Miguel Krassnoff, was held at the Chilean army academy, the Escuela Militar. Two army officials behind the tribute were demoted, but not fired.

On Pinochet and the Iron Lady

A Reuters photo of Thatcher and Pinochet at a reception in Santiago in March, 1994.

A Reuters photo of Thatcher and Pinochet at a reception in Santiago in March, 1994.

The Fundación Presidente Pinochet has taken out full page advertisements in El Mercurio, Chile’s largest newspaper, expressing its condolences over the death of Margaret Thatcher, saying the former British Prime Minister “had defended Chile’s jurisdictional sovereignty during very difficult moments in our recent history.” This refers to Thatcher’s public defense of Pinochet during his detention in London from October 1998 to March of 2000, when she called him Britain’s “friend and ally” and claimed he had “brought democracy to Chile.”

Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker interviewed Pinochet in London shortly before his arrest and has a blog post about the Chilean dictator and the Iron Lady, noting that Britain lifted its arms embargo against Chile the year after she took office and that the Chilean military helped Britain with intelligence on Argentina during the Falklands War

“Thereafter, the relationship became downright cozy, so much so that the Pinochets and his family began making an annual private pilgrimage to London. During those visits, they and the Thatchers got together for meals and drams of whiskey. In 1998, when I was writing a Profile of Pinochet for The New Yorker, Pinochet’s daughter Lucia described Mrs. Thatcher in reverential terms, but confided that the Prime Minister’s husband, Dennis Thatcher, was something of an embarrassment, and habitually got drunk at their get-togethers.” http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/04/neruda-pinochet-thatcher-chile-murder-exhumed.html

La Segunda has a story on Thatcher’s visit to Chile in 1994, including an incident in which she fainted while giving a speech to local business leaders.  The article reports that Thatcher had just praised Chile for defeating socialism and instituting free market economic policies when her speech slowed and she fell forward against the podium. http://www.lasegunda.com/Noticias/Internacional/2013/04/836777/su-fuerte-vinculo-con-chile-desmayo-en-santiago-y-su-defensa-a-pinochet