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Author(s) of the publication: Pamela Constable

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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 who seized power as a junta, Pinochet was neither the brightest nor the most ardently anti-communist.

The army chief, however, proved both ambitious and ruthless. He maneuvered to gain power over the other junta members. He retired or sent abroad potential army rivals, two of whom were mysteriously killed. He got himself named president and outlawed most political parties and activities, ensuring his absolute control for 17 years. Even when finally forcedfrom office in 1990, Pinochet engineered a political transition that guaranteed him and his allies a substantial role in public life.

Yet his motives were not those of a corrupt strongman creating a fiefdom of perquisites and patronage, like Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza or Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner. Pinochet was convinced that his mission was to raise Chile from the ashes of socialism by using his power no matter what the cost to build a modern, efficient society free from the volatility of partisan politics.

When unsure about what path to take, the general summoned various groups of experts, listened to their points of view, and chose one. On the day in 1975 when a group of articulate economists from the University of Chicago persuaded him to choose their model over several more traditional schools of thought, Chile's controversial experiment in free-market economics was born. Today, as a result, the nation is hailed in many circles as a "miracle" of economic efficiency, diversity and modernization.

But the social costs of this model were high, and the military ruler's intransigence made it worse. As thousands were thrown out of work and factories went bankrupt, he repeatedly refused to ease the pain of adjustment. Not until the mid-80s, after several periods of economic depression, did he implement more moderate fiscal policies and create social programs for the poor. Even today, while Chile's new elite trade stocks and hit the ski slopes, one-third of its 12 million people still struggle in poverty.

A far blacker chapter in Pinochet's crusade to "cleanse" society was the role of Chile's secret police. The dictator delegated the dirty work to aides such as General Manuel Contreras, whose anti-communist zeal gave license to the most repugnant forms of torture and created an underworld of fascistic sycophants and spies. Between 1973 and 1978, thousands of Chileans from small-town mayors to labor organizers to student leaders were seized. Prisoners were whipped, electrocuted, asphyxiated, forced to eat rats and listen to their children's screams. At least 3,000 were killed or vanished while in military custody.

Chileans remain bitterly divided over Pinochet's legacy. Some, including those who lost family and friends to repression, can see him only as the monster who destroyed a beloved democracy and ushered in an era of selfish, consumer politics. Others, including those who endured bread lines and factory takeovers under Allende, can see him only as a hero who salvaged their country from the jaws of communism.

Augusto Pinochet's greatest flaws were his contempt for the give and take of civilian politics, and his temptation to cling to absolute rule. The Chile he built is more successful, but less civilized, than the one he inherited. To this day, however, he believes he did what was best for his country, and for that, the retiring general deserves a measure of respect.

Pamela Constable, a Washington Post staff writer, reported from Chile for the Boston Globe between 1983 and 1991 and is co-author of "A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet." She contributed this comment to The Washington Post.



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