Last week, a small crowd of noisy, mature women stood in front of a house in La Dehesa, a wealthy suburb of Santiago, Chile. They were singing and chanting, waving Chilean flags and holding posters of former president Gen. Augusto Pinochet smiling an avuncular smile. Inside the house, history was in the making. For the first time in his life, Pinochet was being interrogated by a judge about the fate of 72 political prisoners who were killed by a special army commando unit in 1973 after the coup that brought him to power. Pinochet told Judge Juan Guzman he never had anyone murdered, that he wasn't "a criminal." When Guzman left, he was jeered by the crowd. To them, Pinochet, 85, is "Tata," grandpa. Tata or not, Pinochet is to be tried for murder, the judge said this week.
For 27 years, the strongman has haunted Chile. Some of his people, however, were charmed. Pinochet's government, from 1973 to 1990, was an efficient machine that exiled, tortured and killed his opponents-2,920 of them, according to the Rettig Commission, set up in 1991 by the democratic government of Patricio Aylwin.
At the same time, the Pinochet machine established a capitalist framework that shaped the most successful economy in Latin America, with annual GDP growth of about 4.5 percent and megamalls just like in the United States. Although extreme poverty was the country's No. 1 social issue - and still is - Chileans climbed the economic ladder during Pinochet's time in power - many of them becoming immensely and obscenely wealthy in the process.
Pinochet was defeated in a referendum in 1989. But he won more than 40 percent of the votes and he continued to hold the support of the country's business community. He remained commander in chief of the army and later became a senator-for-life. It was only when he left for London in 1998 for medical treatment that Pinochet's problems began. He was arrested under an order issued by a Spanish judge for human-right violations. The last days of Pinochet were under way.
CUBA WE WERE NOT
I grew up under Pinochet. I knew I lived in a dictatorship. I knew that Pinochet ruled with un puno de hierro, an iron fist. I knew that his secret police killed people. For years, my aunt lived in hiding, and my parents' best friends lived in exile (this before e-mail, so some of the their letters received brisk proofreading from the government).
But Pinochet's Chile, for me, was not, say, Cambodia; it wasn't a society ravaged by war. I knew people who actually liked Pinochet. They were my relatives, my classmates and my not-so-close friends. For them, Pinochet was a great man, a liberator. Someone who saved us from being like what Cuba is today. An honest man who returned the country to normalcy after the food shortages and unrest of Salvador Allende's socialist government.
My parents remember something called Chancho Chino, a cheap, canned pork meat from China that was one of the few ubiquitous food items during the Allende years. (Recently, I ate Paraguayan Chancho Chino - it wasn't so bad, but the thought of eating it everyday is horrifying.) By the time I was 5 or 6, Chancho Chino was no more; Chileans were eating anything and everything and living "normal" lives.
But in this middle-class, suburban tranquillity, disconcerting things were happening all around us. My grandmother once called my father because mustachioed, sunglassed men were walking up and down her street; she was alone and it frightened her. Later, my father ended up under the bed with her while bursts of gunfire went off. Pinochet's secret police were searching for members of an armed opposition group a few doors down. One morning, at the Catholic school I attended, we were made to pray for the soul of an army colonel who had just been shot by a leftist group, just blocks away. One of our classmates was shocked: the victim was one of his parents' best friends.
I didn't like Pinochet but assumed he would be in power forever. There was a joke in Chile about a guy who travels to the 25th century only to find Pinochet VIII. I knew there was a better way to live as a country, but wasn't sure if we could someday achieve it.
By the mid-'80s, Chile's economy began to take off. Pinochet was moving toward a complete liberalization of the economy. He privatized industries, lowered taxes and promoted exports. Margaret Thatcher approved from afar. If human-rights violations didn't strike you as immoral, there was really little to complain about.
Were the Chileans who were pro-Pinochet unaware of the human-rights violations committed by the armed forces or the secret police? Some probably were. Others believed everything was a campaign of lies orchestrated by international communism. Some people thought that yes, there had been victims, but there was a war that - thank God, they said - Pinochet and the army won.
On Jan. 5, the Chilean armed forces acknowledged for the first time that its members had committed crimes against the people. The report was issued after negotiations between the armed forces and human-rights organizations. In it, the military disclosed information about the fate of 180 political prisoners who had disappeared during the early '70s. More than 100 of them, the report said, were dropped into the Pacific Ocean.
"I never ordered the execution of anybody," Pinochet told Judge Guzman last week. It is hard to believe what Pinochet says, even to his friends. They remember his words from the 1980s, at the peak of his power, that not a single leaf moved in Chile without him knowing about it. Back then he was blunt, sharp and sarcastic. Today, he is weak, possibly, as his lawyers say, suffering from dementia.
His political support has almost vanished. He has the lukewarm support of the right, which sees him a symbol of the glorious past, but voters are finally tuning him out. During the last presidential elections in December 1999, the only candidate who claimed to represent Pinochet's legacy (the general was being held in London at the time) got less than 1 percent of the vote. Pinochet still controls the military, but probably not all of them; most of his sidekicks are retired or dead.
The ultimate irony is that the current government of Ricardo Lagos is a socialist one. Its goals are humble: to fight poverty, to keep the economic growing - and to finally find out what became of the people who disappeared during Pinochet's dictatorship.
EXIT, STAGE RIGHT
In 1975, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote "The Autumn of the Patriarch," about an old Latin American dictator who lived his last days all alone, demented, in a decrepit palace surrounded by bird manure. After its publication, Garcia Marquez vowed to stop writing until Pinochet stepped down. (He eventually changed his mind).
Pinochet remained in power for many more years, in a way quite unlike the dictator Garcia Marquez imagined. To see Pinochet now is to have sympathy toward him. He is not the defiant, arms-crossed general from 1973. He now has the kind of benevolence that comes with old age. He moves with difficulty, wears a Polo shirt and a baseball cap in summertime and has a close-knit family.
He's still grumpy, but funny: "How are you, general?," asked a TV reporter who interviewed him Tuesday, right after it was confirmed that he was under house arrest and would be tried for murder. "How do you want me to be? I'm detained!" he said.
Once Tata is gone, it's his adversaries, paradoxically, who could end up missing him most. Pinochet will probably carry to his grave a secret his country wants desperately to know: Where are the people who disappeared? Where are the ones no one has ever been able to find?