Death Of A Dictator

Fr. G. Chris Saenz
May 21, 2008

A Columban priest recalls Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet and the Columbans who stood in solidarity with the poor against his government’s oppression and terror.

“Pinocchio is dead!”

It was a sunny, summer afternoon in Los Andes, Chile, and Columban priests and seminarians were enjoying an end-of-the-year outing at a park.

General Pinochet was infamous for wearing his general’s uniform in his public appearances.

General Pinochet was infamous for wearing his general’s uniform in his public appearances.

“Pinocchio is dead!” the seminarian repeated after hearing the news on the radio. “He died about an hour ago.”

He was referring to Chile’s ex-military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, who had fallen gravely ill days before his death on December 10, 2006. Some Chileans had made wordplay out of the general’s surname, christening Pinochet with the name of Disney’s wood puppet whose nose grew when he told a lie.

Park visitors bristled with muttering, but after a few minutes, everybody returned to their recreational activity. There was no notable mourning.

I was set to leave Chile for new mission work in 10 days. Pinochet’s death at the time of my departure caused me to reflect on Chile and our Columban mission here in relation to the dictator’s life and death.

In 1970, Salvador Allende was democratically elected as president of Chile on a Marxist platform. It was a historical first, but times were not tranquil. There was social unrest, and crime was rampant. Some Communists threatened that all religious property (convents, monasteries, land) would become the people’s property.

On September 11, 1973, General Pinochet overthrew Allende’s government. Pinochet declared a “military government” and would often state that “not a leaf fell from a tree” without his knowledge. Pinochet supporters declared that he had saved Chile from social chaos and re-established order. Certainly, a superficial order was restored by way of violating human rights: abduction, torture and execution. Pinochet also began the program of “Chilenizing Chile”: ethnic groups did not exist, only Chileans.

During the reign of the dictator, Columban missionaries stood by Chile’s poor, who were the most harmed by Pinochet’s heavy-handed oppression.

This solidarity with the poor had its consequences.

Columban priest associates Brian MacMahon and Brendon Forde were expelled in 1983. Columban Father Dennis O’Mara was expelled in 1984 after participating in an anti-torture protest.

It was Fr. Dennis’s fifth arrest. He was detained for five days, than escorted to the airport and deported without a passport or belongings. Other Columbans also were imprisoned for participation in such protests.

Victims Of Pinochet
One day in 1975, DINA, the government’s secret police, came to the Columban center house in Santiago, Chile’s capital. They were searching for Sheila Cassidy, an English doctor who had given medical treatment to a political opponent sought by the dictatorship. Sheila was taking refuge in the Columban house.

When the secret police arrived, they immediately open fired on the house, killing the housekeeper, Sylvia Henriquez, who was standing near a window. Sheila was taken into custody and tortured. Later, she recorded her experiences in the 1977 book “Audacity to Believe,” which helped draw attention to the widespread human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime.

Columbans had another encounter with Pinochet in 1979. He was flying to the Philippines and was forced to return to Chile because President Ferdinand Marcos withdrew the invitation while Pinochet was en route.

The plane had to refuel in Fiji, so Columbans in the South Pacific island nation organized a protest at the airport in Suva, Fiji’s capital. Airport personnel did not attend to Pinochet and his entourage, which was not allowed to disembark, except to refuel the plane.

Women marched outside Santiago’s cathedral in 1984 to bring attention to their relatives who disappeared during Pinochet’s regime. Their signs read ¿Donde estan? (“Where are they?”)

Women marched outside Santiago’s cathedral in 1984 to bring attention to their relatives who disappeared during Pinochet’s regime. Their signs read ¿Donde estan? (“Where are they?”)

Pinochet’s 16-year-military dictatorship ended in 1989 when he allowed democratic elections. He was confident he would triumph, believing he had the love and trust of the Chilean people. Pinochet lost, and Patricio Aylwin became Chile’s first democratically elected president since 1970.

But Pinochet would not have to face up to his crimes. He retired as “senator for life,” making him immune from prosecution.

Three successive democratically elected governments have followed Aylwin’s administration. The 2006 elections resulted in the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, the first woman elected president in Chile. Interestingly, President Bachelet and her mother and father (an air force general) were detained and tortured during Pinochet’s rule. Bachelet’s father, under strain of torture, died of a heart attack. Michelle and her mother were released after a year and exiled.

The Decline & Fall
When I arrived in Chile in 1995, the country was still sharply divided. I estimated that Chileans were split fairly evenly into the pro- and anti-Pinochet camps. I dealt with catechists, animators, parishioners and church leaders who could not agree about Pinochet.

Arguing ideologies was useless: the anti-Pinochet people carried the scars of the dictatorship; the pro-Pinochet people firmly believed that he saved Chile from social chaos. Even though I never accepted the pro-Pinochet view, I came to know some of these people. They were not cold, heartless people—being poor, they also suffered.

As a pastor, I had to attend to both groups. That was the reality.

It was October 16, 1998, when Pinochet was placed under house arrest. Spain had served the English government extradition papers against Pinochet for “crimes during the military regime.” Pinochet declared immunity and received support from Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of England. Eventually, Pinochet was allowed to return to Chile due to his poor health.

When he arrived in Chile, Pinochet, who was always shown in a wheelchair, stood up and walked as if mocking the world. Even though the extradition was not successful, Pinochet’s public image was damaged, and his immunity was questionable. This initiated a remarkable judicial process of criminal charges against Pinochet in Chile, an event I thought I would never see. Added to his troubles were charges of hidden illegal funds in the United States, Hong Kong and Germany.

Because of insufficient evidence, the case did not proceed. Yet, it was another blow to Pinochet’s public image in Chile.

Justice In Death
I had been away from Chile when I returned in 2001. I perceived the political divisions were shifting. I estimated that 40 percent was pro-Pinochet, and 60 percent was anti-Pinochet. I believe that Pinochet’s declining health, political influence and negative world image contributed to this change. Pinochet’s death in 2006 highlighted this remarkable shift.

A day before Pinochet’s burial, a friend and I drove by the location of the wake services. About 60,000 people came to pay their respects, and most appeared to be from Chile’s upper class.

During Pinochet’s wake service, the grandson of an assassinated general entered, spit on the coffin, and then left before being detected. Later, I saw counter celebrations by Pinochet’s detractors. They appeared to be from a more-humble class.

Pinochet supporters demanded two days of national mourning. The government refused. A demand of a state funeral, because Pinochet was a former head of state, also was denied.

But in reality, Pinochet was never elected as a head of state. The government allowed his ceremonial burial because he was a former head of the army. President Bachelet did not attend.

During the funeral, Pinochet’s grandson, Captain Augusto Pinochet Molina, was clad in a military uniform and praised his grandfather’s defeat over “the Marxist model and its totalitarian ways,” denouncing the judges who sought to prosecute his grandfather as “looking more for fame than justice.”

The next day, Captain Augusto was forced to retire his commission. He broke military protocol by speaking against the government while on duty.

Pinochet was cremated, and his family guards the ashes in a private place. A public tomb would likely have been desecrated. The Chilean Armed Forces refused to guard Pinochet’s ashes at a military installation. A day after the funeral, President Bachelet broke her silence. Pinochet’s reign, she declared, was one of “division, hate and violence.”

In life, Pinochet escaped justice. Yet, I like to think that Pinochet died knowing that his power and influence had declined, the tide turned against him. In death, the government sent a clear message: Pinochet was a dictator!

Through it all, Columban missionaries stood by Chile’s poor and oppressed.

Columban Father G. Chris Saenz of Bellevue, Nebraska, first went to Chile in 1995 as a seminarian and was ordained to the priesthood in 2000. He now is studying at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and will pursue a master’s degree at Boston College before new mission work in Peru in 2009.