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From     THE TABLET             22 January 2000       BOOKS AND ARTS

Imprisoned in suburbia, a dictator faces justice

Pinochet and the Politics of   Torture.-  Hugh O'Shaughnessy
Latin America Bureau £8.99
Tablet bookshop price £8.99pl, 99ppostage, (UK)

Just before Christmas, the man who had been in charge of the relentless
shelling of Sarajevo during the early 1990s was arrested by British special
forces while travelling in north-west Bosnia. The subject of a "sealed"
indictment as a suspected war criminal, the Yugoslav general was in The
Hague within hours, preparing to face charges of crimes of war and crimes
against humanity. The whole affair barely registered a blip in the
attention of the world's media. What had once been startling was now
commonplace, obvious even: of course such persons should be arrested,
wherever they happened to be and regardless of frontiers.

The execution of a judicial order allied to a moral purpose is quietly
breathtaking to behold. But the law's greatest majesty lies in its long
memory. The media and the politicians may have forgotten Sarajevo, but the
soldiers who enforce the will of the international legal system are
professionally committed to the recovery of the culpably terrible in our
communal past.

Till the recent decision that for health reasons General Pinochet should be
sent back to Chile, his case was chugging along in a similar, nearly
anonymous, fashion. Pinochet had spent his second Christmas marooned in
his lavish pseudo-prison and it was far less noticed, less controversial,
than his first. We have all learned from Hannah Arendt's insight about the
"banality of evil". It is time now to celebrate the "banality of justice",
the very ordinariness of the process of truth-finding and guilt-allocation
that is encapsulated in the inexorable meanderings of that triumph of
civilised values, the criminal trial. Now, even though the senator is due
to be returned home, it will be as a broken man, destroyed by the force of
the facts around him and by the contempt in which even he must now see that
outside his fawning cocoon - he is universally held.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy is one of the many unsung heroes in the whole Pinochet
fable. Just two days before the former dictator's arrest, O'Shaughnessy
had written a brilliant piece in the Guardian calling for his apprehension
(happily reprinted here). For decades he has been a powerful source of
truth on Chile for generations of halfinterested but nevertheless concerned
Britons. From one or two throwaway remarks in this book, we learn of the
deep intimacy he has with Chile, of his friendship with Allende and of his
love for the country. But wonderfully, the book is neither triumphant nor
sentimental. It is reportage in the best, most dispassionate but still
engaged, sense. O'Shaughnessy feels terribly for his story but knows that
the facts speak for themselves without emoti6nal embellishment.

It is unlikely that there is anywhere a better 170 pages with which to
educate oneself about Chile's recent ordeals. The author reminds us that
the country was no banana republic addicted to military turbulence; what
Pinochet consciously destroyed was a strong political culture with a long
and proud past. This explains the rise to power of so deeply a political
figure as Salvador Allende, but the ambitious socialism in office of this
soon-to-be-deposed President looks suicidally naive when considered from
our historical vantage point, nearly 30 years on. Socialism after Reagan
and Thatcher and the Cold War has a far greater respect for capitalism than
would have seemed credible in those heady, morally uncomplicated, days.

One of the great strengths of O'Shaughnessy's marvellous book is that it
contrives to reach far beyond Chile without ever seeming to leave its
borders. The country becomes the template through which we can observe the
geopolitics of the late Cold War era. It is not an attractive sight, with
successive United States administrations in particular displaying a
thuggish flair for disorder far worse than any honesty imperialism would
have required. The Vatican's cautious realpolitik is nearly as unsettling,
driving home how comfortable the Catholic ruling élite has felt with
fascist power for much of the century just past. But in the end it was the
people of Chile who voted Pinochet out of office, just as many brave
priests and nuns had sustained opposition to the general - often at
terrible cost - through the years of the dictatorship. O'Shaughnessy has a
strong feeling for these intersecting sets of Chileans, and it is because
the book is in part a celebration of their dignity and humanity that it
turns out to be not at all a depressing read.

Of course this is also because it has a happy ending, with the morose old
dictator trying to make himself ill next door to TV celebrities in his
enforced suburban seclusion. His personality as developed in this book is
essentially uninteresting: a second-rate careerist with a chip on his
shoulder and a horribly opportunist set of ever ascending ambitions to
drive him on (aided it has to be said by a morally-disfigured, acquisitive
family). But what of his supporters in Britain: Norman (Lord) Lamont and
Margaret (Lady) Thatcher and others? What drives this crowd to fight so
hard to secure the former dictator's freedom? It is unlikely that these
British Pinochistas will read this book, though they must be aware of the
thrust of its allegations and their essential undeniability.

King's College, London