It’s fairly rare, in this day and age, and on the continental landmass of the Americas, to be present at the official End Of An Era: the death of an ex-tyrant. Especially when, as was the case with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, that death occurs at 2:15 PM on a sweltering, feet-dragging dog day Sunday afternoon, only hours after the ex-despot’s crack medical team assured the public that the invalid would be going home within the next five or six days. They were right, in their way. They just didn’t foresee he’d be doing it a whole lot sooner and in a glass-topped coffin.
While the rest of the world was falling all over itself to denounce in death a dictator it first supported – and then failed to convict – in life, here in Santiago Pinochet was mourned. Not by a handful of blue-haired fanatics and aging military men, but by an estimated one third of the population. While in Plazas Italia and Ciudadania the champagne was a’flowing and the crowds they were a’cheering, outside the Escuela Militar where his corpse lay in state Monday, thousands of people, old and young, rich and poor, and universally misguided, had come to pay their last respects. In the international news, Pinochet was universally referred to as “the former dictator;” in Chile, the talking heads called him “el General” or “el ex-Presidente.” You don’t get over 17 years of repressive dictatorship that easily.
Curious about the marks Pinochet had left on the neck of a country he spent almost two decades throttling, I first went to see the scene down at the Military Hospital on Tuesday the 5th of December. Two days earlier, El General had been rushed over there, after suffering an acute attack on a heart many weren’t aware he possessed. In truth, I was hoping for adherents clashing with protestors, in a mad crush of signs, political responsibility, and angry Chilean swearing. But “scene” is really too lofty a word for what was kitten-footing around outside the hospital on that heavy-lidded afternoon: Perhaps 25 Pinochet supporters who couldn’t be heard half a block away, bouncing up and down behind a concrete police barrier, waving hand drawn placards proclaiming “Yo Pinochet.” It would have been an intensely disturbing sight for anyone who still held the torch for democracy if the Pinochetistas hadn’t looked so much like underage teeny-boppers outside an ’NSync concert. Surprisingly, most of those jumping in front of the cameras and eagerly shrieking “Gracias General, Usted Es Imortal!” to TV crews bored to death, were supporters in their 20s and early 30s, too young to have really lived through the regime. Its human rights abuses, though tacitly acknowledged by most, are far from aggressively taught in the schools here, and a good portion of the youth sees only the economic rehabilitation Pinochet successfully produced, with no small help from Uncle Sam. The ex-dictator’s young partisans seemed to think they were jiggling their tits for the Beatles in ’65, and that this helplessly drooling carcass with an oxygen tube in its nose and a catheter up its bladder was a rock star. They appeared to be children of the upper middle class, in their tight-fitting T-shirts and designer shades, laughing and cheering and not taking a thing seriously – not the old general’s disastrous health, and definitely not the torture and deaths, a generation prior, of more than 3,000 dissenters. They were the Jovenes Nacionalistas of glitzy tree lined Providencia, the privileged and oblivious, who, if they stopped to think at all, considered that a couple thousand murders of degenerate Communist dissidents with dangerous government- and religion-destroying intent had been well worth it in order to repel the Marxist scourge and keep Mommy and Daddy rolling in the Benjamins.
Half a block away congregated a disorganized dozen or so Pinochet protestors, even younger than their Nationalist Youth counterparts, Rasta students in dreads and baggy black Che t-shirts, equally oblivious to any notion of seriousness. Their chants neatly mirrored the supporters’, and were just as disrespectful, in their light-hearted mockery, of the horrors perpetrated under the Brass Button Junta.
As Gloria Parra told me, sitting outside her house in the lower-middle class outskirts of Puente Alto, she had supported Pinochet because she’d starved under Allende, but now that he was dying she, and the rest of Chile, just wanted to forget about it all, and move on with their lives.
When Pinochet finally did die, somewhat unexpectedly the following Sunday, thousands of people unanimously joined forces to tear Mrs. Parra’s comment to shreds. There were those who whooped ecstatically, because their country was finally free of that crippling shadow in epaulettes that had plagued it since the heavy metal Hawker Hunter fighter jets bombed La Moneda on September 11, 1973. But to me, these people were normal, entirely comprehensible, and hence sorely lacking in intrigue. I wanted to understand those I didn’t. So at about 3:30 PM on Sunday, when word came over the grainy Samsung TV that the witch was dead, I didn’t head over to Plaza Italia with a bottle of $2 Manishevitz champagne from the Lider grocery store. I took the subway to the Military Hospital, where, my Japanese black box showed, destroyed Pinochetistas with wild eyes and wasted bodies racked by sobs were hurling ape-shit water at journalists a little too anxious to get in on the historic action.
Never trust TV journalists, no matter what the pictures show. When I got off the metro at Tobalaba, three blocks from Pinochet’s deathbed, it was Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – sun-spackled through the verdant tree canopy, soporific as it is every Sunday in Catholic countries, with everyone either saying their Hail Maries in church or sleeping their Bloody Maries off at home. The Military Hospital itself was surrounded, fifty-deep, by hundreds of supporters, their ranks swelling by the minute as news of Pinochet’s death filtered through the dozing city. But they weren’t running hog-wild on any camera crew that I could see, and they weren’t bawling their red-ringed eyes out either. They were doing an absolutely spot-on imitation of Lawn Parties at Ivy, minus the puking sorority girls. Pastel Brooks Brothers shirts, pearl earrings, and an enormous amount of jovial, upper-class good cheer permeated the death-filled air. The Pinochetistas held up pictures of the General and chanted their perennial favorite “CHI CHI CHI, LE LE LE, VIVA CHILE PINOCHET!” as if Augusto was a good buddy of theirs who’d had a spot of trouble with the Vodka and Vicodin the previous night, but was going to be just fine, and they were right there with him to cheer him on through his stomach pumping. A guy with a manic red face ran around selling flags; a few people had spread plastic mats out and were hawking pins, pictures, key chains and sweat bands emblazoned with “Yo Pinochet” for a buck a pop. By 5 o’clock, once the initial surprise had worn off, few tears were being lost on the dictator – not because he wasn’t mourned, but because his adherents generally fall into one (or both) of two categories: They’re either dedicated Catholics who believe, as a man with gleaming eyes and a face warped in reverence told me, that their general is going to a better place where, they “have no doubt, God will receive him well;” or, pragmatists, who feel their 91 year old ex-president had a good life, and they’re pleased as punch that in death he escaped what they view as unjust condemnation by the Socialist courts.
If I had stayed directly in front of the Military Hospital, it would have been easy for me to assume, as I had previously, that Pinochet’s supporters were the Children of Privilege, those aristocratic Chileans born with golden spoons in their mouths and silver ones waiting to be shoved up their noses. And, in good part, they are, holding high the banner of the regime’s economic reforms as a bulwark against the oncoming red tide of humanitarian criticism. But as I moved to the fringes of the ever-expanding crowd, I noticed the mass of designer shades thinned, and the lack of proper dentistry soared. I spoke with more than a dozen people over the week of Pinochet’s deterioration, and it became increasingly clear that his broad base lies also with the poor, the unemployed, the Chilean equivalent of Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” devout Catholics who are pro-life, anti-gay rights, and ever-fearful of the atheism they feel Marxism heralds with a big red trumpet. These Pinochetistas didn’t participate in Chile’s economic free-market rebirth, but El General saved them from moral ruin at the hands of Communists who wished to hammer and sickle their country asunder.
Many of these followers acknowledge Pinochet’s gross abuses. Somehow the ones I attract do not. One day somebody will have to explain to me why I can’t meet a decent boy to save my life, but every neo-con fascist in town wants to know if they know me from somewhere. I spent over an hour sitting on a sun-bleached bench outside the Military Hospital talking with Fernando de la Cuadra, a Religious Right Pinochetista so fanatical in his by-the-book Catholicism and anti-Communism he bordered on caricature. After about fifty minutes of essentially one-sided conversation, when he’d ascertained, a propos of nothing at all, that I was sufficiently “one of them” to be completely open with, he revealed to me that what he desperately wanted to hang on his wall, more than anything else, was a poster of General Kurt “Panzer” Meyer, one of the most highly decorated members of the Waffen SS, whose valiant and daring record as a killer is only slightly marred by his conviction for war crimes. And why does Mr. de la Cuadra wish to do this terrible thing? “Because Kurt Meyer is my hero. Not because he killed Jews, but because he fought so bravely against the Communist Evil…it doesn’t mean I’m a Nazi,” he added after an uncertain pause.
Mr. de la Cuadra didn’t shed any conciliatory crocodile tears over the killing of what he said were “only” 3,197 souls, or the torture of 28,000 others, or the exile of an estimated 300,000 more: these people were “disgusting traitors to their country,” a vast, vile, pinko fag conspiracy that threatened the very foundations of Catholic Chile by embracing the “Socialist Culture of Death.” They advocated “atheism, abortion, sodomy, homosexual rights and prisoners’ rights,” and they should have been drawn and quartered as well as killed. Mere prison, Mr. de la Cuadra told me, would not have been nearly just punishment for the wickedness they would have perpetrated had they been given the chance. “But they didn’t actually kill anyone, did they?” I asked. “Well, no, that is, not all of them, there was one case where a policeman died, and… but they WOULD have, they had Plans, they were Terrorists from Subversive Organizations.” So the Pinochet regime carried out preventative killings against future criminals? Well, yes, Mr. de la Cuadra admitted. But we’re very lucky it did – saved Chile from the worst Moscow-fueled civil war. These dangerous Castro-funded Che-wannabes were Enemies of the Public Good.
But no matter. Mr. de la Cuadra was just so happy to share his views with me, and believed he’d found such a soul-mate, that I felt a nascent compassion for him, despite – or perhaps because of – his terrifying delusions, groundless fears, and unreserved hatred for all things Marx- or Rainbow flag-related. He wore a white short sleeve button down shirt with a black patch that had “Pinochet” lovingly stitched in neon yellow on the pocket, a pin with El General’s smiling mug, khakis, and those quarter-inch-thick glasses with the flip-up tinted lenses – and he kept those tinted lenses flipped up the whole time we talked. He’d almost married a Hungarian girl he’d met on a Catholic singles site, but it turned out she harbored suicidal fantasies. He was an unemployed nurse’s aid, living at his older brother’s. He must have been well on his way to being 45. He smiled at me almost constantly, trying to make sure he was making a good impression. I couldn’t help feeling moved, until I realized that this is the kind of lunatic who spends his life in his mother’s basement, reading religious comic books and getting fervent, tearful hard-ons just thinking about all those loose, abortion-getting souls he’d save if only he could get his hands on them; the kind of poor schlub who is so out of touch with reality that his paranoia runs rampant and he supports dying despots until they bleed the country dry. This is the kind of fanatic who went down with Hitler to his bunker, the kind who didn’t need to close his eyes to Pinochet’s abuses, because he didn’t think they were abuses. And this is the kind of guy who asks for my number, and tells me I’m lovely and just so pleasant, and we should really meet up again. But the thing is, I couldn’t help feeling that his obsessive delusions weren’t really his fault. For starters, I’m no great fan of Allende either – he was a demagogue in his own right. But more to the point, Mr. de la Cuadra gave me the impression of someone who was so lost himself, he needed desperately to believe his failures could be chalked up to some secret conspiracy, that behind every street corner lurked burly men in leather thongs carrying cattle prods and Mao books for his immediate sodomization and reeducation, and that if God the Father, the Son, and the Holy General weren’t on his side he’d have been fed to the city’s errant dogs long ago.
But schizoid fantasies aside, what we have in the end here is an ex-dictator and un-avowed murderer formerly worth more than $28 million in stolen and undeclared assets, secreted away in locked boxes on the Caribbean isles and in an account at Riggs Bank in Washington; a mustachioed despot who spent 17 years gleefully raping his country’s human rights, but declared in his last public statement as Martyr On The Cross that, “for the harmony and the peace that must reign among Chileans,” he “willingly suffered the persecutions and injustices” inflicted on him and his family; a strong-man who famously declared that “not a leaf in [Chile] moves if I’m not moving it,” and later maintained he was so busy rearranging the foliage he didn’t know what naughty mischief his dissident-assassinating DINA was making behind his back; an inveterate totalitarian, finally, with a marked aversion to personal responsibility who managed to avoid prosecution for health reasons and kicked the bucket before he could be convicted, in a final fuck you to all things Just in this world.
On the afternoon of Sunday the 10th of December, when Channel 13 ran a special on Pinochet’s life, they ended it with a slow motion shot of the old general, dressed in white and gazing into the camera. Playing over these streaming images of the end of an era was the beautiful, sad, profoundly nostalgic German World War II song “Lili Marlene,” sung in English. Consciously or not, that soundtrack was an incredible résumé of all that Pinochet was, and will continue to be, at least for a little while longer: A fascist dictator in the Germanic model, helped to power and kept afloat at least in part by Cold War American interests, who rehabilitated a dying economy and who, despite his crimes, elicits deep loyalty and nostalgia in his followers, as well as a desire in many Chilean middle-of-the-roaders to remember him not merely as a tyrant, but, in “Lili Marlene’s” words, as “an old lantern that suddenly shone bright” in the dark days of Allende’s Marxist folly. I, however, will always remember Pinochet as he looked during his last public appearance, on November 25th: As a 91 year old birthday boy – helped from his wheelchair and propped up by a stern, swarthy man in a black suit – looking faintly puzzled at his success, with a smile of slight dementia, waving like a proud child to a cheering crowd. The portrait of a murderer.