General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, former dictator of Chile, died overnight, aged 91, as a result of a heart attack suffered a week earlier.

Pinochet, then commander of the army, seized power in 1973 and ruled Chile until a 1988 referendum, under the constitution he had drafted, unexpectedly denied him a further term of office. He agreed to step down, and in 1990 handed power to a democratically elected president — subject to provisions that were supposed to ensure his continued influence and secure him immunity from prosecution.

Those guarantees were gradually unwound, and various attempts were made to bring Pinochet to account for the thousands of deaths and disappearances under his regime. In 1998 he was arrested in Britain, and Chilean courts later stripped him of his immunity, but ill health prevented his trial. Although Pinochet was never convicted, the proceedings were an important milestone in establishing the liability of heads of state for human rights offences.

People need symbols, and Pinochet became a symbol of right-wing military dictatorship, a larger than life figure. In the words of The Guardian‘s obituary, he was “the paradigm of the third world anti-communist strongman”. Objectively he was probably no worse than a dozen other generals of the same era. But Chile was no banana republic; it had been the most stable and democratic country in South America.

Pinochet was a target of special hatred from the left because he overthrew an elected communist, Salvador Allende, in a coup believed to be supported by the CIA. For the same reasons, and also because of his economic policy, which leant towards the free market (at least as much as a dictatorship can), Pinochet had a certain respectability on the right — some of whom, such as Margaret Thatcher, continued to defend him strongly after his fall.

Pinochet deserves a degree of credit for Chile’s peaceful transition back to civilian government. But the stability of its democracy since then simply underlines the unnecessary brutality of his rule.

Justice never fully caught up with Pinochet, but it is some consolation that his last years were spent in defending himself from prosecution rather than in honourable retirement. Perhaps some attention will now turn to other unmolested ex-dictators: a good place to start would be with Indonesia’s General Suharto.

Peter Fray

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