Reviewed by Joshua Partlow
Sunday, October 19, 2008
THE DICTATOR'S SHADOW
Life Under Augusto Pinochet
By Heraldo Muñoz
Basic. 345 pp. $27.50
One fall day in 1991, not long after Gen. Augusto Pinochet lost his grip on Chile, Heraldo Muñoz, a socialist who had spent his life in both clandestine struggle and open opposition to the Pinochet regime, saw the old man himself approaching across a room at the Army War Academy. The former dictator had a pacemaker and was no longer Chile's president but remained commander-in-chief of the army, a post he'd held since 1973. Muñoz, a diplomat and intellectual, had accepted an invitation from Pinochet to give a lecture, not expecting the general to attend. When Pinochet attempted to greet him after his talk, Muñoz abruptly turned his back.
"I could not bring myself to shake his hand," Muñoz writes. "That was my closest brush with the man who had had such a baleful influence on my life -- and on the lives of a whole generation of Chileans."
This anger, verging on disgust, toward Pinochet is the driving force in Muñoz's meticulous and vivid new book, The Dictator's Shadow. He calls it a "political memoir," but it reads more as a compendium of crimes, whose specificity -- names and dates, weapon calibers, entry wound locations, torturers' techniques -- has a prosecutorial flavor, as if Muñoz seeks to secure the conviction that Pinochet, who died in December 2006, successfully avoided during his lifetime.
Muñoz's impulse seems justified given the political climate in Chile, where Pinochet's legacy remains an open debate. The leftist leaders who came to power after Pinochet, now led by President Michelle Bachelet, galvanized popular support in response to the dictator's repression. Many suffered personally. Bachelet herself was imprisoned, and her father was tortured in jail and died in captivity. But other Chileans remember Pinochet as the economic savior who embraced privatization and free-market economics, allowing Chile the robust growth that made it the envy of other South American countries.
"The agonizing question is: Was Pinochet necessary? Could Chile have reached its present prosperity without him?" Muñoz asks at the outset of his book. Yet he does not really agonize over the question. The best he can bring himself to say about Pinochet is that the general sometimes selected competent economic advisers, even though he did not fully understand what they were telling him. Under Pinochet's long watch, an entrepreneurial spirit emerged in Chile, inflation was kept under control, and exports grew. But Muñoz argues that this recovery could have occurred without the violence and repression. In the end, he contends, it was democracy, not Pinochet, that was necessary.
Given Muñoz's experience, it's hard to see how he could come to any other evaluation of the Pinochet regime. He was a socialist and a member of President Salvador Allende's leftist government (he served as national supervisor of the People's Stores, a food distribution program in poor neighborhoods) who went into hiding after Pinochet and other military officers overthrew Allende in a 1973 coup. The book opens with Muñoz's recollection of retrieving four sticks of dynamite from a secret cache and rushing to a safe house, prepared to begin an armed resistance that did not materialize. He later took refuge in the United States, where he studied international relations alongside Condoleezza Rice at the University of Denver and was a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
After Pinochet lost a 1988 plebiscite and eventually stepped aside, Muñoz became a diplomat and is now Chile's ambassador to the United Nations. His access to top Chilean officials and once-secret documents enriches this history, allowing him to trace not only the conflict between Pinochet's team and the opposition but also the divisions within each camp. His account of an attempt by militant communists to assassinate Pinochet is particularly gripping.
Muñoz draws a damning portrait of the dictator as an officer of "limited intellect" who "was, above all else, a survivor." Raised in an upper middle-class family, Pinochet reluctantly joined the coup against Allende, then systematically pushed aside his fellow conspirators (and executed his political rivals) to seize sole control of the country. The qualities that put Pinochet in this position, Munoz writes, were uninspiring: "Insensitive and sardonic to those below him, he was crafty, submissive, and obsequious with his betters. Though Pinochet was anti-Communist, his ideology was self-interest."
Once he seized power, as jets bombed the presidential palace and Allende committed suicide, the situation quickly turned grim. Several of the worst atrocities recounted in this book -- corralling opponents into the national soccer stadium in Santiago and executing more than 100 of them, the international plot known as Operation Condor to track down and kill dissidents -- have been documented at length elsewhere. Still, Muñoz recounts them in chilling detail. He notes, for example, that to advance his career before the coup, Pinochet used to visit regularly with Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his family, bringing presents to the children. Yet a few years later, the author alleges, Pinochet ordered the assassination of Letelier, who was killed by a car bomb in Washington's Sheridan Circle in 1976.
Even though democracy has returned to Chile for nearly 20 years, the wounds of Pinochet's 17-year reign are still being treated. In June, Gen. Manuel Contreras, former head of the secret police, was sentenced to two life terms in prison for his role in political slayings. And Chilean officials have proposed converting a former government torture house in Santiago into a museum.
Muñoz's memoir is part of a long, collective effort to uncover what the dictator and his henchmen buried in secrecy, fear and blood; in that sense, this book is a contribution to Chile's healing process. It can be slow reading, particularly when the author dwells on the minutiae of opposition politics, the endless meetings and internal disputes. But Muñoz delivers a compelling, personal account of life in a police state and a strong reminder of how far Chile has come. ·
Joshua Partlow is South America correspondent for the Post.