One of the ironic facts of the world's repressive military dictatorships is the abject poverty in which the general population of the particular country struggles to exist.
The reverse side of the coin is the luxury in which the ruler and his inner clique manage to live. And for these favored few, the United States is a magnet.
What draws them to this country is the wealth of consumer goods that can be purchased by anyone with enough cash -- goods which, like the basic necessities of life, are unavailable in their subsistence-level economies.
Wives of foreign dictators are often the biggest offenders. One flagrant example is Imelda Marcos, first lady of the Philippines whose husband suspended a bothersome U.S.-style constitution years ago to cement his dictatorial regime. She shops in the finest stores in America while her countrymen scrabble for enough rice to keep body and soul together.
Lately there are two new faces on the first-lady shopping spree scene: Senora Pinochet of Chile and Madame Zia of Pakistan.
Lucia Pinochet is constantly pictured in Chilean newspapers as a benefactress of the poor, appearing -- modestly dressed, of course -- as a promoter of projects aimed at helping ground-down Chilean peasants.
But Senora Pinochet obviously yearns for the finer things in life -- expensive jewelry and high-fashion clothes that aren't available in Santiago. Last year she "did" New York City.
Then last month, she turned her acquisitive eye toward Washington, D.C., flying into the capital for a quiet shopping spree with her personal secretary, her daughter, her son-in-law and half a dozen bodyguards. With an insensitivity that would cause a Lady Macbeth to boggle, she checked into the Embassy Row Motel -- less than three blocks from the spot where agents of her husband's government assassinated Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier in Septempber 1976.
The visit was supposed to be top-secret. Even an iron-fisted military dictator like Augusto Pinochet doesn't want it known that his wife is a sybaritic spendthrift. Neither the Chilean Embassy nor the hotel management would comment on her stay here. But we were able to confirm it from less exalted sources.
Madame Zia, wife of President Muhammed Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, one of the most poverty-ridden nations in the world, is another first lady who finds Washington a veritable Emerald City for shopping. Her husband is best-known to Americans as the military dictator who last spring hanged his popular opposition leader, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Madame Zia and her two dauthters enjoyed a two-month junket here last summer. The ostensible purpose of her trip, according to an embassy spokeman, was to get medical treatment for one of her daughters at a Washington hospital. But the first lady didn't miss the opportunity to load up at some of the capital's exclusive boutiques, sources claimed.
Madame Zia and her party stayed at the Pakistan Embassy -- which necessitated some refurbishing work, including installation of new wall-to-wall carpet in the first lady's living quarters. She arrived with gifts for American VIPs, but sources told our associates Gary Cohn and Matt Speiser the gifts were not considered lavish enough. So the wholeshipment was junked and new gifts were bought -- including a $3,500 rug for First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
Pakistan Ambassador Sultan Muhammed Kahn stoutly denied that Madame Zia had indulged in a shopping spree. Loyally, he insisted that the trip was solely to get medical treatment for the Zia daughter. The president's wife, he told us, is "an extremely simple, down-to-earth mother and housewife," and her only purchases were "a few shirts on sale, some toys and a comforter or two." Our sources, however, told us different.
The extravagant tastes of foreign dictators' wives would be of little consequence, of course, were it not for the fact that their people live in almost unbelievable poverty -- and the fact that their husbands' repressive regimes have received millions in military and economic aid from the United States.