first Pinochet, then on to Castro

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Nov 1 06:24:03 PST 1999

New York Times - November 1, 1999

ONE DICTATOR AT A TIME By Mario Vargas Llosa

WASHINGTON -- The efforts in Spain and Britain to bring Gen. Augusto Pinochet to trial for human rights crimes in Chile should be hailed not only by the millions around the world who have been persecuted for their ideas, but all who refuse to accept that democratic customs and culture are the exclusive province of a few select countries. There are those who question Spain's decision to charge General Pinochet in its own courts, as well as Britain's cooperation in holding him for extradition. But their arguments do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

Some critics fear, for example, that bringing General Pinochet to trial would threaten the Chilean transition to democracy and could provoke another military coup. But the confrontation between his supporters and enemies inside Chile is a conflict of radical minorities. A majority of Chilean society follows his case with growing indifference, and the two major candidates in the current presidential race appear to have a tacit agreement not to discuss it. At the same time, Chile's courts are pursuing cases against military officers who served in the Pinochet government.

Others say the prosecution violates Chilean sovereignty. But why should justice be excluded from the general trend of globalization that has made the nation-states of the 19th century interdependent today in science and technology, commerce and culture? Nobody objects when common criminals, terrorists and drug traffickers are brought to justice outside their own homelands.

The importance of the Pinochet case lies precisely in its message that petty dictators who abuse their citizens and ransack national treasuries cannot escape the reach of justice, either.

It has also been argued that instead of serving as a caution to would-be dictators, this case will only warn sitting dictators to sit even tighter. Those who believe this apparently think that dictators simply leave power one fine day because they become either suddenly good or suddenly democratic. But when dictators go, they do not leave voluntarily. Stopping the Pinochet case now would not cause Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and Muammar el-Qaddafi to cut their reigns short.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against the prosecution of General Pinochet is that it represents selective justice. The international enthusiasm for it is possible only because the media, intellectuals and politicians use a double standard to measure dictatorships.

Why are dictators of the left not scorned in the same way as those of the right? Was General Pinochet, in his 17 years in power, less cruel or less bloody than Fidel Castro has been in his four decades ruling Cuba? Though they hold opposite ideologies, both men are responsible for numerous abuses of human rights. Yet whereas not a single government has come forth in General Pinochet's defense, only a handful have dared to describe Mr. Castro as what he is: a bloody, petty dictator.

Indeed, at this year's Ibero-American conference later this month, about 20 presidents and prime ministers of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries will travel to Havana and embrace this repugnant character in a grotesque political show. They will legitimize Mr. Castro after signing -- without a moment's shame or embarrassment -- yet another manifesto on behalf of freedom and legality as the most adequate framework for Latin American development.

Such a double standard -- a moral embolism, to quote the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel -- is outrageous, especially from cynics who call themselves democratic or, worse still, "progressive" politicians.

Yet to trade the outrage of a double standard for an outright pardon of General Pinochet would be the equivalent of proposing that we should give up the search for justice altogether because standards of justice are relative and partial. To be so absolutist would be incompatible with everyday social reality. Judicially, it will always be far better for a murderer to be tried and sentenced than not, even though other murderers may escape punishment. The same logic ought to apply to human rights crimes.

The Pinochet case gives us hope from all viewpoints -- moral, political and judicial. It opens a door so that other dictators, whatever their ideology, can be pursued and sentenced for their crimes. More importantly, it allows a concrete number of victims of torture, murder, imprisonment and robbery to receive a just, albeit belated, reparation.

It matters little that a dictator of the right should have been the first to fall in the web that one hopes will eventually house a long list of guilty satraps.

Justice is indeed being served, magnificently. But it is up to genuine believers in democracy, true defenders of freedom and legality, to assure that what has happened to Gen. Pinochet will be the rule rather than the exception.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, is a writer in residence at Georgetown University. This article, which appeared in a longer form in the Spanish newspaper needs El Pais, was translated by Enrico Mario Santi.

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