For the last month, as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has languished in British custody facing possible extradition to Spain, I have thought often of the democratically elected president he overthrew 25 years ago, Salvador Allende. At the time of the Sept. 11, 1973, coup I was living in Chile and working as President Allende's translator.
As a 22-year-old Southern Californian, freshly radicalized by the anti-war movement, I felt I had stumbled into the front row of history. Here I was working directly for the world's first freely elected Marxist head of state, a principled and sincere doctor/politician who was promising to lead a peaceful transition to democratic socialism.
Through the haze of a quarter-century, I still remember Allende as a political leader of a breed virtually unknown today -- one of enormous moral dimension, of unimpeachable integrity and absolute honesty. I cannot claim he was a friend of mine. He was the president, and he was my boss. But I remember him in human terms as warm, compassionate and patient -- the authentic "people" traits that modern day pols like President Clinton assume as a rehearsed stage identity.
The fiery death of Allende's revolution three years after his election turned out to be much more than a temporary setback in what we thought was the great unstoppable forward sweep of history. Then came the massacres in Cambodia and East Timor, the dirty wars in Argentina and Guatemala, CIA Central American murder manuals, the rise of Thatcherism in Europe, the Reagan regime here at home.
For all these reasons, and more, that September 1973 morning of Pinochet's coup is hard-wired into my memory. I can still feel the fledgling sun, the fresh chill in the air, even smell the thickly sweet scent of newborn jacaranda in that Santiago spring. But what has lingered most indelibly were Allende's last words.
Since daybreak, Pinochet's troops had been shooting their way into power -- occupying shanty towns, universities and government buildings. He choked the capital with a ring of steel and armor. The coastal cities squirmed under naval infantry occupation while U.S. gunboats smiled on from just offshore.
Learning of the coup under way, I turned the big tuning wheel of a friend's Grundig radio and heard a wall of military marches. Then came two Orwellian communiquis from Pinochet's junta: Allende must surrender or face bombardment. And the same punishment for any radio station not linking up with the military broadcast network.
Rolling the Grundig dial another quarter-turn I found the last electronic holdout. The left-wing Radio Magallanes was still defiantly on the air. Via a primitive telephone link-up from inside the Moneda Palace, President Allende addressed the nation. Knowing he was doomed, Allende's metallic voice assured us that one day there would be a "moral sanction" for the "treachery and felony" being imposed that morning. Within an hour, two Hawker Hunter jets dive-bombed and strafed the Moneda. Soon, Allende -- along with 100 years of Chilean democracy -- was dead.
Allende had warned of the encroaching darkness in that farewell speech. But the full horror imposed by Augusto Pinochet and his collaborators could never have been completely anticipated.
I was lucky. Given refuge in a diplomat's house, and with help from the Mexican Embassy and the United Nations, I escaped alive. But many of my friends didn't. Some were herded into the National Stadium, tortured and murdered. Others were "disappeared" by Pinochet's men. I gasped when, a decade later in a Beverly Hills movie house, viewing the Costa-Gavras film "Missing," I saw two of these friends -- Americans Charlie Horman and Frank Teruggi -- materialize on the screen like celluloid ghosts.
Through 17 years of Pinochet's rule the body count mounted. More than 3,000 executions and disappearances. Mass graves and lime pits filled with the general's victims. Ten of thousands of Chileans passed through the jails and were routinely tortured. The regime's secret police hunted down Gen. Carlos Prats, Pinochet's constitutionally minded predecessor as commander of the armed forces, and blew him up in a Buenos Aires car bomb. The moderate but anti-military politician Bernardo Leighton and his wife were cornered on an Italian street and shot by the general's agents. Pinochet brought international terrorism to the U.S. capital when his secret police exploded another car bomb to wipe out former Allende foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronnie Karpen Moffitt.
Through this long night we survivors clung -- tenuously-- to Allende's final promise of justice. That's why this month of Pinochet's detention assumes such dramatic importance. Most of the outside world had long forgotten Allende -- let alone his last words. That's natural. But it had also forgotten -- or perhaps never bothered to even know -- Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet used the naked power of his dictatorship to fashion a cloak of respectability, naming himself president, commander-in-chief, captain general, and then writing a constitution that allowed him to sit as senator-for-life in the civilian government that succeeded him. He became an object of adoration for William Buckley, the editors of the Wall Street Journal, the reporters of the New York Times, the claque of conservatives at Heritage and Cato and the Baroness Maggie Thatcher, with whom the obsequiously Anglophile dictator was sipping tea just days before he was collared by Scotland Yard. Even the Chilean civilian government that came to power in 1990 after defeating Pinochet in a national plebiscite tiptoed around the general, leaving him in charge of the army until this past spring, respecting his self-granted "immunity" and then scurrying to defend him when he fell prisoner in London.
But after the imposed silence of the last two decades, today in Chile there is no more important subject of public debate than Pinochet's legacy.
According to recent polls, two-thirds or more of Chileans want the general tried somehow, somewhere. At last count, seven European countries have joined in the clamor to try him as an international human rights criminal. And now comes word that even the U.S. government -- his original sponsor -- is actively weighing the possibility of asking for Pinochet's extradition on charges of murdering Horman, Teruggi, Letelier and Moffitt.
In the meantime, three dozen other Chilean notables -- among them former Pinochet cabinet ministers, military junta members and cronies -- have been named by the Spanish courts in the same arrest warrant that bottled up Pinochet. Now -- finally -- they too will be publicly known for what they are: no longer respected leaders of the Chilean right, but accused accessories to organized murder.
Any day now, a five-man committee of the British House of Lords will render its decision as to whether Pinochet will be extradited to a Spanish courtroom or if he will be released as ordered by a British court the previous week. But it matters little how that decision comes down. If the general gets sent to Spain, then a clear-cut, earth-shaking victory will have been achieved for the cause of international human rights. But even if Pinochet is freed, it will be his defeat.
Waiting for him in Santiago is Chilean Judge Juan Guzman Tapia (who has gotten virtually no coverage in the American press), who is vowing to try Pinochet -- with or without his self-imposed immunity. Just this past Tuesday, the Chilean journalists' guild filed a case with Guzman charging Pinochet with the murder or disappearance of 20 reporters. Of course, he could decide not to return to Chile, becoming an exile from his homeland.
But if he does return, Pinochet will face an entire Chilean population that has been given back its most precious resource -- its collective memory. Chileans no longer need to hold tight to the faint, fading words of Salvador Allende. They are now free to publicly remember Pinochet. To recoil in horror and disgust. To scorn and despise him. And with a bit of luck -- to see him judged and condemned.
Salvador Allende can now rest quietly in his grave. The day of justice he promised us is now upon us.