Dictators in the Dock

NEW YORK: Britain's law lords will begin to decide this week (after botching the first attempt) whether General Augusto Pinochet should continue to be detained for possible extradition to Spain. The case has inspired many debates over amnesties such as that which Pinochet decreed for himself decades ago.

Some commentators, ranging from the liberal Polish ex-dissident Adam Michnik to ultra-conservative US Senator Jesse Helms, oppose prosecuting Pinochet on the ground that, unless such dictators are allowed to retire with their impunity intact, it will be impossible to persuade them to relinquish power.

In Pinochet’s case, there is an ahistorical aspect to this argument. Pinochet did not abdicate voluntarily. He had no choice. After seizing power in September 1973, torturing and murdering thousands in the process of consolidating his rule, Pinochet needed to establish his legitimacy, domestically and internationally. So the dictator promulgated a Constitution in 1980 which required that his continuation as President be subject to a plebiscite eight years later. That plebiscite was scheduled for October 5, 1988, fifteen years after Pinochet’s coup.

Pinochet's opponents were permitted little opportunity to campaign against him. As the date of the plebiscite approached, it became apparent that they were likely to prevail. Signs appeared that Pinochet was planning to abort the plebiscite. To prevent this, the American State Department summoned the Chilean Ambassador, issued a stern warning to Pinochet, and announced publicly its demand that the plebiscite be held as planned.