By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday , March 4, 2000 ; A01
SANTIAGO, Chile, March 3 –– Released for medical reasons after 16 months
under house arrest in London, Gen. Augusto
Pinochet came home today and promptly plunged Chile into an uproar about the true state of his health. Pinochet's apparent
vigor during a welcoming ceremony sparked outrage here and abroad, raising questions about Britain's decision to let him go
and setting the tone for what is likely to be another long struggle to bring the 84-year-old former dictator to justice in his
On the surface, it looked like old times as Pinochet showed a flicker
of bravado on arrival this morning at a military airstrip
beside Santiago's international airport. As if rejuvenated by his native soil, the smiling general, after being lowered from a
military aircraft in a wheelchair, suddenly rose and, steadied by a cane, walked assuredly around the tarmac for 10 minutes to
hug and kiss family and friends.
An army band in Prussian-style uniforms played his favorite marches
as an invitation-only crowd of 300 waved banners reading
"welcome back to the fatherland" and chanted, "Long live Pinochet!" He mingled briefly with military brass before climbing
unassisted into a helicopter as an aide trailed him with the empty wheelchair.
He then checked into a military hospital, where he was expected to spend
several days. But after a series of tests, he checked
out barely six hours later, returning to his estate in an exclusive Santiago neighborhood.
"That man took the lives of our sons, our daughters, our husbands and
our wives, and now he is parading around like Lazarus
risen from the grave," sobbed Olga Romero Rivera, 60, whose only son was among the 3,000 people reportedly killed or
"disappeared" by the military during Pinochet's 17-year rule ending in 1990. She was among the 2,000 Pinochet opponents
who marched to the courts today to demand that he be prosecuted.
"He will make a mockery of us all until he is dead," said Romero.
Andrew Hogg, spokesman for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims
of Torture, told the Associated Press in London
that Pinochet's appearance raised doubts about the medical grounds for his release. "The medical foundation has suspected
from the outset that Gen. Pinochet has sought to present himself in as poor a state of health as possible in order to avoid
extradition," Hogg said.
While the passions Pinochet still excites were much in evidence today,
Chile has changed deeply during the more than 16
months since he was last here. Pinochet was arrested Oct. 16, 1998, after a Spanish judge sought his extradition for trial on
atrocities committed during his rule.
Not the least of the changes was the election in January of a former
Pinochet-era dissident, Ricardo Lagos, as the first Socialist
president since Pinochet's bloody 1973 ouster of Salvador Allende. Lagos has promised an unhindered path for prosecution of
Pinochet in Chilean courts.
Pinochet's state of health will take center stage in the effort to define
what role, if any, he will play in the new Chile, as well as
his possible prosecution. Pinochet faces 60 criminal charges in Chilean courts, most of which have been filed since his arrest in
In Chile, mental illness is the only grounds to avoid trial. Judge Juan
Guzman, who under Chilean law is Pinochet's judge and
prosecutor, said today that he has officially ordered extensive tests on the once untouchable general.
Chilean authorities face international pressure to stick to their promise
to prosecute Pinochet at home. However, it remained
unclear whether Pinochet will agree to Guzman's exams--tests he underwent today were not those ordered by Guzman--and
analysts said Pinochet could launch a legal offensive akin to the one he fought in London to avoid extradition.
Although Pinochet is believed to be seriously ill, Chilean authorities
were forced to reiterate that fact after his actions today.
British Home Secretary Jack Straw freed Pinochet for humanitarian reasons, saying he is unfit to stand trial. Belgium,
Switzerland and France also had filed extradition requests, in addition to Spain. Straw rejected them all largely on the basis of
medical exams in January that concluded Pinochet had brain damage and could not follow the rigors of a trial.
"The fact that a person can walk away from an airplane does not signify
that he is in condition to take part in a trial," cautioned
Interior Minister Raul Troncoso after the outrage over Pinochet's actions during the welcome ceremony. "This is a question that
will be resolved by the Chilean courts where charges against Pinochet are now pending."
In a nation where one of Pinochet's opponents was arrested three years
ago for merely insulting him, the former dictator's
disgrace abroad has, at the very least, freed Chile of fear of the military. More than a dozen of Pinochet's former aides have
been indicted by the civilian justice system during his absence. And today, government officials issued a harsh statement that
Pinochet would not be welcome at Lagos's inauguration March 11.
But Chile still has a long way to go beyond barring Pinochet from formal
occasions. The constitution drafted during the Pinochet
era grants the military a role in censoring movies and designates "appointed senators" who have blocked legislation for
There was a brief taste of the old days this morning when foreign and
local reporters awaiting Pinochet's arrival at the airstrip
were ejected by the military, then allowed to return after an hour's wait. A member of the military's intelligence service dressed
in civilian clothes used the time to snap photos of journalists.
Pinochet, a senator for life, could theoretically try to return to the
Senate after a period of rest. But many of his family and
friends have said he will probably retire from public life. His supporters are negotiating legislation with the ruling center-left
coalition that would allow him to keep his immunity from prosecution if he withdraws from the Senate.
"It should not be read that we are not thankful to Pinochet--he remains
a hero to us," said Pedro Daza, a former top Pinochet
adviser. "But I think we realize that Pinochet represents our past, not our future. We have that very clear."
Despite strong opinions about Pinochet abroad, the former dictator proved
today that he is still a strong polarizing force in his
own nation. He is considered a national hero by right-wing supporters but is demonized by the left, especially family members
of those who were killed, tortured or abducted during his rule.
Chile's largely affluent right wing threw their tata--Chilean slang
for grandfather--a hero's welcome as some 4,000 people
turned out at the military hospital in an upscale neighborhood of Santiago. Skirmishes broke out between his supporters and
anti-Pinochet protesters, leading to several arrests.