SOLOMON: The Arrest of a Dictator
The recent arrest of Gen. Augusto Pinochet presented a challenge to American news media. For a quarter of a century -- after a bloody coup brought Pinochet to power in Chile -- he didn't get much bad press in the United States. As time went on, it seemed that human memory had been buried alive. But Pinochet's arrest suddenly exhumed the legacies of his 17-year dictatorship.National Public Radio news analyst Daniel Schorr pointed out on Oct. 19 that Pinochet seized control of Chile "after the CIA had organized a campaign to destabilize the democratically elected but left-leaning Salvador Allende." And Schorr identified another key orchestrator of the 1973 coup -- Henry Kissinger, who coordinated foreign policy for President Nixon.But overall, American journalists have dodged the crucial roles of the CIA and Kissinger (still a media darling in 1998). Five days after Pinochet was arrested in London, a search of the Nexis database found that out of 806 major English-language news stories on the subject, only 34 had mentioned the CIA. Kissinger fared even better: Just six stories mentioned him, and only two of those were in U.S. media.Meanwhile, some coverage has grotesquely understated the horrors of the Pinochet regime. The first sentence of the front- page New York Times report on Pinochet's arrest declared that he "came to symbolize the excesses of military rule in Latin America." Mass murder and widespread torture are merely "excesses"?A range of daily papers weighed in with cogent editorials. "Justice may yet have its day," said the Chicago Tribune, which hailed the arrest. The Los Angeles Times was more skeptical of legal precedents but nevertheless concluded: "Finally we hear the wheels of justice turning." The New York Times commented that "his detention and possible prosecution are warranted under international law."But top editors at two influential newspapers clearly hated to see Pinochet in custody. The Wall Street Journal went ballistic as it decried the injustice being done to Chile's "former strongman." The Washington Post also sounded quite distressed."He did remove a democratically elected government and see to the killing of thousands and the detention of tens of thousands in 1973-1990," the Post noted, but "he also saw to the rescue of his country." The editorial added: "It is not only Chile's military right but others grateful for his positive role who are troubled now by his arrest in the British hospital he had sought out for back surgery. He is 82."But thousands of Chileans never had a chance to come anywhere near age 82 -- thanks to Gen. Pinochet and his "positive role."In sharp contrast to the euphemisms on this side of the Atlantic, the Guardian newspaper supplied British readers with succinct history: "Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected Marxist in Latin America when he was elected president in November 1970, presented an ideological and economic affront to the Nixon regime. ... Nixon tried to prevent Allende's victory by ordering the CIA to `make the economy scream.' Later, Kissinger told the CIA that `it is firm and continuing policy that Allende should be overthrown by a coup.' Three years later he had his way and Allende was dead."Allende led a "Popular Unity" government that was dedicated to social uplift. It brought nutrition, health care, education and employment to millions of impoverished people in Chile. It broke new ground by ensuring that poor children had milk to drink. And it deepened democratic processes for much of Chilean society.Almost without exception, news accounts give short shrift to the three years of enlivening changes that abruptly ended with the coup on Sept. 11, 1973. The suppression of memory has included the blanking out of vibrant and humanizing values nurtured during the Popular Unity era."The most premeditated manifestation of forgetting is depoliticization," Chilean sociology professor Tomas Moulian wrote recently. "It is also the most pernicious, as it saps the strength of social solidarity."By now, Moulian observed, Chile has come to resemble "societies that do not seek to transform themselves and have become trapped by the dullness of repetition. They no longer think in terms of emancipation because they believe that the system itself produces a degree of equality that no other social system can attain."In Chile, and in the United States, the memory of other possibilities is also gasping for breath.