'The Glass Has Broken'

Augusto Pinochet's twilight years have not been kind to him. The former Chilean dictator has long been scorned for alleged human-rights violations--political violence claimed the lives of some 3,200 people during his 17-year rule (from 1973 to 1990). But his many right-wing supporters always considered him an enlightened despot. One reason was that he implemented free-market economic policies that were a catalyst for steady economic growth. Another was that he didn't seem corrupt. As Ricardo Israel, a political scientist at Santiago's Autonomous University, puts it: "Pinochet supporters looked the other way at the human-rights violations because he was unlike other Latin American dictators [and] didn't enrich himself." But recent investigations and revelations are shredding Pinochet's already damaged reputation--and after a new Supreme Court ruling last week, the 89-year-old former dictator may yet find himself in the dock for his alleged role in the in the murder of one Chilean and the disappearance of nine others during the country's "dirty war" in the 1970s.

Heretofore, Pinochet has sidestepped all attempts to hold him accountable for human-rights violations during his long reign. In 1998, he was detained in Britain on an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish magistrate; Prime Minister Tony Blair later ordered him released on humanitarian grounds. In 2002, the Chilean Supreme Court ruled that he was mentally unfit to stand trial on mass-murder charges. But now the investigating judge, Juan Guzman Tapia, has determined Pinochet is fit to be tried and the Supreme Court has allowed that judge's indictment to move forward. Pinochet was placed under house arrest at his coastal estate last week.

The ruling comes on top of other setbacks. A U.S. Senate report revealed last July that the former dictator had stashed up to $8 million in secret accounts at the Riggs National Bank in Washington--calling into question claims by Pinochet's family that he'd amassed a fortune through mere savings and successful investments. And in November a governmental torture commission heard testimony from 35,000 people who claimed they were physically abused by law-enforcement or military personnel during Pinochet's rule. These details have caused serious soul-searching in a nation where Pinochet's popularity has been resilient. A September poll showed that Pinochet had lost credibility among his strongest supporters, and two thirds of all Chileans said they didn't believe his family's explanations for his wealth. Until recently, nearly half the population still viewed his leadership favorably. "The glass has broken for Pinochet's supporters," says pollster Marta Lagos. "They finally see Pinochet has done wrong."

More important, the political fallout may allow Chile's civilian government to regain a measure of control over the Chilean military--and in doing so, to break down the wall of impunity and privilege that Pinochet designed for himself and his loyal generals in the 1980 Constitution. When Pinochet relinquished power in 1990 to a democratically elected coalition of center-left political parties, he still enjoyed the benefits of that Constitution, which guarantees the political right ample seats in the Congress, even if it loses a popular vote, and which grants Pinochet legal immunity as a "senator-for-life."

That system is slowly disappearing. The government of President Ricardo Lagos reached an agreement with the country's leading conservative opposition parties late last year that will scrap a military-dominated National Security Council and restore the president's right to fire armed-forces commanders. In addition, four appointed seats in the national Senate that had been reserved for retired generals and admirals will be abolished. Even so, some critics say the constitutional reforms don't go far enough. The controversial "binomial" electoral system that guarantees congressional seats for the political right remains in place. "The right has abandoned the military, but it has protected its veto power over economic and social [policies]," says Felipe Portales, a Santiago-based political analyst.

Pinochet is still a long way from a Santiago courtroom. His attorneys will file new legal motions to block his trial on health grounds, and that appeal won't be heard until March at the earliest. Still, the supremely self-confident former tyrant now cuts a rather lonely figure. Largely confined to a wheelchair, Pinochet is by all accounts a sick man plagued by diabetes and heart problems; natural causes could bring down the curtain before a judge ever does. "I am good, I consider myself an angel," Pinochet said in his last television interview, in late 2003. Fewer and fewer Chileans agree with him, which, no matter what happens with the trial, is good news for the country.