New Statesman, 26 July 1999   10 mins read

Tea with Pinochet

New Statesman, 26 July 1999

10 mins read

Tea with Pinochet

When I called a cab to take me to Wentworth Golf Estate, the driver expressed surprise that I was carrying no golf clubs, but seemed happy with my explanation that I was visiting someone for tea. I told him that I was a journalist from the Sunday Telegraph, but it was only when I directed him past one of the estate’s dancing fountains to a leafy cul-de-sac guarded by two Scotland Yard officers in a white Portakabin that it dawned on him exactly who I was going to see.

“S’pose you’ll be going to interview Milosevic next week,” he growled, as we pulled up at the tall iron gates of 28 Lindale Close, residence of one Mr A Pinochet since last November. Feeling guilty, I gave him a large tip and was shepherded by another Scotland Yard officer to join Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, on the general’s patio.

It is not every day that one takes elevenses with a dictator – even a retired one. That the encounter took place in a rose-filled Surrey garden on a hot summer’s day, at a table overlooking a lawn in the middle of which fluttered a Chilean flag and a colourful plastic windmill, rather than in some sombre wood-panelled room lent an air of improbability. I was high on morphine, too, having only got out of hospital the previous day, after giving birth ten weeks early to my first child, and that added to the surrealism of the situation. Had any of Wentworth’s other famous current or past residents such as Bruce Forsyth or Fergie dropped in, I doubt I would have lifted an eyebrow.

There was a sudden silence as Pinochet emerged from the French windows, then a chorus of “Buenos días, mi general”. I stared at the man I had read so much about, joined protests against at university and written about since his arrest, who now shook my hand, smiling and congratulating me on the birth of my son.

Gathered on the patio were several of Pinochet’s advisers: since his arrest last October, I had often met them in smoky coffee bars of London hotels to hear the latest word from his camp. As we waited for the general to emerge, they shuffled nervously. Pinochet does not like journalists and had only agreed to this encounter with the Sunday Telegraph after protracted negotiations and in the belief that his situation could not be worse – proceedings to extradite him to Spain to be tried for torture and conspiracy to torture begin in September.

There was a sudden silence as Pinochet emerged from the French windows, then a chorus of “Buenos dias, mi general “. I stared at the man I had read so much about, joined protests against at university and written about since his arrest, who now shook my hand, smiling and congratulating me on the birth of my son.

Without his uniform and the sinister dark glasses he used to wear, he didn’t look as I expected a dictator to look. Eighty-three last November, he was dressed in a navy suit with a high waistband, a pearl tie-pin on his silk tie. Leaning unsteadily on a crutch, a hearing aid in his right ear and his thin white hair ever so carefully combed, he looked like someone’s elderly uncle. Adding to this impression was the pushchair propped against the wall, belonging to the replica tag heuer aquaracer wbd1313 ba0740 watch for sale youngest of his 25 grandchildren, three-month-old Augusta Victoria, who had just flown over with her mother from Chile. But the most unexpected thing was the voice. Instead of the military bark that I had expected was a high-pitched whisper.

The general took his seat, the Chilean Constitution placed ostentatiously in front of him. This, his extremely polite manner and frequent references to God (there are Catholic icons all over the house), took me back to an encounter 11 years before with the then military dictator of Pakistan. General Zia ul-Haq had insisted on pouring me tea and serving me yellow iced cakes as he lied through his teeth, constantly justifying his actions with references to the constitution, a document he had completely emasculated, and to Allah.

“I do not normally authorise such meetings,” Pinochet began, with a smile which did not reach his pale blue eyes and was not at all reassuring. His advisers had told us that the current commander in chief of the Chilean army had been on the phone the day before, trying to stop the interview. Watching him gesture with liver- spotted hands for someone to pour the chilled water, I was fascinated by his fingers. They were flat and meaty like those of a butcher. We could, he said, ask him anything.

We started on safe ground with Pinochet’s midnight arrest while he lay in a private suite at the London Clinic recuperating from an operation on a spinal hernia. He insisted that he had been “kidnapped”, and strangely his main objection seemed to be that no one had had the decency to warn him beforehand. “The least they could have done is warn me that I was going to be arrested,” he complained. “I wasn’t in England as a common bandit. I was here as a diplomatic figure and had been welcomed as such.”

His arrest had been particularly hurtful because it had happened here in England, his favourite country, where he liked to shop in Burberry and Fortnum & Mason, visit Madam Tussaud’s and take tea with his friend Margaret Thatcher. “As a child, my teachers and other people who educated me always said that Chile was one of Britain’s best friends . . . I was always happy when I came here because I felt Britain was a place where people really respected one another.”

Emilio Kopaitic/Camara Fotográfica

Speaking so softly that we had to lean forward to catch what he was saying, his words often lost in the whir of the fan, he reminded us both of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. “Britain was famous for its justice system,” he whispered, before complaining with some justification about the farcical nature of the legal proceedings against him which have so far run up millions of pounds in costs and will probably never see him brought to trial. Even if he were tried and convicted in Spain, he is too old to go to jail.

“First there’s the ruling. That’s appealed, the appeal succeeds, then they appeal against the appeal and so it goes on. It’s like being on a wheel.” He waved one of his meaty fingers to illustrate his point. “They are playing with the life of a person who is very old, giving him hope of being freed, then taking it away again.

“I’m the only political prisoner in Britain,” he added, banging his fist on the patio table. “Bandits, common criminals, violent people are all pardoned and allowed home.” It was hard not to smile at the image of Pinochet appealing to Amnesty International, who had documented hundreds of cases, during his regime, of victims tossed from helicopters, people herded into sports stadiums and executed by firing-squads or undergoing electric shocks and other tortures in the changing-rooms.

Had he committed crimes against humanity such as torture and conspiracy to torture, for which, in their historic judgement in March, the Law Lords ruled that his status as a head of state gave him no immunity against prosecution?

Instead of the argument I had heard many times from his advisers – that the situation in Chile under Salvador Allende had been near civil war and that the country had been in the frontline of the war against communism – the general simply denied everything. “Never!” he replied. “Not now. Nor do I think I could do something like that in future because, if you read these acts which I drafted, you will see the first thing I said was that we must encourage people’s development and provide security to anyone detained.”

Brandishing the constitution, he jabbed at a section: “It is forbidden to apply any unlawful force on any person.” I thought of this later in his office, where I saw a shelf of Jean-Claude Van Damme videos.

He implied that, after he had seized power in the 1973 coup, he was too busy to torture anyone. “I didn’t have time to devote myself to controlling the actions of others. To say that would be gross slander!” He added: “There was so much to sort out. We had inflation of 500 per cent. We had to recuperate agriculture to provide food for the people and we had to build houses because they were living in shacks and huts. It would be too long to list everything . . .”

This version of events did not really correspond with the report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, according to which 3,197 people were murdered or disappeared during his 17 years in power. Was he saying he had never given orders to torture or kill anyone?

Photographs of victims of the Chilean dictatorship (1973-1990) displayed at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Santiago de Chile)

Carlos Teixidor Cadenas/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

His reply to this – the crux of the case against him – was a Chilean saying. “One does not erase with the elbow what one writes with the hand,” he said, pointing again to his constitution.

Yet General Manuel Contreras, head of the DINA, the Chilean secret police, with whom Pinochet breakfasted every morning, claims that he did nothing without Pinochet’s authorisation. Recently declassified Pentagon papers include one stating: “Gen Contreras reports exclusively to and receives orders from President Pinochet.”

Pressed on who was responsible, Pinochet launched into a complicated discussion about “how” and “what”: “There are many things I ordered him to do but who can say what? You see, as head of the army you always ask “what” not “how” – that’s up to the chief of intelligence. Civilians don’t understand.”

The July sun was getting hotter and Pinochet’s Chilean butler came and served strong coffee in tiny china cups. Clearly not leading anywhere on torture, the conversation moved on to his conditions at Wentworth. “Would you be happy confined to the same 80 square metres for ten months?” asked Pinochet. “Always seeing the same place, the same people?”

A tour of the house revealed it is less luxurious than the reported 12-bedroomed mansion. With some of Pinochet’s family visiting for lunch – his favourite lamb stew, which his Chilean cook was making in the kitchen – the living-cum-dining-room was crowded. Two of the four bedrooms are taken up by Scotland Yard officers in case Pinochet tries to leg it, as is a small room next to the kitchen full of surveillance screens. There is little space for Pinochet’s exercise bike, and he spends most of his time in a cramped office, reading books on his hero Napoleon or surfing the Internet to read the Chilean press. Typical of rented accommodation, the decor has little character – all cream carpets and cream leather chairs – and the only personal touches are the photos on every shelf and mantelpiece of the general, his family and Margaret Thatcher.

Since last month, Pinochet has been allowed to move freely in the garden, though always monitored by Scotland Yard officers and various surveillance cameras and infra-red movement detectors. His greatest joy is his grandchildren. “I’m too old to run around or play ball, but we have a set of remote-control cars and hold races round the lawn,” he said.

With this unlikely image of the dictator and his toy cars, we bade farewell to the old man and left the redbrick house with the roses rambling over the white shutters where we had taken elevenses and chatted about torture.

Cover image: Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

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