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LATIN AMERICA : Pinochet Medal Sparks Dispute Across Border : The award for the former Chilean president comes from the Argentine army. His place in history is at issue.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By bestowing a medal of merit on Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Argentina’s army has sparked a rousing cross-border controversy.

President Carlos Saul Menem and former President Raul Alfonsin of Argentina, as well as Pinochet himself, have all jumped into the fray. At issue is the former Chilean ruler’s proper place in history.

Pinochet’s 1973-1990 military government is portrayed by critics as an unredeemed dictatorship that trampled basic freedoms and violated human rights in a brutal vendetta against its political opponents.

Others emphasize what they call a solid foundation laid by the regime for continuing economic development. And in fact, sticking to free-market policies established under Pinochet, Chile increased its economic output by a robust 9.5% in 1992.

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The current dispute began two weeks ago after the commander of Argentina’s army conferred the Order of May on Pinochet, who still heads the Chilean army. Some Chileans who opposed Pinochet’s regime cried out in protest.

“It is a shame, for us Chileans who have tirelessly fought the dictatorship, that Gen. Pinochet still appears, that he is commander in chief of the army and that he also receives decorations from the Argentine government. It’s something that hurts us enormously,” said Fabiola Letelier, a Chilean human rights lawyer. Her brother, a prominent Socialist, was killed in Washington in 1976 by a bomb she blames on the Pinochet regime.

Many Argentines, who mourn victims of excess under their own country’s past military government, also protested the decoration. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization of human rights activists, staged an anti-Pinochet demonstration in Buenos Aires.

“Brutal violator of the human rights of his own people,” the mothers called Pinochet. Argentine Congressman Luis Brunati proposed a congressional resolution condemning the decoration of a man “who has been responsible for one of the bloodiest dictatorships in the memory of Latin American history.”

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And Alfonsin, whose presidency began when the Argentine military gave up power in 1983, called Pinochet’s award “an affront to the democratic feelings of the Argentine and Chilean peoples.”

Chile’s army retorted with an official statement complaining that Alfonsin’s comments besmirch the prestige of the army as well as Pinochet’s--"more so when those declarations gratuitously offend someone who legitimately is part of the historical legacy of our country.”

Pinochet, 77, said he was not concerned with the remarks of someone who “failed in his government and had to leave early.” Alfonsin, faced with hyper-inflation in 1989, turned the government over to Menem ahead of schedule.

Menem, who has employed free-market policies similar to Chile’s, has weighed into the Pinochet controversy on the general’s side. Pinochet “left a stabilized, growing country, a country that transcended its own borders,” Menem told reporters this week. He added that he does not favor authoritarian governments but “would like to have received Argentina” in the condition that Chile was in when Pinochet handed it to President Patricio Aylwin in 1990.

The opposing views on Pinochet are not necessarily contradictory. More historical distance will be needed, however, to reconcile the two positions into a more widely acceptable and balanced assessment of the Pinochet era.


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