20. Jack Straw and General Pinochet



Ironically, just when the issue of Chile was raised in discussions on the third way, General Pinochet, the butcher of the Chilean people, set foot on British soil and triggered one of the most ‘embarrassing’ episodes of Blair’s first government. As Home Secretary Jack Straw faced judicial demands from Spain for Pinochet to be extradited to stand trial for crimes that had been committed by his regime against Spanish citizens. Big demonstrations took place in London as the House of Lords pondered its verdict. Pinochet had arrived in London and almost immediately the Spanish anti-terrorist judge, Baltasar Garzón, had asked Scotland Yard to locate him and to prevent him from leaving the country.

Straw reacted with alarm. The powers to arrest Pinochet through a warrant request were vested in a judge and this was duly carried out. Pinochet’s lawyers tried to cancel the provisional arrest warrant. Straw was compelled to refuse this request. After much legal wrangling there was an appeal to the law lords who surprisingly, by three to two, upheld Pinochet’s extradition to Spain. Even so, Straw’s past role as a ‘left’ came into the calculation. He had written an article for Tribune, the Labour left-wing newspaper, after a visit to Chile during his student days but this was found not to be prejudicial to Pinochet from a legal standpoint. The former bloody dictator was about to be extradited to Spain when his lawyers discovered that one of the law lords had chaired an Amnesty  International event. This allowed the original ruling on extradition to be cancelled.

The legal wrangling dragged on with the Foreign Office – still highly conservative even under a ‘Labour’ government – expressing the opinion to Robin Cook, Labour’s Foreign Secretary, that “the sooner Straw lets [Pinochet] go, the better”. Straw, in his autobiography, made it clear that Blair energetically pursued this notion, so did a slew of world leaders, including former US President George Bush senior, former Tory Chancellor Norman (now Lord) Lamont, and inevitably Thatcher herself.

The chief argument for releasing Pinochet was the ‘debt Britain owed’ him for his help over the Falklands. Blair wrote two letters demanding Pinochet’s release. Straw rejected this, which was viewed by Blair as more or less questioning his ‘manhood’. He wrote: “I am dismayed… Are you saying that it is proper for the Home Secretary to be guided by the view of private individuals but not to take into account those of the prime minister? Such a proposition is manifestly absurd. In the last resort, you are responsible for all the actions of your government.”1 But Straw was compelled to resist this pressure, not out of principle, as was subsequently demonstrated, but from a legal point of view. Pinochet’s extradition was delayed for nearly twelve months.

Daily demonstrations of sometimes up to 1,000 outside the House of Lords awaited its verdict. In reality, Pinochet had very few friends and, as a consequence, the historic law lords’ ruling against him was met with wild scenes of joy by the hundreds of Chileans and their supporters in Europe gathered outside the Lords and the Grovelands Priory Hospital, which was ‘hosting’ Pinochet at one stage. John Reid, with family connections to Chile, wrote in the Socialist that “even hundreds of lobbyists of Parliament and Tories also joined in the applause, as did drivers and passengers in cars and buses passing by, who waved and tooted their horns; showing that the vast majority of the people want the tyrant Pinochet extradited and tried.” The Socialist also gave many reasons why Pinochet should stand trial for his crimes. Sixty percent of Chileans were in favour of putting Pinochet on trial. His only real supporters were the military, big business and extreme right-wingers.

Pinochet’s regime pioneered the neoliberal economic policies which Thatcher introduced later. After killing thousands of workers and pauperising many more, the junta he headed brought industrial production down to the levels of 1966, with 35% unemployment, ten years after the coup in 1973. There were at least 2,700 extradition papers which had been issued. Even the CIA – which backed his seizure of power – estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 were slaughtered in the first two months after the coup. Pinochet’s junta admitted that they had 5,200 people facing the firing squad in September 1973. The slaughter of opponents of his regime took place not just within the borders of Chile. He promoted covert activities outside Chile, including the assassination of political enemies. We added: “Allende’s government got 44% of the vote six months before the coup. Pinochet didn’t bother with elections.”2

The old dictator pretended that he was ‘sick’ but what about the old and sick who suffered in the coup? He had granted himself a permanent amnesty when he stepped down from power – he was not confident he would get away with his crimes any other way. There was enormous pressure on Straw for action, as he points out. There was “countervailing pressure from human rights groups, the left-wing press and other MPs – including, to my surprise, a vehement Peter Mandelson – calling for this ‘evil war criminal’ to be ‘made to face a trial’.”3 Much to Straw’s relief – and the anger of all of those looking for justice – a medical panel convened at the behest of Pinochet’s lawyers met to assess his fitness to stand trial.

This was a device which had been used in previous cases, for instance, with Ernest Saunders who was convicted of share trading fraud. He was originally sentenced to five years, but that was reduced because the court found he was suffering from incurable Alzheimer’s disease and this led to a severely reduced sentence. When Saunders was released from jail he made a miraculous recovery! Now the medical panel found that Pinochet was not fit to stand trial. Straw writes: “The medical panel was thorough. Rather to my  surprise they unanimously came to a clear view that Pinochet was indeed unfit to stand trial. The Chief Medical Officer concurred.” Hiding behind this judgement, Straw wrote, quite cynically: “There was, as it were, no ‘get out of jail’ card for me.”4 He had to take the decision to release Pinochet to the fury of all of those looking forward to seeing this monster in a criminal court.

Straw’s decision did not go without a challenge: “One of the Home Office medical experts was subsequently reported in the Observer as commenting that his panel’s assessment of Pinochet’s capacity to stand trial was not as conclusive as I had made out.” Even one of those who participated in assessing Pinochet said later that he could not say that the decision was “unequivocal” because all “we did was list the medical facts. Whether those medical facts constitute unequivocal grounds for deciding his fitness for trial is outside our field of competence and outside our responsibilities.”5 Straw disputes this interpretation which he says was not available at the time he took his decision but the whole episode shattered the attempt of the Blair government and its ministers to pretend that they were acting in line with its much trumpeted ‘ethical’ foreign policy. When Pinochet landed back at Santiago de Chile airport, Straw writes, “He gave me a metaphorical ‘v sign’ by getting out of his wheelchair to wave at the crowds of jubilant supporters. I felt double-crossed.”6

There was not universal celebration in Chile. In fact, the new ‘centre left’ government said that the general’s ‘triumphant arrival’ damaged the image of Chile across the world. This was not the end of the Pinochet saga. In November 2006, he was charged with 36 counts of kidnapping and 23 of torture. The prosecutor sought house arrest. However, Pinochet died a few weeks later on 10 December and, as Straw comments, “aged 91, without any court, in Europe or Latin America, ever having convicted him of any criminal offence”. This did not prevent Straw from commenting that he felt “privileged to have played a significant, if wholly unexpected, part in helping to make [Chile] a more civilised place”!7

The real people who helped to ensure that Chile enjoyed a modicum of civilisation – trade union and democratic rights in place of the dictatorship – was not the vainglorious Straw but the Chilean working class who never stopped struggling for Pinochet’s overthrow. Included amongst these is Celso Calfullan, member and partisan of the CWI in Chile, who was not only arrested but tortured for his beliefs and has never stopped fighting for justice for all those who died under the iron heel of Pinochet. Celso has consistently fought for a socialist Chile and Latin America.