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Pinochet grips Chile beyond the grave

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(CNN) -- In death as in life, the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who died on Sunday at the age of 91, continues to hold a grip on his country's consciousness.

Pinochet ruled the South American nation unchecked from 1973, when he seized power after leading a military coup against the democratically elected government of the Marxist president Salvador Allende, until he finally relinquished power in 1990.

To many, he was the archetype of the South American despot, setting a template for brutal, authoritarian rule that was imitated in countries across the continent in an ideological crusade that would leave the Latin American left crushed and defeated.

"He will go down in history alongside Caligula and Idi Amin as a byword for brutality and ignorance," said Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, niece of Salvador Allende, himself one of the victims of the bloody uprising that ousted him from power.

Chile's government says that more than 3,000 people died as a consequence of political violence under Pinochet's rule, notably during "Operation Condor," a continent-wide campaign against political dissidents during the mid-1970s, including many whose bodies or fates have never been known.

Many thousands more were tortured in secret detention centers or intimidated into exile.

Yet Pinochet was never brought to trial for the extremities of his rule, and even while many Chileans were treating his death as a reason for national celebration, others came onto the streets on Sunday in a display of very public mourning.

And while denied a full state funeral -- Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, whose father died in prison during the period of dictatorship and herself suffered imprisonment and torture at the hands of the regime, said attending such a ceremony would be "a violation of my conscience" -- Pinochet continues to command the respect of the Chilean military.

A flag flew at half-mast outside the hospital where he died on Sunday as thousands of supporters gathered outside, while Tuesday's funeral will include full military honors.

To his apologists, the excesses of Pinochet's rule were excused by the circumstances of the Cold War in which they were committed and by the free market economic reforms implemented under the dictatorship from which, they claim, Chile continues to benefit to this day.

They argue that by turning the country into a radical pioneer of neo-liberalism, Pinochet ensured steady economic growth and social stability. Even under two successive socialist governments, Chile remains South America's most dedicated disciple of the free market.

"It may take several future generations for people to understand my father and give him the place in history he deserves... and recognize him as a great man who gave everything for his country," Pinochet's eldest son, also named Augusto, told Reuters in 2003.

Yet even Pinochet's economic legacy may be starting to unravel. Since 1998 when a Spanish judge issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of human rights abuses in 1998 -- he was subsequently held in London but released to return to Chile in 2000 on the grounds he was mentally incapable of standing trial -- Pinochet spent the final years of his life seeking to avoid a courtroom confrontation with his past.

With more than 200 criminal complaints filed against him, increasingly it looked as if Pinochet's economic dealings, rather than the human rights abuses with which his name had become synonymous, would ultimately lead to his prosecution.

In 2004 a U.S. Senate investigative committee revealed Pinochet had stashed more than $27 million accrued through embezzlement and tax fraud in foreign bank accounts -- an investigation that shattered the myth that Pinochet, though brutal, was an "incorruptible" figure, motivated only by patriotic fervor.

Furthermore, as Pinochet entered hospital after suffering a heart attack last Sunday, across South America in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez was winning re-election in Venezuela was voters emphatically rejected the free market state model in which Pinochet and his followers had placed his faith.

With many Latin Americans now convinced that model has failed, and with Chavez leading a left-wing resurgence across the region, Pinochet's death comes just as socialism, in whose continent-wide extermination he allegedly spilt so much blood, may have finally re-established a foothold.

"His death robs his opponents of the satisfaction of seeing him sentenced for his crimes," wrote Latin American commentator Isabel Hilton in the Guardian newspaper on Monday. "But Pinochet lived to see his corruption exposed and his claims to honorable motives discredited."

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