13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 24


Norman Lamont goes to Chile and feels ashamed to be British

HOW intriguing. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary responsible for the incarceration of General Pinochet, seems to have been smitten by a fit of compassion. For months, the Chileans have appealed for the release of the General on humanitari- an grounds and, hitherto, the Home Secre- tary has resisted stonily. The question of the prisoner's health could only be consid- ered at the end of legal proceedings, he has said; and, since these arc likely to go on until 2001, that was not much comfort to the General and his supporters.

Now, in a striking U-turn, the Home Office has told the Chilean ambassador that Mr Straw is prepared to consider an independent medical report. The news, relayed at a press conference by the Chilean foreign minister, was hailed as a triumph for quiet diplomacy and a prelude to the imminent return of Pinochet; though Mr Straw, perhaps mindful of the lynch mob in the Labour party, chose to make no announcement himself.

Throughout the whole shameful Pinochet episode, Chileans have been prone to excessive optimism, partly because that is their nature and partly because some people want them to be so. For the last year they have regularly been told that the General was on the point of returning. I fear that the Home Office's so-called announcement is another false dawn.

If it were discovered that General Pinochet were on the point of death, I dare say even the callous Jack Straw would let him go home. If, on the other hand, the General's health merely deteriorates, then the Home Secretary is committed to noth- ing. So why the U-turn? The key; I suspect, lies in the Chilean presidential elections next month, and the increasing despera- tion of the socialists to get the General back.

A few months ago the socialist candidate Ricardo Lagos, an elder statesman and the favourite, enjoyed a huge lead over the Conservative candidate, Joaquin Lavin, the mayor of Las Condes. As someone who has just been to Chile, I can testify that the election is entering a new and exciting phase. Opinion polls have shown the candidates running neck and neck. Lavin has fought a Blairite campaign, long on style and full of paradoxes. He is a sup- porter of Pinochet. He has also met rela- tives of those who suffered under the military government. He is a Chicago- school free-marketeer, but one who talks a lot about the welfare of the people. He is also a populist who appears in a different regional costume each week. As mayor, he once announced that he would end a long- standing drought and went up in an air- craft to create rain. It didn't work.

This time, though, his methods have made him a serious candidate and, when the increasingly desperate Lagos attacked him, he refused to engage and simply replied, 'Lagos is not my enemy; unem- ployment is my enemy.' The cities of Santi- ago, Valparaiso and Concepcion are all covered in blue and yellow Lavin posters with the simple message 'Con Lavin el Cambio' (`Change with Lavin'). Having fought eight elections myself, I know how unnerving that kind of poster can be.

Lagos will also have noticed the graffiti supporting General Pinochet — `Gracias General' and `Traigan al Tara' (`Send Grandpa home'). Polls show that two thirds of Chileans want him returned. An analysis of newspapers showed that Gener- al Pinochet receives far more mentions in the press than either of the two candidates. Neither candidate chooses to refer to him too often, and both formally insist that he must be returned to Chile. So far, though, the Pinochet issue has, if anything, helped Lavin and harmed Lagos.

Some Chileans wonder whether the cur- rent socialist government is doing anything at all to get Pinochet back. There is no doubt that if Lavin, the Conservative, were elected, he would do his utmost to help the General. He has visited him in Surrey twice, and he would lose his core support if he did not. The irony, therefore, is that if General Pinochet were returned today, Lavin's campaign would be ruined, and the best thing from Lavin's point of view would be if General Pinochet died a prisoner of the British. Hence the desperation of the socialists to get him back. The vice-presi- dent of the Senate told me that General Pinochet had telephoned him the other day and asked whether his return would harm Lavin. He replied that it would. 'In that case,' Pinochet said, `I'd better stay in Eng- land a little longer.'

General Pinochet divides Chileans (which is a good reason for letting his countrymen judge him). But he still enjoys strong support from a large section of the population, particularly those who remem- ber Allende. They see him as the saviour of their country. Europeans forget that the so- called tyrant stood in a free election and received 43 per cent of the vote after 14 years in office. The Conservative party would have been ecstatically happy to have had such a vote at the end of its term of office.

I called on the mayor of Providencia, Christian Labbe, a burly outspoken charac- ter who left the garbage uncollected for a week as a protest against the Pinochet arrest. We went on to a meeting at a local club, arranged only by telephone, and 800 people turned up cheering, stamping, chanting, waving Chilean flags. Outside the hall I could hardly get into the car, so great was the crush of people wanting to shake my hand. One lady gave me a coffee mug she had designed to raise money for Pinochet. It had a picture of a London double-decker bus and Big Ben with a ban- ner at its top saying 'Free Pinochet'. An Irish priest said to me: 'You walk alone with truth.' Another lady said she had spent all her savings going to London to demonstrate for Pinochet. She was loudly cheered.

Members of the British community were even angrier than the Chileans. The Angli- can bishop told me that the majority of his flock, whatever their political views, wanted Pinochet back. I have never been in a country where the British ambassador was so criticised by expatriates. Everywhere I went Chileans asked me: how can the British government deal with terrorists, and yet presume to judge Pinochet? Why shouldn't Chile also have its peace process?

Why was the Chinese President received by the Queen? Lord Hoffman's name is mud. No one believes that the legal process is impartial after the Prime Minister publicly insulted Pinochet.

Chilean anger is understandable. But I fear they are deluding themselves if they think they will get any help from the British government. I returned from Chile feeling if possible even greater anger and shame at what my country has done.