While Pinochet was being treated at a Santiago military hospital, the political divisions and passions the 91-year-old former strongman continues to inspire among Chileans bubbled to the surface. His foes and supporters brawled and lawyers argued over whether his latest health crisis is a legal maneuver to avoid prosecution.
Pinochet suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital early Sunday. He underwent a successful emergency angioplasty to enlarge an artery and restore the flow of blood to his heart, physicians said.
Pinochet is in stable condition and is improving on all levels, Dr. Juan Ignacio Vergara, a spokesman for the medical team treating him, told the Chilean daily La Tercera, adding that he is optimistic that Pinochet can "pull through."
"We have not found any new problems," said Vergara. "The general's progress is very, very favorable. He's doing well."
Vergara said Pinochet will remain hospitalized for at least 10 days.
Pinochet was alert and recognized visitors, who included Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz. He was still in danger of another heart attack or complications from being hospitalized but the risk was substantially reduced, Vergara said, adding that Pinochet would remain at the hospital for at least a week.
"He is very tired, exhausted," Vergara said.
Pinochet's sudden illness came a week after he marked his 91st birthday by issuing a statement in which he took "full political responsibility" for the actions of his government, which carried out thousands of political killings, widespread torture and illegal detentions.
Police intervened to stop a fight that broke out near the Santiago hospital between Pinochet supporters who attended a Roman Catholic mass for him and opponents who organized a protest.
Pinochet's son, Marco Antonio, thanked his father's supporters, adding that protestors had every right to do so, reported La Tercera.
About 50 Pinochet supporters remained in front of the hospital Monday holding portraits of the retired general. Some prayed, while others repeatedly sang the Chilean national anthem.
Pinochet's supporters credit him with saving Chile from communism and the demonstrators voiced unconditional support for their ailing leader, rejecting his critics as well as politicians who supported the military regime but have since distanced themselves from Pinochet.
Pinochet has been increasingly isolated since 1998, when he was arrested in London on an international warrant issued by a Spanish judge who unsuccessfully sought his extradition on human rights charges.
On Sept. 11, the 33rd anniversary of the military coup against socialist President Salvador Allende, just two women appeared at his house for what used to be a day of great celebration. Only about a dozen politicians have visited the hospital since news of his latest health crisis spread.
Pinochet was under house arrest on human rights charges when he suffered the heart attack, but on Monday a court of appeals released him on $1,890 bail — a decision that sparked an angry volley of words from lawyers.
Hugo Gutierrez, a lawyer for the accusers, called Pinochet's hospitalization "yet another big lie of the defense" to avoid trial. Defense attorney Pablo Rodriguez called that claim "an infamy."
Several cases against Pinochet have been dismissed after judges determined he was unfit to stand trial — he uses a pacemaker and suffers from mild dementia caused by a series of strokes — but he still faces indictment in two human rights cases and one for tax evasion.
Lorena Pizarro, president of a dictatorship victims' group, said she hopes Pinochet's heart attack "will not be used to ensure him impunity."
Even speculation on what type of funeral Pinochet should have generated controversy, with one senator saying Pinochet should be denied the state funeral reserved for former presidents.
Months ago, President Michelle Bachelet, who was imprisoned and mistreated during the dictatorship, said it would be "violent for my conscience" to attend such a funeral for Pinochet.
Defense Minister Vivianne Blanlot said she is prepared to attend a military funeral honoring Pinochet for his former post as army commander.
"I know that is important for the army," she said.