Chileans Confront Their Own 9/11
Many other ghosts of the Pinochet regime continue to haunt the country. When I arrived in Chile two weeks before the coup’s fortieth anniversary, the TV program generating the most buzz across the nation was a documentary series called Chile: Las Imágenes Prohibidas. The producers had compiled dramatic, never-before-seen footage of dozens of episodes of repression and protest from the time of the 1973 coup and during the years of dictatorship. They then identified and located people depicted in the footage and brought them back to the scene of the events to share their stories, now accepted as emblematic of the nation’s history. A recent episode revisited the atrocity of los quemados, two teenagers burned alive by the military after a protest in July 1986. Followed by cameras, the one survivor, Carmen Quintana, returned to the place where she and 19-year-old Rodrigo Rojas were doused with gasoline, set on fire and left for dead in a ditch.
Other creative commemorations have captured the public’s imagination. On September 5, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile bestowed posthumous diplomas on students who had been detained and executed or disappeared before they could graduate. “There are so many things happening” around the anniversary, observes Isabel Letelier, whose husband, Orlando, along with his young colleague Ronni Moffitt, was assassinated in Washington by a car bomb planted by agents of Pinochet’s secret police. “Many people who supported Pinochet have been touched by what really happened. Many people who claimed they didn’t know now do know.”
Even Chile’s leading pro-Pinochet paper, El Mercurio, has indirectly acknowledged the extent of the repression. “Everyone understands that this was not simply about ‘excesses,’ but rather systematic human rights violations. Those who yesterday justified these crimes would not dare to even insinuate a justification today,” the paper’s one liberal columnist, Carlos Peña, wrote on August 25. He notes, however, that “acknowledgment of actual responsibility is illustrative in its absence.”
Accountability remains central to the national debate. Pinochet’s 1978 amnesty decree continues to create a significant, though not insurmountable, legal obstacle to successful prosecution of his military. In November 2004, the then–commander in chief of Chile’s armed forces, Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, issued an institutional mea culpa, acknowledging and accepting responsibility for human rights violations. But individual officers, as well as right-wing politicians, business owners, judges, priests and media moguls such as El Mercurio owner Agustín Edwards (who was the key civilian collaborator with the CIA in setting the stage for the coup and helping the military regime consolidate), have refused to acknowledge their personal and institutional responsibility for fomenting violence and facilitating gross violations of human rights. “Chile has come a long way—comparatively more than other similar countries in some respects, and less so in other respects,” says Felipe Agüero, the human rights officer at the Ford Foundation’s Santiago office, who was imprisoned and tortured at the National Stadium forty years ago. “There are still unaccounted missing people, and no sign of apologies from those who participated in the dictatorship.”
Even now, dramatic evidence of human rights crimes continues to surface. In late July, Chilean deep-sea divers pulled from the ocean pieces of iron railroad track used to sink the victims of the “Caravan of Death,” a death squad dispatched by Pinochet to the municipalities of northern Chile to execute leftist officials who had voluntarily turned themselves in after the coup. The horrific discovery has refocused public attention on the fate of the dictatorship’s 1,100 desaparecidos, whose families search for them to this day. Among the disappeared is one US citizen, Boris Weisfeiler, who, declassified US State Department documents reveal, was intercepted by security forces while hiking in January 1985 and never seen again. On August 29, an appeals court upheld the initial indictment against one of the eight police and military officials charged with kidnapping and disappearing Weisfeiler.
The most recent human rights scandal to hit Chile involves retired General Cheyre. Until this August, he served as president of Chile’s national election commission, a symbol of the country’s post-Pinochet democratic infrastructure. But public outrage forced Cheyre to step down after he publicly admitted that after the coup he’d personally transported a 2-year-old boy to a convent to be put up for adoption. Then-Sergeant Cheyre told the nuns that the boy’s leftist parents had committed suicide. In fact, they had been hunted down and murdered by a military patrol. In a dramatic confrontation that captures the ongoing debate over the painful legacy of the coup, Chile’s state television station, TVN, tracked down the orphan—now a man in his early 40s—and brought him face to face with General Cheyre to discuss what had happened. “I am here in the memory of my papa and my mama,” Ernesto Lejderman said. “I am here in their memory because I continue to seek justice for them. For them, there is still no justice.”
The process of justice “takes many long years,”suggests José Zalaquett, the staff director for Chile’s first truth commission in 1990 to ‘91. “The timetable seems excessive for the lives of individuals, but it is not so long in the life of a nation.” For thousands of victims, like Rodrigo Rojas and Lejderman’s parents, justice remains elusive, and may never come. But Chileans have made significant progress in prosecuting human rights crimes since 1989, when Pinochet threatened the incoming civilian government that “the day they touch one of my men, the rule of law ends.”
Some seventy of Pinochet’s top military men—including Manuel Contreras, former director of DINA, the secret police—are currently serving lengthy prison sentences for crimes that include murder, torture and the disappearances; approximately 800 others have been indicted or are being legally investigated. According to Cath Collins, who directs the Human Rights Observatory at the University of Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile has “compiled one of the most active and complete records of judicial accountability anywhere on the continent, and perhaps in the world.”
That success has come haltingly; it is the result of the ceaseless efforts of the victims, along with Chile’s courageous human rights lawyers, activists and judges. In Madrid, a team of prosecutors, judges and lawyers—notably Baltasar Garzón, Carlos Castresana and Joan Garcés—have also made a major contribution, applying the principle of universal jurisdiction in Spanish law to seek Pinochet’s extradition from England in October 1998. The saga of Pinochet’s 504 days under detention in London was not only a turning point for the pursuit of justice in Chile; it was a transformational time for the global human rights movement [see Kornbluh, “Prisoner Pinochet,” December 21, 1998].