Letter From Chile | The Nation


Letter From Chile

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On the evening of Sunday, November 28, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos went on Chilean television to release the report to the nation. (It was posted on a government website, but no hard copies or translations as yet exist.) From the report, Lagos told Chileans, he now understood the "magnitude of the suffering, the insanity of the intense cruelty, the immensity of the pain," and offered a small compensation package and free healthcare for the victims as a way to "repair the wounds." In a Chilean variant of Santayana's famous dictum, Lagos eloquently concluded that in order to avoid repeating the past Chileans could "never again deny it."

About the Author

Peter Kornbluh
Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, and co-author (with William M....

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For the government, the torture report and the compensation package fulfilled Lagos's commitment to address the Pinochet era and resolve the festering human rights issue once and for all. Instead of closure, however, the issuance of the report has fully opened the door to a national dialogue over the crimes of the military dictatorship and those civilian collaborators who facilitated the regime's dirty work. The highly contentious debate, playing out in a flood of forums, interviews, articles, meetings, resolutions and declarations across government agencies and civil society, revolves around two essential issues: public accountability for both government and nongovernment contributors to the repression of the Pinochet era; and judicial reckoning for those military officers who gave the orders, held the electrodes, pulled the triggers and disappeared the bodies.

At the center of the growing clamor is the Chilean military. When the first postdictatorship Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation was released in 1991, documenting the murders and disappearances of 3,100 Chileans, the military (still commanded by Pinochet himself) denounced its "bias and distortion" and dismissed its conclusions. Now, under the leadership of Commander in Chief Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, the military is waging a concerted public relations effort to de-Pinochetize the armed forces and distance itself from the egregious crimes committed by its own institutions.

Indeed, denial is no longer a politically viable option. On November 5 General Cheyre pre-empted the release of the torture report by publishing an institutional mea culpa in Chile's leading newspaper, La Tercera. He abandoned the military's line--promoted by Pinochet himself--that if abuses had been committed they were isolated acts of individual officers and soldiers. The military, he wrote, had taken "the difficult but irrevocable decision to assume institutional responsibility for all past actions that warrant punishment and were morally unacceptable." On December 7, after the report was released, Cheyre used the graduation of an Army cadet class as a well-publicized forum to disavow the atrocities of the Pinochet era, inviting victims and their families to sit in the front row and hear speeches from leading activists and lawyers--and Cheyre himself--on respect for human rights.

But other pro-Pinochet sectors of Chilean society still refuse to acknowledge complicity. As The Report of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture pointedly noted, the horrors of the Pinochet regime "had the support, explicit at times, and almost always implicit, of the only branch of the State that was not a formal part of that regime: the judiciary." With their hallowed institution accused of ignoring or rejecting all legal entreaties from human rights victims and their families during the dictatorship, the eighteen members of the Chilean Supreme Court met to study the Valech Commission report on December 8. In a statement released the next day, the president of the Court, Marcos Libedinsky, defensively rejected all charges. There was "no credible evidence," he claimed, "that distinguished magistrates could have conspired with third parties to allow for unlawful detentions, torture, kidnappings, and murders."

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