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Letter From Chile | The Nation

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Letter From Chile

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Santiago

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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Forty years after Pinochet's coup, a historic presidential campaign has revived debates about his dictatorship—and Washington's role in it.

The marbled corridors of the venerable Tribunal of Justice in downtown Santiago, deadly silent during the years of the military dictatorship, are now filled with the bustle of lawyers, clerks, police detectives and ministers pursuing past crimes of state. Chilean judges are not known for giving press conferences, but on December 13 several dozen reporters from local and international news organizations were waiting when Judge Juan Guzmán stepped out of his office at 1:35 pm after filing his decision on prosecuting Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

"Pinochet has been declared mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation," Judge Guzmán told the large crowd, which included victims of repression and their families. He then announced that he had ordered Pinochet placed under house arrest and indicted for nine disappearances and one murder relating to Operation Condor--a Chilean-led consortium of secret police agencies that conducted hundreds of acts of state-sponsored terrorism in the Southern Cone and around the world in the mid- and late 1970s. Gasps echoed through the hall, then a ripple of applause, and then the sound of shrieks and tears as those who had lost husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, during Pinochet's seventeen-year regime reacted. When the Chilean Supreme Court announced on January 4 that it had rejected Pinochet's appeal of Guzmán's ruling, mayhem once again broke out in the same hall.

The indictment has the most immediate meaning for those directly touched by the actions of Pinochet's military. For the relatives of those missing and murdered, and those who survived the torture camps, the Pinochet prosecution is a vindication of their efforts to keep the cause of truth and justice alive in a society that has largely preferred to dismiss, rather than confront, Chile's dark past. Coming the same week that the Chilean Congress was finalizing a law that would provide a modest monthly payment as compensation to thousands of people imprisoned and tortured during the Pinochet era, it offered a far more important moral reparation to these victims: the possibility that Pinochet would actually be judged.

The decision to prosecute Pinochet comes amid a flurry of activity around the cause of human rights. Since November, almost every day has brought a groundbreaking legal ruling, new indictment, dramatic announcement or event that has maintained the focus of the nation on the horrors of the past. The debate on whether and how to redress the human rights crimes of the Pinochet era--a debate long repressed by the Chilean military, right wing and post-Pinochet civilian governments--has escalated exponentially. "This is a Pandora's box," says Elizabeth Lira, one of Chile's leading psychologists and a member of the national commission that recently compiled a massive report on torture by Pinochet's forces. "I don't know where it stops."

The National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture on which Lira served, known as the Valech Commission for its chairman, Monsignor Sergio Valech, submitted its findings to the government in November. The 1,200-page report catalogued more than 27,000 confirmed cases of imprisonment and the most grotesque forms of torture, which, it noted:

was used as a tool for political control through suffering. Irrespective of any possible direct or indirect participation in acts that could be construed as illegal, the State resorted to torture during the entire period of the military regime. Torture sought to instill fear, to force people to submit, to obtain information, to destroy an individual's capacity for moral, physical, psychological, and political resistance and opposition to the military regime. In order to "soften people up"--according to the torturers' slang--they used different forms of torture.... The victims were humiliated, threatened, and beaten; exposed to extreme cold, to heat and the sun until they became dehydrated; to thirst, hunger, sleep deprivation; they were submerged in water mixed with sewage to the point of asphyxiation; electric shocks were applied to the most sensitive parts of their bodies; they were sexually humiliated, if not raped by men and animals, or forced to witness the rape and torture of their loved ones.

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."

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."

The Supreme Court position so strained credulity that even the Christian Democratic Party--itself a collaborator with the Pinochet regime after the coup--denounced it as "sad, disheartening, lamentable, and almost shameful"; and President Lagos openly criticized the judges for failing to admit that they had acquiesced in the atrocities of the military dictatorship. But when the government party newspaper, La Nación, published a cover story titled "La Cara Civil de la Tortura"--The Civil Face of Torture--along with photographs of what the paper called "los Top Ten" Chilean civilian elites who had facilitated Pinochet's repression, the editor was publicly berated by Lagos administration officials for practicing inflammatory journalism.

That action, as well as others, suggests that the Lagos administration is sensitive to rumbling on the right that the fallout of the Valech report be contained. "The government has undertaken a major challenge with uncertain consequences over which it could easily lose control," stated a December 10 lead editorial in Chile's conservative daily, El Mercurio (owned by Agustín Edwards, who is listed as numero uno on the Top Ten list of regime collaborators). The torture report, Edwards's paper complained, was supposed to "soothe the wounds, not reopen them."

What really rattles the Chilean right and the military is not an accounting but the prospect of being held accountable. In his televised speech releasing the torture report, President Lagos conspicuously avoided all references to identifying the torturers and prosecuting them. His administration soon announced that the testimonies and working papers of the Valech Commission would be kept confidential for fifty years--a decision that the commissioners oppose, and that has raised suspicions among Chile's human rights groups that the government is sequestering critical evidence to impede future judicial proceedings. Indeed, various associations and organizations representing Pinochet's many victims are indignant over the government's efforts to shift the focus away from prosecution of those responsible for human rights crimes while pushing a minimal financial compensation package--about $190 a month--for torture victims. "Justice is the principal method of reparation," insists Pedro Matta, a survivor of the infamous Villa Grimaldi torture camp.

It remains to be seen how, or even if, Chile's tribunals will process thousands of torture cases that could derive from the Valech report. But it is clear from several recent rulings that the momentum for justice that would bring to trial some of the worst human rights abusers under the Pinochet regime can no longer be suppressed. In November the Supreme Court ruled that the amnesty law passed by Pinochet to protect his officers from prosecution for human rights crimes did not apply to the case of Miguel Angel Sandoval, a leftist disappeared by the DINA, Pinochet's secret police. The decision clears the way for the imprisonment of former DINA director Manuel Contreras and sets a precedent for other cases involving officers who had hoped to hide behind the amnesty law. In December, Lieut. Col. Mario Manríquez Bravo was indicted as the "intellectual author" of the murder of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara following the September 11, 1973, coup. With his appeals rejected, Manríquez has been incarcerated pending trial. And earlier this month, ten high-ranking members of the DINA were indicted for disappearing eight Chileans, who became part of Operation Colombo--a crude, macabre effort to falsify the fates of 119 missing political prisoners by arranging the appearance of corpses on the streets of Buenos Aires and planting propaganda claiming that they had died in a battle between militant leftists in Argentina.

Beyond the Condor prosecution, Pinochet himself has been the target of significant legal proceedings that could lead to other trials on terrorism and corruption charges. In early December a Chilean court ruled that he could be prosecuted as the "intellectual author" of the 1974 car-bomb assassination in Buenos Aires of his immediate predecessor as Army commander, Gen. Carlos Prats, and his wife. On Christmas Eve a special investigation into Pinochet's illicit sources of wealth determined that between 1985 and 2002 he had secretly stashed $16 million--twice the previously reported amount--in several accounts at the Riggs National Bank in Washington, DC. And on January 6 authorities raided Pinochet's office in downtown Santiago, finding four false passports in his name and carting off computers and files containing potential evidence. A decision to prosecute Pinochet on charges of corruption, embezzlement and tax evasion is expected soon.

"He is a person who has finished his life in a miserable way," observes Elizabeth Lira. Indeed, as of January 5 the former dictator finds himself under house arrest, with military police guarding the doors of his country estate. At 89, he has lived long enough to read a recent cover story in La Tercera--"Government and Army Plan Funeral of Augusto Pinochet." There will be no official homage paid to the former dictator. State funerals, the Lagos administration has made clear, are reserved for presidents who were democratically elected.

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