Chile and the End of Pinochet

Chile and the End of Pinochet

The former dictator is charged at last, and human rights are the talk of the nation.



As former dictator Augusto Pinochet was preparing to take pretrial mental exams, and as the Chilean military was releasing a report acknowledging that during the Pinochet dictatorship the bodies of scores of political opponents and leftists had been thrown into the ocean, perhaps the satirical Santiago tabloid The Clinic put the situation most pungently. “Why Bother With the Tests?” asked the headline. “Only a Psychopath Would Toss Bodies Into the Sea.”

It was, nevertheless, rather satisfying to stand outside Chile’s main military hospital on the morning of January 10 and gawk as the physically and politically diminished 85-year-old former general was finally forced to submit to four days of tests to determine whether he was “demented or crazy”–those being the only thus-defined illnesses that, under Chilean law, would permit Pinochet to elude pending trial on charges of multiple murder and kidnapping.

The former dictator’s defense team had struggled mightily to evade the tests–as well as a trial. A few days before, Pinochet had openly refused even to show up for the court-ordered tests. But that course was reversed after he was paid a personal visit by the current army Commander in Chief, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, who reportedly lectured Pinochet that he must comply with the law and the courts or else risk losing any military support he still had.

Izurieta’s lecture was striking evidence of the depth to which the once politically omnipotent and legally untouchable Pinochet had fallen. If any further proof was needed, it was enough to see that no more than a pathetic dozen Pinochetistas bothered to demonstrate in his favor in front of the hospital doors (primarily by physically attacking reporters and passing tourists, all considered members of the International Communist Conspiracy).

This was a helluva long way to come in two and a half years. In the fall of 1998, thousands of enraged Pinochet supporters, upon learning of his arrest in London on a Spanish warrant, took to the streets of Santiago and threatened to sack both the British and Spanish embassies. It seemed that the entirety of the Chilean political establishment was pleading for the dictator’s liberation.

Pinochet’s medical examiners eventually found him to be suffering “light to moderate vascular dementia”–clinical language for a form of arteriosclerosis. It was not enough to stop investigating magistrate Juan Guzmán Tapia from formally interrogating the former dictator and moving his case to the brink of trial. And so, on the morning of January 23, 2001, as all of Chile looked on amazed, Judge Guzmán, accompanied by court reporters and detectives from Chile’s federal police, entered Pinochet’s uptown mansion and for more than two hours subjected the former dictator–who had once boasted that not so much as a leaf moved in Chile without his consent–to the same sort of questioning imposed on any common criminal suspect. Guzmán quizzed Pinochet on some fifteen questions relating to accusations that the former dictator was the “intellectual author” of Chile’s most macabre massacre and the disappearance of seventy-five civilians.

According to the transcript of the interrogation, Pinochet denied ever ordering anyone’s death and blamed the massacre on regional subordinates. But Pinochet probably should have just kept his mouth shut. For, shortly after his assertion, retired Gen. Joaquin Lagos rushed onto Chilean TV and, wagging his finger and breaking two decades of silence, said Pinochet was fully informed of the mass killing carried out by his troops. “They took their eyes out of their sockets with daggers, breaking their jaws, breaking their legs,” General Lagos said. “They shot them in segments, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart with submachine guns…there was not even a final mercy shot.”

But the general’s bombshell statements were merely prelude to the single most important moment in recent Chilean history. On Monday, January 29, six days after questioning the former dictator, Judge Guzmán decided that the medical reports were not sufficient to halt the proceedings. He formally charged Augusto Pinochet with multiple counts of murder and kidnapping and ordered him placed under immediate house arrest. Guzmán granted Pinochet only the courtesy of postponing any fingerprinting and snapping of mug shots until all appeals are resolved.

Those appeals have already been filed and will go all the way to the Chilean Supreme Court. But most observers agree that the best Pinochet can hope for is to be finally excused from trial for health reasons. Virtually no one believes he can overturn the charges themselves and thus escape history’s judgment as having committed crimes against humanity. “The 29th of January will go down in history as the day Pinochet was finally charged with his crimes,” said a joyous Viviana Diaz, president of the Association of Families of the Disappeared. Human rights attorney Roberto Garretón called it “a turning point” and said that the human rights movement “has succeeded in indicting a dictator who wrote his own Constitution and decreed his own amnesty.” He added that after Pinochet left office, “he was protected by politicians who have lied to the Chilean people and the world, asserting that we lived in a democracy and that everyone wanted to forget about the past. Judge Guzmán and the human rights movement have given us justice and the truth. They have changed Chile and the world.”

While the formal charging and arrest of Pinochet acquires what plaintiff’s attorney and Socialist Party congressman Juan Bustos calls “transcendental” significance, the often underreported collateral events triggered by this case are now also radically rewriting Chile’s past and future. It’s only now, a full twenty-seven years after Pinochet’s bloody coup against an elected Socialist government, that the Chilean military is, at last, on the political defensive. The twin battles, therefore, over who will write Chile’s last three decades of history as well as over whether this country of 15 million will have an authentically democratic future are finally and furiously being fought out around the still unresolved but red-hot issue of human rights.

Encouragingly, the most ardent attempts of the Chilean military as well as the nominally center-left civilian administration of President Ricardo Lagos (no relation to General Lagos) to tamp down and forever shelve the issue of human rights have failed miserably. Indeed, as highlighted by Pinochet’s fall, in the past few weeks they have wildly backfired, allowing the debate over Chile’s recent dark past to spin freely and broadly beyond the control of the timid political establishment. As a result, even the meek and overwhelmingly conservative Chilean press has granted generous and unprecedented daily coverage to the trials of military officers and to the more than 3,000 dead, including 1,100 “disappeared,” during the seventeen years of the military dictatorship (1973-90). Widows of murdered political prisoners, until recently on the margins of Chilean society, have become talk-show celebrities. Grainy black-and-white newsreels of the most hair-raising images from the Pinochet dictatorship fill the TV airwaves as Chilean newscasts report on the exhumation of mass graves, the search for bones and the prosecution of the guilty. Reality imitates art, like an extended version of the old Costa-Gavras thriller Z. The Chilean public has been treated to a parade of former–and even a few active–military officers held legally accountable for the atrocities of the 1970s and 1980s. To date, eight generals and another eighty former military and intelligence officials have been indicted.

Chilean TV viewers can only have been shocked–or perhaps indignantly amused–when, on the eve of Pinochet’s mental exams, the ultraright head of the Augusto Pinochet Foundation, and the most dogged public apologist for the dictator, retired Gen. Luis Cortes Villa, was asked for his reaction to the just-released report about bodies having been thrown into the sea. “Many times my own sons in the military asked me if these sorts of things were true or not,” the former general told the cameras. And then, with a look of mild bewilderment, he added: “I always told them no. But this [report] leaves one standing in a rather awkward position.”

Gracias to Garzón

Laura Elgueta, a public employee now in her 40s, needed no official report to confirm the barbarities of the Pinochet dictatorship. She miraculously survived a 1977 abduction in Buenos Aires carried out by a joint Argentine-Chilean government death squad. Her older brother, however, has been “disappeared” ever since. For two decades, along with other members of the Association of Families of the Disappeared, she was convinced that justice would forever be elusive–that is, until the 1998 detention of General Pinochet by Scotland Yard. “One day we are going to have to erect a monument to Judge Garzón,” Elgueta says, referring to the Madrid-based magistrate whose work led to the warrant that ensnared Pinochet. It was back in 1996 that Judge Baltasar Garzón began looking into the deaths of some 300 fellow Spanish citizens who had been caught up during the 1970s in Argentina’s internal “dirty war.” Garzón’s investigation led him into the heart of Operation Condor–the network of intelligence services and cross-border murder concocted by Pinochet’s Chile, the generals of Argentina and other neighboring dictatorships [see Peter Kornbluh, “Prisoner Pinochet,” December 21, 1998]. In the process, he established a legal precedent for treating as actionable crimes what had previously been regarded as political acts. “Garzón single-handedly changed the history of our country,” Elgueta says.

Indeed, if Pinochet’s London arrest was the best thing that ever happened to Chile’s human rights movement, then his getting dumped back into Chile 503 days later for reasons of health (in early 2000) was the second best. The British had held Pinochet just long enough to break his political hold on Chile, and they returned him home just in time to lance the boil that had festered untreated. “Since Pinochet was arrested, and especially since he came back, there’s been a public eruption of all the filth and horror of the dictatorship–from the details of repression to the role of the CIA,” says Manuel Cabieses, editor of the leading leftist magazine, Punto Final. “It’s all been indescribably dramatic. It has turned Pinochet into an intolerable burden even for most of the right.”

Pinochet had no sooner hit the Santiago airport tarmac last year after his release in London than Chilean human rights crusaders–sensing a political opening–filed an avalanche of criminal complaints against him: thirty, forty, then 150, and now more than 200 separate cases. By last summer, a reinvigorated Chilean judiciary had stripped Pinochet of his parliamentary immunity as an unelected “Senator for Life.” And the Chilean Supreme Court found some creative ways to pierce the shield of amnesty that Pinochet had decreed in the days of the dictatorship. Judge Guzmán was pushing forward the most serious case against Pinochet, the one that named him “intellectual author” of the so-called Caravan of Death. The case stemmed from the first weeks of the military dictatorship, when a special army unit traveling by helicopter went from town to town pulling recently arrested civilians out of jail–seventy-five in total–executing them and disappearing their bodies. “There’s no question that this was carried out on personal instructions of Pinochet,” says plaintiffs’ attorney Carmen Hertz, whose husband perished in the homicidal frenzy of the Caravan.

As the wall of impunity began to crack, both the Chilean military and the elected civilian government of Christian Democrats and Socialists came up with a dramatic gambit to undercut the growing demand for legal accountability. Although the military had until then never acknowledged any wrongdoing, it was now prepared to sit down with human rights representatives in an open-ended “roundtable dialogue.” The agreement severely split the human rights community. Defenders of the dialogue said there was nothing to lose. But some critics were scathing in their appraisal. “It’s part of a government strategy aimed at showing that Chile can settle at a table what it refuses to settle in the courts,” was what attorney Fabiola Letelier told me at the time the dialogue was proposed. Letelier’s brother, Orlando, a former Chilean ambassador, was murdered in 1976 by a car bomb planted in Washington, DC, by Pinochet’s secret police. “They are going to try to shut us up by offering some bones,” she said.

Backfire: Bones of Contention

Letelier turned out to be prescient, to say the least. After months of roundtable talks, the military agreed last summer that it would conduct a six-month internal investigation and, by offering anonymity to informants, would compile and make public an official report on everything it knew regarding the fate of 1,100 Chileans considered disappeared. Theoretically, this was a chance to heal Chile’s gaping social wound.

As the January 7 deadline to make that report public neared, Chile stood politically breathless. The day began with Pinochet refusing to show up for his first day of court-mandated mental exams. Judge Guzmán waited patiently at the hospital for the former general for two hours, noted his absence and then went back to his office to ponder his legal options.

President Lagos was scheduled to address the nation at 10 pm to publicize the military’s long-awaited report. As darkness fell, a crowd began to gather downtown in front of La Moneda palace–the seat of government that Pinochet bombed in the 1973 coup and in which deposed President Salvador Allende took his own life.

A hand-painted banner reading No One Is Forgotten. Nothing Is Forgiven was draped on the police barricade in front of the presidential palace. Some in the crowd had pinned fading black-and-white photos of missing relatives over their hearts. Hundreds of candles were lit and placed in front of the steel barricades. Shortly before Lagos’s speech was to begin, a column of about 200 marchers led by Communist Party leader Gladys Marín appeared on the scene clapping and chanting “Pinochet to Trial!” Marín’s husband was among the disappeared, and she had the distinction of having filed the first criminal action against Pinochet–exactly three years before.

As people in the crowd hugged one another and radios were switched on in anticipation of the president’s speech, as the long line of candles flickered in the warm evening breeze, as another clump of candles was placed at the foot of the newly erected statue of Allende bearing some of his last words (“I have faith in Chile and its future”), there was both a sense of great drama and great sadness and disappointment. On this most historic of evenings, no more than 500 people had gathered, and only the small Communist Party had mobilized. Although Chilean opinion polls have consistently shown clear national majorities in favor of holding Pinochet and the military accountable for the crimes of the dictatorship, and even though President Lagos is a member of the same Socialist Party as Allende, the Chilean government long ago pushed aside human rights as a political issue. If Lagos had put out a simple call for Chileans to peacefully assemble to honor the missing and to show support for the rule of law, hundreds of thousands would surely have come out.

No such call was made. And, rather astoundingly, as Lagos gave his fifteen-minute address, the name Pinochet never crossed his lips. Instead, Lagos methodically revealed the outlines of the military report, prefacing the details by warning that what he had to say was going to be “raw and painful.” Previous to that evening, 171 of the 1,100 cases of the disappeared had been cleared up. Now, the long-awaited military report had information on another 181 cases. Of those, some 151 were names of Chileans whom the military now acknowledged it had dumped in the ocean. The remaining cases consisted of a group of twenty-four reported to be buried in the northern desert and another group of six reported to be buried in a rural site near the capital.

At first the crowd outside the palace was stunned by hearing what had always been known but never admitted. But the shock soon turned to anger. After twenty-seven years, this is all the military had to report? More than 700 cases were still unaccounted for, and the 181 cases now reported as solved were suspiciously scant on details. The ire in the street turned incandescent as Lagos concluded by saying how proud he was that Chile could so fully probe its past. When he lauded the military for its “strength and courage” the crowd outside burst out with yells of “Murderers!”

A Sea of Doubts

Within twenty-four hours, the military report proved to be a political and public relations debacle of monumental scale and, inadvertently, a gold-plated gift to human rights activists. The military’s acknowledgment that it had disappeared people into the ocean was, indeed, a historic breakthrough. But a detailed analysis of the report revealed much more ham-handed politicking than historical truth-telling.

The report brought forth a tidal wave of negative reactions. Even those human rights attorneys who had participated in the roundtable with the military were now seething. Lawyer Pamela Pereira, who had been the chief human rights negotiator with the military, went on TV and challenged the head of the National Police to “look me in the eye and swear you are not still withholding information.” The issue of torture was left unaddressed in the report. Not one case involving the disbanded secret police, the DINA–responsible for an estimated 700 disappearances–was mentioned.

Most unsettling, some of the information given by the military glaringly contradicted evidence already unearthed by the courts. Specifically, some of the disappeared whose whereabouts in jails and concentration camps had been tracked to a certain date were now shown as having been cast into the Pacific at an earlier date. A consensus quickly arose among human rights lawyers that they were now face to face with the most cynical of political strategies. Before Pinochet left power he had decreed an amnesty law that blocked prosecution for any human rights abuses committed before 1978. In the past two years, Chilean courts have found a novel loophole in the amnesty: Even if a victim was disappeared before 1978, if the body could not be accounted for, the case was still an active kidnapping and therefore not covered by the amnesty. It’s under this interpretation that the major human rights cases in Chile are proceeding in the courts.

But if the military was now reporting that bodies had been thrown into the sea before 1978, it could claim amnesty. “What a wonderful coincidence it is,” said respected lawyer Carmen Hertz sarcastically, “that most of the people the military says it threw into the ocean are precisely the cases most vigorously being investigated by the courts. How convenient.” Said Fabiola Letelier: “The only thing this perverse report produced was more pain. Now the surviving relatives are going to rightfully demand all the details: Who really did or did not get thrown into the ocean? Were the victims dead or alive? Who flew the planes? Who opened the doors?”

The silver lining to this national trauma is its boomerang effect. A veritable human rights offensive is now fully under way. Lawyers talk about filing eighty new cases naming more than 100 military officers. One complaint just filed accuses the current military top command of obstruction of justice (a court has just ordered the matter fully investigated). Another suit names Pinochet’s lead lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, as an active collaborator with the former secret police. Yet another accuses Pinochet in the theft and trafficking of the children of disappeared prisoners. Fabiola Letelier is carrying forward a new suit in the case of Charles Horman, the young American coup victim immortalized in the film Missing.

If that were not enough, a time bomb with potentially catastrophic effects was recently set ticking by the appearance of the book The Thin White Line and by the publication of a yearlong investigation by the London Observer, both alleging that in the 1980s the Pinochet regime marketed tons of cocaine in the United States and Europe. No one, for example, has yet explained how it is that Pinochet himself had by 1997 managed to amass $1,169,308 in his Washington, DC, bank account on an official salary of $16,000 a year.

But most important, in endorsing the discredited military report, the Lagos government has robbed itself of one of its most coveted but unstated goals: some sort of “full stop” legislation that would forever shut down the human rights trials. All political sides now concur that in the wake of the report on the disappeared there is no chance of such a law passing. “This story still has a long way to run,” says Sebastian Brett, the Santiago-based representative of Human Rights Watch. “There are many more trials to come, more generals ready to fall. The roundtable report is not likely to put people in any mood to negotiate.”

The ‘New Socialism’: Free Trade and F-16s

Manuel Cabieses, the Punto Final editor, giggles over what a burden the Pinochet case has become for Chile’s political and military establishment. “Every morning, I can assure you that [Army] Commander in Chief Izurieta’s first wish is that Pinochet has died overnight so he can bury him by lunchtime, put a big statute over his grave and forget him.”

But it’s not just the right and the army who want to be free of this albatross. So does the center-left governing coalition of Ricardo Lagos. “President Lagos told me just the other day he wished the old fucker would just go away and die,” said an aide to a Chilean congressman.

The “renewed” Socialists led by Lagos and his Christian Democratic government partners–ambitiously embarked on a US “modernization” program–privately, and too often publicly, consider the whole human rights debate to be a nettlesome distraction. Said a disgusted Fabiola Letelier: “All this government really wants to do is to perfect Pinochet’s free-market economic model. It’s obsessed with globalization.”

Meanwhile, the government and just about everybody else in Chile expects that in congressional elections later this year and in presidential elections five years out, the political right will probably win. It’s a maddening paradox to many how it is that at the precise moment in which Pinochet’s historical legacy is most awash in blood and infamy, just as his closet collaborators get marched into court, his onetime political supporters and heirs have become the ascendant electoral force.

And ascendant they are. A year ago, as Pinochet was being held in London, his onetime economic adviser Joaquin Lavín came within a hair of defeating Socialist Lagos–even though historically the Chilean right has trouble getting even 40 percent of the vote. Lavín then went on to win the mayoral election in Santiago handily. And in those same municipal elections, the right racked up nearly 50 percent of the vote nationwide. Lavín’s Independent Democratic Union, a party founded in the 1980s by Pinochet’s secret police, shocked the Chilean left when it triumphed in numerous working-class towns–including the once so-called People’s Republic of San Miguel, a gritty Santiago suburb that used to boast a monument to Che Guevara. “The profound depoliticization of the Chilean people has allowed huge portions of the poor to no longer be able to distinguish between left and right,” says Cabieses. “The governing party calls itself socialist, but I’d be ecstatic if we even had a social democratic political choice.”

More than a decade after replacing Pinochet in power, the governing coalition has yet to reform the restrictive Constitution put in place by the dictatorship. Privatization begun under Pinochet continues, and the tattered health and education systems further decay. Government Socialists repeatedly rail against the free-market “neoliberal” model but then eagerly administer and manage it on a day-to-day basis. Less than 10 percent of the work force is unionized, and less than 3 percent is actually covered by collective-bargaining contracts. After ten years of promising to reform the dictatorship’s draconian labor law, the government is finally taking action, but only after watering down organized labor’s proposals. Chile still has no legal divorce. And even therapeutic abortion is outlawed.

Worse, there has been a generalized moral failure in the face of the Pinochet legacy. Ten years ago, the governing coalition made a bet that the Pinochet story and the human rights debate would quickly fade away and some sort of working agreement could be forged with the economic and military right. They were wrong. Consequently, said historian Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt, the center-left government has no one to blame but itself for its inability to generate enthusiastic political support. “It is they who let Pinochet survive,” he said. “They allowed him impunity. They are the ones who for a decade attached no political cost to having supported him. Why be surprised now that Pinochet’s supporters bear no stigma?”

Even now, with Pinochet in the dock, the Lagos government is trying to appease the military elite. An agreement has been reached for Chile to purchase–at a cost of $600 million–about a dozen US F-16 fighter jets. The Clinton Administration’s last-minute approval of this deal broke a longstanding US policy of not introducing sophisticated arms into the region. But how Salvador Allende must have rolled over in his grave as today’s Chilean Socialists loudly complained that the United States would not let Chile have the high-tech Amraam missiles that can be fitted onto the planes. “I’m not on the left,” said Jocelyn-Holt. “But the last ethical and moral leader Chile had was Salvador Allende, who decided to die for his principles on September 11, 1973.”

Goodbye, Latin America–Hello, Honduras

Meanwhile, President Lagos’s most ambitious gambit is on the economic trade front. He wants the United States to make good on a five-year-old promise to bring Chile into a free-trade pact. Bilateral negotiations on that front have already opened–with the AFL-CIO, it might be said, already promising a feisty fight.

Back last fall, Lagos toured Silicon Valley, met with Larry Ellison and Bill Gates, and made a pitch for Chile to become an overseas platform for microchip development and assembly. That plea was, in a way, a quiet confession that Chile was going to have to abandon yet one more set of self-delusions, along with the fiction that the human rights issue had been resolved: The much-vaunted Chilean “economic miracle” had historically closed out. Even with a two-year recession now over, Chile finds itself struggling to find buyers for its exports. Already-crass inequalities are growing, and wages remain painfully low. Structural, long-term unemployment is now 14 percent. The once-celebrated privatized social security system returned real gains last year of barely three-tenths of 1 percent. Chileans work more hours than anyone in the hemisphere, and they have the highest rates of depression and psychological problems.

Chile, after two decades, was forced to face its human rights history, thanks mostly to a crusading Spanish judge and a handful of dauntless Chilean activists and lawyers. Now, it seems, Chile might also have to come to terms with long-held fantasies about its economic position. A decade ago, as Chile feverishly exported its natural resources and the macroeconomy boomed, boosters from across the Chilean political spectrum were openly predicting that the country would soon be able to shout “Adios!” to Latin America and merge into the First World. But in light of the more gloomy current economic picture, it’s more like “Hello, Honduras!”–Chile’s future being staked on its becoming a cheap labor pool for high-tech foreign investors.

Chile, thanks to the Pinochet affair, is now finally well along the path of recovering a history that was on the verge of erasure only two years ago. Now Chile must also struggle to find its soul and identity in an uncaring and treacherous globalized economy.

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