Chileans Confront Their Own 9/11

Chileans Confront Their Own 9/11

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


La Moneda, following the results of the plebiscite, 1988. (Claudio Perez, from the book Chile From Within)

On November 17, millions of Chileans will go to the polls to pick a new president. The election is historic; for the first time in Chile’s history—indeed, in the history of Latin America—a presidential race will be decided between two female candidates. The country that in 1970 became the first in the world to democratically elect an avowedly Marxist president, Salvador Allende, will soon set another international precedent. 

But Chile’s gender-barrier-breaking election is overshadowed by the dark family histories of the two contenders, Evelyn Matthei and Michelle Bachelet. The candidate of the ultra-right-wing Independent Democratic Union party, Matthei is the daughter of retired Air Force Gen. Fernando Matthei, who served alongside Augusto Pinochet on the four-member military junta that governed Chile during the seventeen-year dictatorship. Bachelet, Chile’s Socialist Party president from 2006 to 2010, is also the daughter of a famous Air Force general, Alberto Bachelet. He was imprisoned by the junta for refusing to support Allende’s overthrow and died under torture. Eduardo Contreras, a lawyer representing a Chilean human rights group, has twice petitioned the Chilean courts to hold General Matthei, who commanded the base where General Bachelet perished, legally accountable for his death. 

Forty years after the bloody military coup on September 11, 1973, Chile’s past remains ever-present in its sociopolitical life. The country that Pablo Neruda referred to as “a long petal of sea, wine and snow” continues to grapple with Pinochet’s painful legacy, even as it has emerged politically, economically and judicially from the long shadow of his murderous regime. As the fortieth anniversary of Chile’s 9/11 converges with an intense electoral campaign, Chileans are confronting their country’s historical horrors—through mass media coverage, commemorative conferences, museum exhibits, and dramatic public debate between those who participated in and supported the regime and those who suffered, and overcame, its repression. Since the coup remains a universal symbol of “anti-democracy at its best,” according to the author and filmmaker Saul Landau, the anniversary must also be remembered around the world—particularly in the United States, which played a dark, covert role in the events of forty years ago. 

Post-Pinochet Politics

“I’m not leaving, no matter what,” General Pinochet told subordinates, according to declassified US intelligence reports, on the eve of the October 5, 1988, plebiscite on his continued dictatorship. The magnitude of the pro-democracy victory that night, as depicted in the Oscar-nominated film No, is all the more extraordinary because of the dictator’s secret preparations to instigate a second coup if the vote went against him. Only the overwhelming will of the people to use ballots instead of bullets to bring an end to military rule convinced the rest of the junta to overrule Pinochet’s megalomania and concede the peaceful return of Chilean democracy. 

The “No” campaign, a broad political movement comprising fourteen political parties, evolved into the Concertación, a center-left coalition dominated by the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties (the Chilean Communist Party was excluded), which agreed to divide and share electoral power. But after four presidencies and a generation in power, the Concertación wore out its welcome with the Chilean people. In 2010, Chileans elected the candidate of the conservative National Renewal party, billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, who injected millions from his own fortune into his campaign. Piñera’s popularity reached an all-time high at the beginning of his presidency, when he oversaw the dramatic rescue of thirty-three copper miners who had been trapped a half-mile underground for more than two months. Now at the end of his tenure, he has proved to be “an inept politician,” as The Economist put it, detached from the daily realities faced by the majority of Chileans. 

In many respects, Chile’s election this fall is not a referendum on the past, but on sociocultural and economic change in the future. Bachelet has come out in favor of therapeutic abortions and gay marriage—a courageous stance in this rigidly Catholic country where women still have no right to choice, and which was the last in Latin America to legalize divorce. Economically, Chile already leads the region in almost all indicators: it has one of the lowest unemployment rates (6.17 percent), and it had one of the highest GDP growth rates of 2012 (5.6 percent). Since 1990, when Pinochet was forced to relinquish power, Chile’s civilian presidents have managed to reduce the country’s poverty level from 40 percent to less than 14 percent. 

But Chile also has one of the widest chasms of income inequality in the world. Evelyn Matthei, who served as labor minister in the Piñera administration, has adopted a Romneyesque trickle-down position on growth and income distribution. Bachelet has made correcting the vast disparity of wealth the centerpiece of her campaign, with proposals for higher taxes on the rich and higher state royalties on mining profits to create and fund a free and universal education system over the next six years. 

The country’s highly privatized college system, a key component of Pinochet’s neoliberal restructuring of the economy after the coup under the guidance of the “Chicago Boys” (Chilean economists who had trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago), remains a contentious political issue. Since Piñera was elected in 2010, Chile has garnered worldwide attention for ongoing mass student protests—the most recent took place September 5—against the bankrupting costs of college enrollment. Infuriated by Piñera’s avowal that education should be considered “a consumer good,” the student protests have been “the largest since the last days of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet,” Francisco Goldman reported in a New York Times Magazine profile of the student movement’s charismatic and creative leader, Camila Vallejo. The 25-year-old Vallejo is now running for Congress as part of La Nueva Mayoría, a reincarnation of the center-left coalition that, for the first time in the post-Pinochet era, formally includes the Communist Party. 

“Today we are once again in the position to contribute to a great social and political alliance” that will “enable the construction and implementation of a program of social transformation,” Vallejo recently declared on her blog. That transformation will lead to the “dismantling of the neoliberal model that is principally responsible for the structural inequality suffered by our country.” 

Significantly changing the neoliberal model, however, means reforming the Constitution imposed by Pinochet in 1980—a Constitution that enshrines wide latitude for the private sector while severely restricting the power of the state to intervene in the economy.  “The most important legacy of the military regime in the current debate is the problem of amending the Constitution,” notes Carlos Portales, Chile’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States. In a July radio interview, Bachelet hinted that if re-elected—she’s now far ahead in the polls—she will address this vestige of the dictatorship’s control over Chile’s economic future. “I believe that it is so important to change the Constitution,” she declared, “in order to have real possibilities to advance.” 

“Forbidden Images”

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.” 

Seeking 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]. 

Although the former dictator was ultimately freed by British authorities on “humanitarian grounds,” when he returned to Chile on March 3, 2000, Judge Juan Guzmán moved to strip him of his immunity and indict him for human rights crimes related to the Caravan of Death. In 2004, Guzmán issued a second round of indictments for the murder and disappearances of Chileans outside of the country. Revelations that Pinochet was corrupt as well as brutal—US Senate investigators discovered in 2004 that he had stashed $26 million in more than 100 secret bank accounts outside Chile—added additional charges of financial fraud and tax evasion. 

Indeed, only old age spared Pinochet a day of judicial reckoning. At 91, the retired dictator was under house arrest and faced at least six different indictments for atrocities and corruption when he died on December 10, 2006—International Human Rights Day. 

US Accountability

“The impact of indicting Pinochet was something nobody could have imagined,” Guzmán told The Nation. “The first indictments opened the doors to more indictments—Pinochet’s and many others.” Among the dozens of cases filed by Chilean judges over the past several years, one is closely associated with Washington’s role in facilitating the coup and aiding the consolidation of the dictatorship: the execution of two US citizens, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. 

Their murders in the National Stadium were immortalized in the 1982 Oscar-winning film Missing, which focused on the frantic search by Horman’s wife, Joyce, and his father, Edmund, to find him—in the face of obstruction, indifference and possible complicity in his disappearance by US officials—after he was seized by soldiers at his home six days after the coup. For years, the State Department hid from the Horman family its own preliminary conclusions, which appeared to validate the premise of the movie. “There is some circumstantial evidence,” states a secret State Department report declassified in 1999, that “U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death. At best, it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [Government of Chile]. At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware the GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia.” 

Drawing on formerly classified US documents and other evidence that remains under seal, Chilean Judge Jorge Zepeda stunned the families and the world by indicting, on November 29, 2011, the former head of the US Military Group in Chile, Capt. Ray Davis, along with a Chilean intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Pedro Espinoza, for the deaths of Horman and Teruggi. In a petition to the Chilean Supreme Court, Zepeda stated that Davis was responsible for a “secret intelligence-gathering investigation of U.S. citizens” and had provided information to the Chilean military depicting Horman and Teruggi as “extremists” or “subversives.” Zepeda’s indictment alleged that Davis was in a position to “override the will” of the Chilean military officials to execute Horman, but chose not to do so. 

After a lengthy review of the evidence, the Chilean Supreme Court approved, on October 18, 2012, a formal request for the extradition of Davis from the United States. Press reports at the time suggested that he was confined to a nursing home in Florida, suffering from the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. 

Even if Davis never faces judgment in Chile, the case against him is a stark reminder of Washington’s role in the dictatorship’s crimes. “The extradition request by the Chilean Supreme Court gives me hope of establishing an indisputable accountability on the part of the US government for my husband’s death and the loss of so many lives after the coup,” says Joyce Horman. 

History will always associate the United States with the dark events in Chile forty years ago. Indeed, just one day before Horman was seized, President Nixon called his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to get an update on the coup. “The Chilean thing is getting consolidated,” Kissinger said, according to a declassified transcript of their conversation. They discussed the US role. “Well, we didn’t—as you know—our hand doesn’t show on this one, though,” the president noted. “We didn’t do it,” Kissinger responded, referring to direct US involvement in the coup. “I mean, we helped them. [Omitted word] created the conditions as great as possible.” “That is right,” the president agreed. The two most powerful officials in Washington then commiserated over what Nixon called “this crap from the liberals” in the media about the overthrow of a democratically elected government. “In the Eisenhower period,” Kissinger assured the president, “we would be heroes.” 

As Chileans press for accountability from those who participated in the dictatorship, US officials like Henry Kissinger have yet to admit their share of responsibility—or to atone for their sinister, shameful policies.

Also see Ariel Dorfman: “Martin Luther King and the Two 9/11s” (Aug. 27, originally on

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