Emblematic of Chile’s skewed democratic transition was the sight of congressional deputy Juan Pablo Letelier, probably one of the most honest and dedicated politicians in the country, behind bars on corruption charges. Letelier, who was 15 in Washington, DC, when his diplomat father, Orlando, was blown up in a car bomb by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s goons, for months has been facing a series of trumped-up accusations of influence peddling and shady business dealings, cobbled together by a powerful judge who seems intent on making something–anything–stick. The 42-year-old deputy spent nearly three weeks sitting in a downtown Santiago prison awaiting further judicial proceedings, stripped of parliamentary immunity and not even allowed bail under Chile’s antiquated Napoleonic legal system, in which the accused are presumed guilty unless they can prove otherwise.
The prosecution of Letelier is made credible in the eyes of the public because of the unending torrent of graft and kickback scandals plaguing the centrist government, which includes his Socialist Party, the third administration comprising former opponents of Pinochet since the dictatorship ended in 1990–and very likely the last. These ongoing investigations of apparently quite real funny business opened the way for anyone to stir the pot, and Letelier’s political enemies seem to have made the most of it. When the secretary of the Central Bank president is caught on videotape sneaking into her boss’s computer to send confidential market information to her boyfriend at an investment company, the average Chilean is ready to believe pretty much anything about skulduggery at the top.
Letelier stands accused of receiving money for his campaign, co-signing for an apartment for an old political buddy down on his luck and trying to call off government regulators investigating an auto inspection plant in his district. He denies the last charge completely and says the other two acts aren’t illegal. Consdering the amount of real malfeasance and knavery afoot here, the fact that Letelier can be drawn through the mud for months over non-issues like these raises the distinct odor of a major political vendetta. But oddly enough, if Letelier is being persecuted, it isn’t by die-hard pinochetistas.
Letelier is an enormously popular politician, winning his last congressional election against a dozen rivals with 54 percent of the vote, the second-best showing in the entire country. Before his current mess started, he was a shoo-in to move up to the Chilean Senate at the cost of the current incumbent, a Christian Democrat whose party is also in the government. But Chile’s nutty electoral system, a gift from Pinochet that remains in force, lays the groundwork for vicious fights among supposed confederates.
Because the two main slates, the heirs of the dictatorship, on one side, and the government coalition, on the other, are each virtually guaranteed a seat in most districts, the intra-pact competition is cutthroat. In addition, the judicial branch may be exercising its remaining muscle in revenge for taking it on the chin for its passive complicity with the dictatorship. No one in the Letelier family suggests that he was singled out for his symbolic relationship with Pinochet’s crimes, but he’s an undeniably apt target for embittered judges nostalgic for the old days of total autocracy.
During a prison visit, Letelier was optimistic, even chipper. “We have respected the policy of the government to let the judicial system proceed with its work,” he said. “But now it’s not working.” Once the charges are completely dropped, he suggested, “we will have plenty to say.
Support was gingerly at first, but then poured in. Many sympathizers and whole busloads of his constituents made the pilgrimage to the downtown jail, and even Letelier’s ideological enemies came around to see him, suggesting that they didn’t believe the charges either. Chile’s Supreme Court finally threw out most of the charges on June 18, shortly after the World Alliance of Parliamentarians wrote to the court that it hoped “political considerations” weren’t affecting the course of justice.