Chile and the End of Pinochet
by Marc Cooper
The Nation magazine, February 26, 2001
Santiago s 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
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 Guzman 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 Guzman, 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. Guzman 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
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 Guzman 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. Guzman 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
crimes," said a joyous Viviana Diaz, president of the
Association of Families of the Disappeared. Human rights attorney
Roberto Garreton 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 Guzman 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 rnass 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 ultra-right
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 Garzon
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 Garzon," 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 Garzon
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." Garzon'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. In the process,
he established a legal precedent for treating as actionable crimes
what had previously been regarded as political acts. "Garzon
single-handedly changed the history of our country," Elgueta
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 Guzman 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 Lotelier me at the time the dialogue
was proposed. Letelier's brother, Oriando 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 Guzman 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 Marin appeared on the scene
clapping and chanting "Pinochet to Trial!" Marin's husband
was among the disappeared, and she had the distinction of having
filed the first criminal action against Pinochet-exactly three
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 me 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
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 boornerang
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 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
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, was a translator
to former Chilean President Salvador Allende. His new book, Pinochet
and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir, is available from Verso. Research
support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.