30 Years On, Has Reconciliation's Time Come for Chile?

Reply Thu 19 Jun, 2003 05:25 pm
30 Years On, Has Reconciliation's Time Come?
Gustavo González - IPS - 6/19/03

SANTIAGO, Jun 19 (IPS) - Thirty years after the military coup in Chile, new formulas are emerging from the government and the opposition for a legal resolution to the cases of the more than 3,000 people assassinated and "disappeared" by the dictatorship's forces.

The proposals involve compensation for the victims' relatives, but they are sceptical about what they see as merely new political schemes.

President Ricardo Lagos has held three closed-door meetings with the commander of the army, Gen. Emilio Cheyre, to inform him about the legislative bill he intends to send to parliament on Friday with the expectation that it would be passed before Sep. 11.

That day is the 30th anniversary of the bloody coup d'état, led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which culminated in the aerial bombardment of the presidential palace, La Moneda, and the suicide of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. The Pinochet dictatorship stretched on until Mar. 11, 1990.

With the historic date imminent, there is renewed talk of reconciliation, with unprecedented gestures made by today's military commanders, including the reinstatement in the air force of some 50 officials and lower ranking officers who were removed by the Pinochet regime due to their opposition to the coup.

The army and navy are preparing to take similar actions, Defence Minister Michelle Bachelet announced last week.

In the opinion of army commander Cheyre, conditions today are favourable for reconciliation. In a speech he gave on Jun. 13 in the northern Chilean city of Calama, he issued an appeal to move beyond the recent past of "excesses, crimes, violence and terrorism."

"Never again a divided Chilean society," urged the official.

"If we are going to talk about reconciliation, about concrete gestures in this country, a great deal more is needed," said Lorena Pizarro, head of the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD), in response to Cheyre's statements and to the reinstatement of the officers who rejected the 1973 military coup.

"It is not enough to say 'we are sorry'. What we need -- once and for all -- is the armed forces to recognise that the state (during the dictatorship) institutionalised a repressive apparatus in which the top commanders knew what they were doing, that they were torturing and disappearing our family members," Pizarro said in a conversation with IPS.

Under the Pinochet regime, government forces committed more than 3,000 political assassinations and forced disappearances, according to an official 1991 report. Nearly 1,200 of those cases were forced disappearances, of which just around 100 have been resolved to date.

The amnesty law that the dictatorship enacted in March 1978 covered the government forces' assassination of leftist militants dating to March 1973, but Chilean courts have established that the amnesty does not apply to the disappearances, which are legally considered kidnappings.

Kidnapping is seen as an ongoing crime until the victim is found, dead or alive. Cheyre said in a Jun. 6 interview with the local 'El Mercurio' newspaper that it is "troublesome" that, 30 years after the coup, relatives could continue believing that a disappeared person is kidnapped, and not assume that he or she is dead.

The courts have some 300 cases underway with regards to the dictatorship's disappearances and political killings, the defendants being agents of the now-defunct National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) or of other government security agencies. Most are officials and junior officers who are now retired from the army, navy, air force and the Carabineros (militarised police).

These trials are a continued source of irritation within the army, which in the 1990s -- when Pinochet was still the branch's commander in chief -- pressured the governments of Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994) and Eduardo Frei (1994-2000) to pass legislation that would put an end to "arbitrary interpretations" of the 1978 amnesty law and close the court cases.

In 1999, the former dictator and senator-for-life was under house arrest in London awaiting a decision on whether to extradite him to Spain for trial on charges of crimes against humanity. British authorities ultimately sent Pinochet back to Chile due to his failing health.

During that time, president Frei set up the first-ever human rights dialogue panel, which brought together representatives of the armed forces and of civil society, including the victims' and families' defence lawyers.

The panel wrapped up its work in June 2000, under the Lagos administration, and proposed a special law that would create the status of "professional secret", allowing efforts to gather information from within the armed forces in order to determine the fate of the disappeared, locate their remains, and thus facilitate the closure of the court cases.

As of January 2001, data had been collected on some 200 cases with the indications being that most of the victims had been thrown into the sea.

But once the judges investigated the origins of the information, many of the reports were proved false. And clandestine graves were found that held the remains of individuals whose bodies supposedly had been dumped in the Pacific Ocean.

The right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the leading opposition party, re-opened the controversy in May when Senator Jaime Orpis and Deputy Pablo Longueira (UDI president), reported on negotiations with some 100 relatives of the disappeared.

The talks involved families of the victims of the Pisagua concentration camp (1,800 km north of Santiago) who were dissatisfied with the scant compensation they were granted under a 1991 law, after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the 3,000 cases of crimes against humanity in Chile.

UDI offered to sponsor a bill that would substantially increase the widow pensions, scholarships and other forms of reparations for victims' relatives, if they would agree to withdraw the lawsuits against the dictatorship's officers allegedly involved in human rights crimes.

The initiative was resoundingly rejected by the AFDD and the parties of the ruling centre-left coalition, which called it a veiled attempt at an "end-all" law that would close the cases of the detained-disappeared.

The Lagos administration stated that under no circumstances would it sponsor legislation that negotiates justice in exchange for reparations.

Nevertheless, the attempt by the UDI renewed debate on the matter of compensation for victims and families.

Indeed, the bill that the government will present to parliament includes increases in such payments and extends the timeframe of the law, as well as calling for continued efforts to speed up the trials.

Lagos will reportedly promote legislation that would allow judges to obviate the "ongoing crime" status of kidnaps, streamlining the process of sentencing proven perpetrators, accomplices and accessories after the fact, even if the victims' remains are not found.

UDI announced Jun. 17 that its lawmakers would withdraw the increased reparations-for-lawsuit withdrawal proposal, but that they would present a new formula Friday intended to close the trials of the officers implicated in the dictatorship's forced disappearances.

UDI is the party that has traditionally shown the most support for Pinochet both during and after the dictatorship.

In the party's ranks are Senator Sergio Fernández, the dictatorship's ministry of interior, and Deputy Alberto Cardemil, who was his vice-minister. The two are fingered as being among the politically responsible for crimes against humanity during the Pinochet regime.

AFDD president Pizarro is sceptical about the latest political schemes. "The word 'reconciliation' has been so overused in our country that it has become synonymous with attempts at impunity or false gestures, like the human rights panel was."

Attorney Héctor Salazar, who participated in the panel, told IPS that he does not much like the word "reconciliation" either, because it implies a religious sense, and that Chile should really be seeking a "re-encounter", in which the "different groups that have been incommunicado for so many years begin to communicate once again."

"The search for civility should look towards the military, which is issuing a sort of lesson about a 're-encounter', something I don't see so clearly in the civilian world," added the human rights lawyer.

In talking about solutions, says Salazar, one must assume that the disappeared were killed and they are therefore irrecoverable.

"What we can aspire to is a reasonable degree of response in revealing what happened to them and to assurances that responsibilities will be attributed. In other words, what in Chile we call truth and justice," Salazar said.

Col. Ernesto Galaz is the highest-ranking anti-coup officer among those recently reinstated in the air force. He spent five years in prison and 10 in exile during the dictatorship, but today he is optimistic.

"I believe the moment is near in which consciences will awaken among many people who played a direct role in the disappearances and that we might be able to learn the victims' fates. I see very clearly the possibility of this happening," Galaz told IPS.
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Reply Thu 19 Jun, 2003 06:08 pm
We can only hope for the best, but be prepared in case it does not work out.
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Reply Thu 19 Jun, 2003 11:16 pm
A very hard question, indeed. A lot of human effort is needed.
Reconciliation, yes. Forgiveness, no.

Can the 44 year old man -a former student of mine- who lost both his arms due to torture, when he was 16, forgive his torturers?
Can the nurse who had live spiders introduced in her vagina forgive her torturers?
Can the 30 year old man forgive the abducters and killers who deprived him of his parents when he was a baby?
Can the detainees in Estadio Nacional forgive the people who sent the "man with the woolen mask" to identify them to be sent for torture? -the traitor realized, too late, that he was only used for psychological purposes: the military tortured also the leaders he decided to spare-
Even this: can the 48 year old man forgive the soldiers who humiliated him when he was 19, in front of his girlfriend, cutting his hair with knives, because it was too long and humiliated his girlfriend cutting her pants in the middle of the street, because women don't wear pants?

"Never again a divided Chilean society".
Yes, no revenges. No scandals. No media lynching.
But the end of the division will only come with justice, with the rule of law: with sentences for the guilty.
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Reply Fri 20 Jun, 2003 08:12 am
fabaezer, that these are painful memories for you are evident in your post. I'm still outraged at the US role in these events. US foreign policy really sucks beyond belief sometimes.

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Reply Fri 20 Jun, 2003 12:23 pm
AntiAmericanism in Latin America would not be explainable without such terrible foreign policy. Almost every country in the continent has suffered from US wrongdoings.
People tend to remember more the wrongdoings thatn the good things the US has done. That's normal, that's the way people are.
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