Chile: The Human Rights Challenge

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

Emily Bono

THE CALL “LA alegra ya viene” – “Joy is coming!” — rallied the opposition against Chile’s military government under General Augusto Pinochet. But since civilian government took office again, Chileans have had to face more pain: uncovering the truth about human rights violations committed during sixteen years of dictatorship.

Establishing at least a partial truth about past events is an important first step in stopping repression and impunity, and returning dignity to the victims. How can Chilean society recover its painful history, then turn the page so that the state will never again be able to make war on its people?

Patricio Aylwin, the first elected president after Pinochet, appointed a commission to investigate abuses under military rule. The Truth Commission’s report documented the worst human rights violations from 1973 to 1990 and recommended ways to reconcile society after almost two decades of strife.

No one, not even the military, disputed the meticulously investigated cases of 2,279 people who were killed or detained and disappeared by security forces. But the human rights organization CODEPU, the Committee in Defense of the People’s Rights, estimates that 500,000 of 13 million Chileans have been affected by torture — either having been tortured themselves, or have had people close to them tortured.

Torture As Strategy

Therefore the report only shows the tip of the iceberg; it does not deal with the use of torture as a strategy to create fear and terror on a societal scale. This strategy is linked to the particular image that the Chilean armed forces held of themselves and of their fellow citizens: They viewed themselves as fighting a battle to cure the twin social illnesses of political activity and marxist ideology.

The psychological pressure of fear and terror, created by torture, was intended to dismantle civil society and its institutions, and recast them in a hierarchical, controllable form. In disregarding the widespread use of torture not resulting in death, the report ignored the primary human rights violation of the military regime.

The report was very cautious in its recommendations for strategies to achieve national reconciliation. Many of the suggestions were symbolic, such as erecting monuments and establishing public spaces in memory of the victims as a way to recover their dignity. An impressive memorial to victims was recently erected in Santiago’s cemetery, listing the names of the detained-disappeared and the executed, along with their age and date that they were killed or disappeared.

The main obstacle to justice is the 1978 amnesty law, which exempts armed forces members who committed abuses between 1973 and 1978 from having to stand trial. Human rights organizations and the government itself have insisted that the amnesty law should not prevent investigating abuses and establishing as much as possible about the circumstances of the killings.

The political right-wing argues that the amnesty law should be applied and cases closed as soon as it became clear that military personnel were involved. Political conflicts about how to interpret the amnesty law have spread into the judiciary itself.

The Supreme Court has overturned cases, and handed cases to the military courts, who lack impartiality. The civilian courts have reversed decisions or reopened cases on an inconsistent basis. This judicial tug-of-war has been consuming enormous resources and resulted in de facto impunity for human rights violators.

Surprising Court Rulings

The unresolved human rights issue taints Chile’s image as Latin America’s rising economic star, moving on the NAFTA fast-track and held up by neoliberal economists as role model to the rest of the world. Since September 1994, however, surprising developments have taken place in Santiago’s Court of Appeals and in the Supreme Court itself.

The Court of Appeals argued in two cases, involving the 1975 torture and killing of three MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) leaders, to repeal the amnesty law based on international law and conventions the Chilean government had signed, such as the Geneva Convention. The judges argued that these international conventions apply because Chile, according to the military’s own version of the events during and after the coup, was in a “state of war.”

In May this year, the Chilean Supreme Court actually upheld a seven-year sentence for retired Gen. Manuel Contreras, former head of the secret police, and a six-year sentence for Brig. Gen. Pedro Espinoza, for their involvement in the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier, Chile’s former foreign minister, in Washington, DC. This case had been exempted from the amnesty law after pressure from the United States.

When earlier trials sent shock waves through the military, Pinochet himself played a key role in threatening a military response. By May 1993, the military, outraged by around 1,000 trials involving retired and active duty armed forces personnel, made a public display of anger: Storm troops took the streets of Santiago and the Council of Generals held an emergency meeting while President Aylwin was in Europe.

Intimidated politicians responded by proposing Argentine-style legislation to draw a <MI>punto final<D>: Investigations of alleged abuses would be limited, the amnesty law would be applied and all cases were to be closed within a few months. The issue of the detained and disappeared would be limited to finding their remains so that “we don’t step on ground where there might be the body of a compatriot,” as then-president of the Senate, Gabriel Valdes, said.

Pinochet’s Retreat

After these recent rulings, however, Pinochet seems to want to withdraw himself, declaring in the Letelier case that the ruling is “Contreras’ problem, not mine.” This is a marked difference from Pinochet’s earlier threats that the rule of law would end if any of his men were touched.

Pinochet is trying to maintain his image while he weathers his final two years as Commander in Chief. As judicial proceedings gather momentum the wall of impunity that has protected Pinochet is crumbling.

After the Chilean ruling against Contreras and Espinoza in the Letelier case, an Italian court also sentenced Contreras to twenty years and retired Gen. Raul Iturriaga to eighteen years for the attempted murder of exiled head of the Chilean Christian Democratic Party, Bernardo Leighton and his wife, in Rome in 1975. Pinochet is closely linked to both the Letelier and the Leighton cases.

The evidence in the Leighton trail may lead to reopening the case of the murder of General Prats, former Commander in Chief, in Argentina. Particularly in the Prats case, the testimony of Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen and former Chilean secret police agent, links Pinochet directly to the murder.

Difficulties of the Movement

The recent advances in the human rights issue happened in spite of the retreat and fatigue of the human rights movement. The Vicariate of Solidarity, founded in 1974 by the Archbishop of Santiago to aid victims of human rights abuses, closed its doors in 1991, claiming that it had completed its work.

This decision was linked to the shifting balance of power within the Church. During the Pinochet regime, the Church moved towards a liberation theology-inspired approach of assisting the poor and the victims of the regime. Many middle- and upper-class followers were uncomfortable with this shift, and the Church has been hasty to correct itself by closing the Vicariate after the election of a civilian president.

Many grassroots human rights groups haven’t managed to continue their work without the Vicariate. Some extraordinary efforts, such as the arpillera embroidery workshops, where women gathered to denounce disappearances by depicting scenes from daily life in the shanty towns, have stopped.

Wives and mothers have fought to know what happened to their relatives for almost two decades, and the overwhelming task is finally causing fatigue: “The dictatorship has destroyed my entire life,” said Mara Guzman, one of the leaders of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared, whose husband vanished in 1976, leaving her with five small children.

Other women, who also used to be human rights activists, stated that they lack the desire to get up and get dressed in the morning. Democracy is achieving what the dictatorship could not: breaking down neighborhood networks based on mutual support and solidarity.

While civil society is grappling with how to continue to work for human rights, the Chilean state is preparing itself against an exaggerated threat of “terrorism and delinquency.” According to a 1994 report by the U.S. State Department, Latin American and Chilean terrorist activities (mostly involving fundraising via bank robberies) have dropped considerably.

Nevertheless, the Law on Internal Security, passed during the Aylwin government, continues to assume a significant terrorist threat and allows practices of the military regime, such as roundups in shanty towns and house-to-house searches of entire neighborhoods without a warrant under the pretext of searching for delinquents.

The national police and intelligence service remain under the Ministry of Defense, where they are beyond reach of civilian control. The secret police, the National Information Center, is now the Directorate of Army Intelligence, a change of name that maintains personnel and climate of the military regime.

Cases of torture and ill-treatment by the police have been reported, usually involving leftist activists. CODEPU, the Committee for the Defense of the People’s Rights, filed more than forty criminal complaints against the police in 1993, and made another forty complaints directly to the police. Americas Watch has reported an increase of torture by Investigaciones, the civilian police force, during 1992 and the beginning of 1993.

Politicians have failed to speak out strongly against torture. The former Minister of the Interior German Correa accepted the use of hypnosis and chemical substances to extract confessions, in violation of international human rights treaties which Chile has signed, such as the Interamerican Convention on the Prevention of Torture.

Suspicious Appearances

The police also maintain the practice of arrest because of “suspicious appearance,” which takes a particular toll on the young urban poor. According to the National Institute of Youth, in 1992 200,000 young people were arrested because of appearing suspicious.

Since 1991, according to ODEP, the Organization in Defense of the People, which focuses on human rights issues in Chile today, twenty-seven leftist militants and fifty others have died in instances of police excesses and brutality.

Among the events was the October 1993 killing of seven persons and wounding of sixteen others when police confronted a group of militants and opened fire on a bus. Two demonstrators were killed on the twentieth anniversary of the military coup.

Americas Watch, in a letter to President Frei in May 1994, claimed that police use unnecessary force to needlessly control demonstrations, and use firearms without sufficient concern for public safety.

The new high security prison has become a symbol of the latent authoritarianism in Chile. Authorities transferred the first group of forty-two inmates, all of whom had been involved in left revolutionary groups and committed politically motivated crimes, to the new facility under protests of the inmates themselves, their families and human rights groups.

The organization of family members of the inmates and other human rights organizations claim that the strict regime in the prison is dehumanizing and violates international standards for the minimum treatment of prisoners, and that the prison, modeled on U.S. high security prisons, is “alien to Chilean culture.”

Americas Watch states that the use of video equipment to monitor meetings between an inmate and legal counsel would compromise confidentiality.

The Truth Commission’s report is finally resulting in justice for the victims in some cases. The Chilean human rights movement must now work to build respect for civil liberties into all institutions so that the state will never again be able to make war on its citizens.

There are some hopeful signs: The police force is struggling for greater accountability; some abusive officers have been charged by military courts; legislation is pending to abolish the practice of arrests without sufficient cause; there is budding opposition against the obligatory military service. The battle for joy is not over yet.

November/December 1995