Remembering Pinochet’s Coup: A Taste of Justice for Chile

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Marc Cooper

AS FORMER CHILEAN dictator Augusto Pinochet languished in British custody facing possible extradition to Spain, I have thought often of the democratically elected president he overthrew twenty-five years ago&#8212Salvador Allende. At the time of the September 11, 1973 coup I was living in Chile and a translator for President Allende.

That morning is hard-wired into my memory. I can still sense the fledgling Santiago sun and the transparent sky, the fresh spring chill in the air, and the thickly sweet scent of newborn jacaranda. But what has always lingered most indelibly were Allende’s last words.

Since the break of that day, Pinochet’s troops had been shooting their way into power&#8212occupying shanty towns, universities and government buildings. He choked the capital with a ring of steel and armor. The coastal cities squirmed under naval infantry occupation while U.S. gunboats smiled on from just offshore.

Learning of the coup underway, I turned the big tuning wheel of a friend’s tube-warmed Grundig radio and heard a wall of military marches. Then two Orwellian communiques from Pinochet’s junta: Allende must surrender or face bombardment. And the same punishment for any radio station not linking up with the military broadcast network.

Rolling the Grundig dial another quarter-turn I found the last electronic holdout. The left-wing Radio Magallanes was still defiantly on the air. Via a primitive telephone link-up from inside the Moneda Palace President Allende addressed the nation.

Knowing he was doomed, Allende’s metallic voice assured us that one day&#8212perhaps soon&#8212there would be a “moral sanction” for the “treachery and felony” being imposed that morning. Within an hour, two Hawker Hunter jets dive-bombed and strafed the Moneda. Soon Allende&#8212along with a hundred years of Chilean democracy&#8212was dead.

Allende had warned of the encroaching darkness in that farewell speech. But the depth of the horror imposed by Augusto Pinochet and his collaborators could never have been fully anticipated.

I was lucky. Given refuge in a diplomat’s house, and with help from the Mexican Embassy and the U.N. I escaped alive. But many of my friends didn’t. Some were herded into the National Stadium, tortured and murdered. Others were disappeared by Pinochet’s men.

I caught my breath a decade later in a Beverly Hills movie house. Viewing the Costa-Gavras film “Missing” I saw two of these friends&#8212Charlie Horman and Frank Teruggi&#8212portrayed on the screen, materializing like two celluloid ghosts.

Through seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule the body count mounted. More than 3,000 executions and disappearances. Mass graves and lime pits filled with the General’s victims. Ten of thousands of Chileans were passed through the jails and routinely tortured.

The regime’s secret police hunted down Pinochet’s constitutionally-minded predecessor General Carlos Prats and blew him up in a Buenos Aires car bomb. The moderate but anti-military politician Bernardo Leighton and his wife were cornered on an Italian street and shot by the General’s agents.

Pinochet brought international terrorism to the U.S. capital when his secret police exploded another car bomb to wipe out former Allende foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronnie Karpen Moffett.

Through this long night we survivors clung&#8212and so tenuously&#8212to Allende’s final promise of justice. It was those words we had to struggle to retain in our heads. There had been no need to remember any of Pinochet’s crimes. Those had been branded into the hearts of our families.

And that’s why these weeks of Pinochet’s detention assume such dramatic importance. Most of the outside world had long forgotten Allende&#8212let alone his last words. That’s natural. But more to the point, it had also had forgotten&#8212or perhaps never bothered even to know&#8212Augusto Pinochet.

It wasn’t just that Pinochet used the naked power of his dictatorship to fashion a cloak of respectability naming himself President, Commander-in-Chief, Captain General, and then to write a constitution that allowed him to sit as Senator-for-Life in the civilian government that succeeded him.

It’s also Pinochet as object of adoration by William Buckley, the editors of the Wall Street Journal, the reporters of the New York Times, the claque of conservative social security privatizers at Heritage and Cato, and the Baroness Maggie Thatcher with whom the obsequiously Anglophile dictator was sipping tea just days before he was collared by Scotland Yard.

Even the Chilean civilian government that came to power in 1990 after defeating Pinochet in a national plebiscite tiptoed around the General, leaving him in charge of the Army till this past spring, respecting his self-granted “immunity” and then scurrying to defend him when he fell prisoner in London.

Pinochet and his “democratic” successors coincided in a strenuous effort to erase history. The General used electric cattle-prods and firing squads to impose what just this past weekend he called the “reconciliation of Chileans.” The current civilian government followed up by trying to lull the population into a market-induced depoliticized narcolepsy.

Despite these feverish attempts, History&#8212at least in Chile&#8212has not ended. After the imposed silence of the last two decades, today in Chile there is no subject of public debate other than Pinochet’s legacy and future. According to latest polls two-thirds or more of Chileans want the General tried somehow, somewhere.

At last count, seven European countries have joined in the clamor to try the General as an international human rights criminal. And now comes word that even the U.S. government&#8212his original sponsor&#8212is actively weighing the possibility of asking for Pinochet’s extradition on charges of murdering Horman, Teruggi, Letelier and Moffett.

Don’t think that’s possible? You better go ask Manuel Noriega who will remind you that America has no friends &#8212only interests. In the meantime, three dozen other Chilean notables&#8212among them former Pinochet cabinet ministers, military junta members and cronies&#8212have been named by the Spanish courts in the same arrest warrant that bottled up Pinochet.

Now&#8212finally&#8212they too will be publicly known for what they are: no longer respected “leaders of the Chilean Right,” but accused accessories to organized murder.

If the General gets sent to Spain, then a clear-cut earth-shaking victory will have been achieved for the cause of international human rights. But even if Pinochet is “freed” and sent back home, it will be his defeat.

Waiting for him in Santiago is not only a Chilean Judge Guzman (who has gotten virtually no coverage in the American press) who is vowing to try Pinochet&#8212with or without his self-imposed immunity&#8212but an entire Chilean population that has been given back its most precious resource&#8212its collective memory.

Chileans no longer need to hold tight to the faint, fading words of Salvador Allende. Chileans are now free to publicly remember Pinochet. To recoil in horror and disgust. To scorn and despise him. And with a bit of luck&#8212to see him judged and condemned.

Salvador Allende can now rest quietly in his grave. The day of justice he promised us is now upon us.

ATC 78, January-February 1999