Chile: History’s Fault Lines (3/99)

Augusto Pinochet, ex-dictator of Chile, was detained by British authorities during the first week of October 1998 and Chile will never quite be the same. Nor will international human rights law, for that matter, which has been rocked by this precedent-setting case.

In Chile, we were all taken by total surprise when a British judge, acting on a warrant issued by Spanish courts investigating the deaths of Spanish nationals in Chile during Pinochet’s rule, ordered the former dictator held under guard as he recovered from back surgery.

The Chilean right wing, stunned to the core that such a thing could happen to the man whom they credit with saving Chile from the grasp of communism, reacted with furious condemnation, reaching high-pitched levels of frantic disapproval. A number of right-wing leaders insisted that the general’s arrest was the work of an international socialist conspiracy.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by saying, "I’d like to see what [center-right Spanish Prime Minister] Jose Maria Aznar has to say when they accuse him of being a part of an international socialist conspiracy!"

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, called for the immediate release of Pinochet. Thatcher admitted to the existence of human rights violations during the Pinochet regime, but added that "the people of Chile, through successively elected democratic governments, have determined the way in which they should face their own past."

Neither the Spanish nor British courts have the proper jurisdiction to try the retired general, she said. Thatcher, a long-time confidant to the former dictator, had received Pinochet for tea at her home just days before his arrest. Her argument gets right to the heart of the debate here is Chile. There is no doubt that at least 3000 people – the officially recognized number – were killed or "disappeared" in Chile under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. A far larger number than that were tortured, forced into exile or severely harassed by military forces (including the militarized police).

There is also no doubt, however, that a key component of Chile’s famous "transition to democracy" (beginning in 1990) included addressing past human rights abuses. Unlike Uruguay, where the official discourse argued for "forgetting," Chilean democratic leaders sought to establish mechanisms for "remembering," healing, and reconciliation. While they eschewed human rights trials (such as those held after the Argentine dictatorships ended), the new Chilean democratic government did launch a "blue-ribbon" truth and reconciliation commission (which, five years later, became a model to be closely studied by the South Africans and others).

The Chilean commission had some faults, but it was a remarkable attempt to deal, on a societal level, with the trauma of dictatorship. It did not name the names of perpetrators, but it did name the names of almost 3000 victims. Still today, its final report stands proudly as a homage to those who were brutalized by the Pinochet regime.

Although the commission was important, many human rights activists here argue that it was not enough. In fact, past human rights violations remain in people’s memories and have never adequately been resolved. For many in this part of the world, "Nunca Mas! (Never Again!"), the rallying cry of the human rights movement in the 1980s, suggests both a complete accounting of what took place under dictatorships and corresponding punishment for the perpetrators of human rights abuses.

However, especially since about 1992, political leaders of the center-left ruling coalition, the "Concertacin," have argued that "enough is enough," calling on the people to "move forward."

The reaction in Chile to Pinochet’s arrest in London two months ago shows that simply "moving forward" is not a realistic option. These issues remain very much alive.

In the past few months, we have seen the fault lines of historical memory in Chile thrown into sharp relief. The political right, remembering the dictatorship as a period of national salvation from "subversion" and "civil war," clamored for his immediate release. The left, and particularly those associated with victims of human rights violations during the dictatorship, celebrated "justice at last." Behind these polarized reactions lay disputed interpretations of how the country should remember its past. And how it should build its future.

The government, meanwhile, has been showing its centrist stripes by trying hard to negotiate the tricky terrain between the polarized camps. They know that Pinochet is not universally hated in Chile. In 1988, for example, the dictator captured 44 percent of the vote in a national plebiscite over whether he should continue to rule. Although he lost, many believed that he stepped down graciously, keeping his word and acting in the best interests of the country. Furthermore, Pinochet had never been corrupt (at least not compared to other countries in Latin America) and he had managed to construct a public image of himself as a dispassionate soldier, motivated only by a sense of duty, whose allegiance was 100 percent to the "fatherland." On top of all this, when Pinochet left office in 1990, the country was – or appeared – better off than it had been when he took office in a coup in 1973. For a number of reasons, including but not limited to US involvement, Chile was in bad shape both politically and economically in the 70s. In contrast, by the early 90s the country’s economy was growing, TV and VCRs had appeared in storefront windows and were available – on easily accessible credit, of course – even for people who were scraping by to pay for food. Politics, meanwhile, at least of the cold war variety, had vanished entirely. In the surreal world of Chile today, poverty is hidden (but pervasive), the uptown streets shine with new foreign investment, and political apathy reigns.

The arrest of Pinochet has shaken things up a bit, however, although not too much. In the heat of January summer, most people are more interested in finding a well-paying job, feeding their families, or going to the soccer fields on Sundays. But what interests "the people" is not the same as what interests Chile’s small political class, an elite group of technocrats, ideologues, economists, and politicians.

In fact, most people within the political class (from the Centrist ruling coalition to the extreme right) believe that Pinochet should be brought back to Chile. Their primary argument is that if Pinochet is to be tried for his crimes, he should be tried in Chile. Of course, this is a ridiculous idea: Pinochet will never be tried in Chile. Without major (and currently unattainable) statutory and constitutional changes, prosecuting Pinochet on Chilean soil would be illegal. In any case, within the foreseeable future, it is politically impossible.

Unfortunately, the hysterical and high-pitched reactions do get attention. In one sense, the behavior of the right is illogical: Do they really want instability, violence, and a bad international reputation? Since their position "should" be to argue for investment stability at all costs, they "should" have dropped Pinochet as soon as he got too hot. But, instead, they are demonstrating a profound loyalty to him as an individual.

Except for trying to be generally disruptive and annoying (as a conscious political strategy, which has been used at various times by members of practically all political persuasions), the right is also calling for "dramatic action against Britain and Spain." What this means, exactly, is a bit unclear. It is a strangely surreal to see the right using the vocabulary of "colonialism" and "imperialism" (which never seemed to bother them before). However, the reality (not surprisingly) is that Chile has very little international clout.

What’s Chile to do? Cut off all trade with the two countries? That would be stupid. Go to war against them? That is impossible. Harass British and Spanish expatriates here in Chile? Dumb idea.

The Pinochet Affair has shown that the much-touted "consensus" of Chilean politics was far more fragile than many political actors and academics might have thought. This doesn’t mean that Chilean democracy, such as it is, will now fall apart. It won’t. But it does mean that the fault lines are now more visible.

Chile stands at a crossroads: on the one hand, this whole situation is a loud wake-up call to deal with animosities that have been simmering under the surface. Real democracy, after all, is built on the assumption that conflict and disagreement exists in society – not consensus – and the best way to process these (inevitable) conflicts is through a process which includes citizen participation, rule of law, and open discussion in a context of basic civil liberties and freedoms. In contrast to the right wing’s ominous warnings, in fact, the current situation could potentially greatly strengthen Chilean democracy.

Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that Pinochet will continue to divide Chilean society and – more important – divert attention away from more pressing issues (such as poverty and the quality of democracy) as the two sides become even more firmly entrenched.

By the time this article is published, we should know whether the ex-dictator will return to Chile or stay in London and, at a later date, go to Spain for a trial on the charge of crimes against humanity.

Regardless of where he is, Pinochet will always cause pain and resentment and, at the same time, he will remain a symbolic figure of great importance to the right wing. But one thing is for sure. Whatever happens, the Pinochet Affair thus far has been an enormous victory for human rights and global justice. No one ever believed that Pinochet would ever be held accountable. Dictators everywhere must now fear that they might at some point also be detained and humiliated, and international human rights law has been strengthened.

Louis Bickford is a freelance writer living in Chile.