Reconciliation in Chile

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Salvador Allende was the first Marxist to be elected as president of a South American nation. He had been involved in Chilean political life for 40 years and had been a deputy, senator and cabinet minister. He had run for president in three previous elections before succeeding in 1970. His socialist policies of nationalisation and collectivisation angered the far right and the USA. On 11 September 1973 the military staged a coup and surrounded the presidential palace. Allende committed suicide, although a case has been made that he was assassinated.

General August Pinochet ruled Chile as head of a military dictatorship until transferring power to a democratically elected president in 1990. The Church Report (that’s US senator Frank Church) concluded that, while the US had not directly participated in the 1973 coup, it had supported an attempted coup in 1970, and had directed money to anti-Allende elements, including possibly terrorist groups, during the period 1970–1973. A document released in 2000, titled “CIA Activities in Chile”, revealed that the CIA actively supported the military junta after the overthrow of Allende, and that it made many of Pinochet’s officers into paid contacts of the CIA or U.S. military, even though some were known to be involved in human rights abuses.

The CIA maintained contacts among the Chilean DINA intelligence service while DINA leaders, under Pinochet’s direct command, led Operation Condor which resulted in assassinations of prominent politicians and activists of the legal left in various Latin American countries, in Washington, D.C., and in Europe. The CIA was warned that having Manuel Contreras, head of DINA, as its contact sent the wrong message about US commitment to human rights. They saw him as too valuable an asset to abandon and even paid him for his services. Cuban CIA agents collaborated actively in Operation Condor.

From the beginning, Pinochet’s government implemented harsh measures against political opponents. According to various reports and investigations 1,200–3,200 people were killed, up to 80,000 were interned and up to 30,000 were tortured by his regime, including women and children.

Pinochet’s dictatorship certainly did the US’s bidding in “fighting communism” and under the influence of the free market-oriented Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys imposed the Washington Consensus of currency stabilization, tariff cutting, opening Chile’s markets to global trade, curbing union power, privatizing social security, and the privatisation of hundreds of state-controlled industries. Leftists claimed that the Chilean “economic miracle” dramatically increased inequality. Finance Minister Sergio De Castro’s decision to peg Chile’s currency to the U.S. dollar – to align Chile’s high inflation rate with the U.S. inflation rate triggered a tremendous devaluation when the U.S. dollar fell, and set off a bank crisis.

The 1980 constitution had made provision for a referendum in October 1988 to vote on a new eight-year presidential term for Pinochet. Increasing opposition and international persuaded (Pope John Paul II allegedly pushed Pinochet to accept a democratic opening of the regime, and even called for his resignation) Pinochet to legalize political parties in 1987.

Patricio Aylwin won the 1989 presidential election with 55% of the votes, against less than 30% for the right-wing candidate, Hernan Buchii, who had been Pinochet’s finance minister since 1985 Pinochet thus left the presidency on 11 March 1990 and transferred power to the new democratically elected president.

The transitional provisions of the constitution allowed Pinochet to remain as Commander-in-Chief of the Army until March 1998. He was then sworn in as a senator-for-life, a privilege granted by the 1980 constitution to former presidents with at least six years in office. Pinochet qualified even though he had taken power by force and maintained his presidency through repression. This protected him from legal action.

Pinochet’s continuing dark presence, his immunity and impunity, prevented Chile from coming to terms with its past. This only became possible after Pinochet was arrested in 1998 in the UK on an extradition request issued by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón.

Bell Pottinger, the public-relations firm headed by longtime Conservative PR guru Sir Tim Bell, worked under a $310,000 contract with the Chilean Reconciliation Movement, a pro-Pinochet organization operating in Britain. The word ‘reconciliation’ appeared frequently in Bell-Pottinger’s spin. The line was that Chileans are entitled to reconciliation instead of ‘recrimination’ and revenge. The campaign continued to claim that in 1973 the elected Chilean Government was raising paramilitary forces in order to establish a communist dictatorship – this is their justification for the military’s violent seizure of power and dictatorial rule – a right wing dictatorship was better than the threat of a left wing dictatorship..

In 1991, the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission commissioned by Aylwin, published its report (known as the Rettig Report, named after the chairman, Raul Rettig, a former ambassador for Allende). The commission was composed of an even split of representatives from Pinochet supporters and opponents. It had freedom to move about to gather information and testimony but received little help from the military

Over the course of nine months, it was given four primary tasks:

• to establish as complete a picture as possible of human rights violations under the Pinochet regime

• to gather evidence to allow for victims to be identified

• to recommend reparations

• to recommend legal and administrative measures to prevent a repetition of past abuses.

Human rights activists criticized the commission’s mandate, which was limited in that it was only allowed to investigate crimes resulting in death. Specifically, it investigated “disappearances after arrest, executions, and torture leading to death committed by government agents or people in their service, as well as kidnappings and attempts on the life of persons carried out by private citizens for political reasons.”

The report determined that 2,279 persons were killed for political reasons. This figure included 957 who disappeared after arrest and 164 “victims of political violence”, a figure that included police officers and others killed by left-wing extremists. In 641 cases, the commission could not conclusively determine that the person was killed for political reasons. It found 508 cases that were beyond its mandate, and that in 449 cases, no information beyond the name of a disappeared person could be determined.

The commission attributed 95% of the crimes to the military, which debunked the military’s justification it was responding to ‘internal war.’ While the commission did not name perpetrators, provisions were made that names would be made public in 2016.

Aylwin was mindful of the unrest in Argentina after the new democratic government there pursued prosecution of military leaders in the 1980s. A 1978 amnesty law enacted by the Pinochet regime restricted prosecution for prior crimes and undermined the commission’s work. The commission was presented as a compromise solution, the lesser of two evils to both those on the left and right of the political spectrum. Trials did not seem to be an option. Pinochet retained significant support and powers under the new democratic government.

The Rettig Report called on the state and all of society to accept responsibility for past crimes and offer moral and material reparations meant to restore the dignity of victims. Aylwin made an impassioned apology on television on behalf of society to victims. While the army and navy condemned the report, contesting the interpretation, not the facts, the police and air force acknowledged the report’s general conclusions. Although the dismissal of officers was not possible, the truth commission report forced the military to defend a period they liked to think of as their crowning achievement.

Aylwin’s political coalition, enacted a number of laws, relating to human rights, following the recommendations of the Rettig Commission. Swift action was taken to locate the disappeared and reparations were paid. Other recommendations have faded into obscurity. The truth commission allowed victims’ families to be relieved from administrative and legal limbo due to their status as ‘disappeared’. Because their loved ones had not be confirmed dead, benefits could not be extended. Just under 5,000 people receive a monthly ‘pension’ as families of those killed or disappeared, which amounts to about $5,000 per year. Survivors of torture or illegal imprisonment which are much bigger numbers, unfortunately, are not eligible because of the restricted mandate. However, the report and Aylwin’s apology was a “turning point in gaining respect for victims and advancing public understanding of the country’s past.”

In 1996 it was observed that Chileans insisted reconciliation had been achieved, but there was still great reluctance to discuss the past. The public response to Pinochet’s arrest in London indicated that the past was not settled. “[I]n the aftermath of Pinochet’s arrest, the wounds of the past, especially those related to missing victims, appeared to be more evident at the beginning of the new millennium than in 1990 when democracy resumed in Chile.”

The report of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (Valech Report) was published in 2004. This differed from differed from the Rettig Report in that it investigated non-fatal violations of human rights, such as torture, and also covered children whose parents had disappeared or been killed. The report of this commission was used by the government of Chile to give out pensions and other benefits to survivors.

Poverty, which reached 46 percent at the beginning of the return to democracy and which has decreased to 20 percent partly because of a project called “Chile United” dedicated to its reduction. The 2002 Census showed significant improvements in the areas of health, education and housing.

Reconciliation has not been fully achieved in the absence of fully developed social actors. Society is still fragmented with mistrust among its citizens and between citizens and institutions, low levels of association, and the practice of taking refuge in one’s family. These weaknesses are particularly critical in light of the country’s significant advances in its participation in the process of globalization through free trade agree

Roberta Bacic was a member of the commission and spoke of her experiences to a forum organised by Civil Resistance

One of the questions she asked herself on being invited to work for the Commission was why it was that some countries had a Truth Commission after war or dictatorship whilst others did not. Nothing had happened in Peru. In Guatemala, half a million people had disappeared as against around 2,000 in Chile, yet at that stage Guatemala had not set up a commission. In Chile, the coup had overthrown a legally established government so it was impossible not to recognize what had happened. They had imprisoned deputies and senators, and closed down legitimate organisations like the trade unions. People in many countries had been looking at this experiment of coming to socialism through democratic elections rather than armed struggle.

Chile was an organised country and the people who were killed or disappeared included the president, professional people, and workers as well as indigenous people. The fact that a state machinery had been set up to destroy the social net attracted international attention. There were disappearances, systematic torture, and extra-judicial executions. Bacic said if these issues had not been dealt with by Chile, they would be dealt with outside it in international courts.

She acknowledged that a Commission presented a good image to the outside world. What she had not fully realised at the time was that the two agencies which would benefit most from the work of the Commission were the new government, because it gave an impression of dealing with the problem and reduced the level of protest and the military, because no one faced trial and punishment.

She herself had extensive access to different elements of society because she interviewed people from murderers in prison to bishops. Some of these murderers were related to the disappeared, or had participated in some way in the repression, and had taken to crime as a means of survival. Commissioners discovered that the torturers were not monsters; they could be good husbands, loving parents; the torturers were trained to see their opponents as monsters, as people who were undermining the nation. The military saw dissenters as enemies because they feared them.

In Chile she knew of no example of perpetrator and victim coming together. There was no discussion in Chile of how it came about that part of the society refused to believe for 17 years that people were disappearing, despite the protests in the streets. Roberta said that, for her, reconciliation in relation to the Commission’s work was highly suspect. It was being promoted by the people in power who asked for, and demanded, reconciliation from those who suffered. For Chileans, reconciliation represented a spiritual state. How could a Commission give both Truth and Reconciliation? These were things on two different levels. Rather than talking about reconciliation she preferred to speak about the different ways in which people came to deal with the past. Some people had accepted that the killing had happened but still wanted to know who did it. Just to know that there was a human being responsible made a difference because their husband, their wife, their child was a human being attacked by another human being. The fact that the perpetrator finally had a name made a difference, even if there was no chance they would say sorry for what they had done. From a religious point of view, reconciliation needed the acknowledgement of the crime and recognition that it was wrong. That had not happened in Chilean society.

Today most of the relatives of the detained and disappeared in the small towns lived one or two blocks away from the perpetrators They went to the same church, took communion together and their children attended the same school. “A simple person, unable to do the acrobatics of accommodation, would react very differently. She would say that if her husband stole a chicken he would go to jail, yet the policeman who killed her son did not go to jail. She was driven mad because she could not understand how this could happen.”

The Commission did publish at the end of 1996 a final, challenging book in which they proposed a system of incorporating human rights into the curriculum of students to create a culture of human rights rather than dealing only with the abuses.

Roberta had hoped too that a young generation of students at the universities would be motivated to take an active part in building a fairer society. Instead they were quite reactionary. They grew up in a society where money and status were important, and the revelation of the truth of what had occurred did not mean so much to them. It was far away from their own reality, and many of their parents did not want to tell the children what had gone on.