Pinochet Case Opens Closet of a Continent
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 23, 1998; Page A20
SANTIAGO, ChileIn Chile and throughout South America, the stunning arrest in London last week of former president Augusto Pinochet has reopened an agonizing question: Is it better to confront the ghosts of authoritarianism or leave them undisturbed?
For a decade or more, the story of Latin America's young democracies -- especially in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay -- has been the story of coming to grips with the excesses of military rule. Some, like Brazil, have chosen to forgive and forget. Argentina, by contrast, has opted for a middle path, exposing the crimes of military rulers but pardoning all but a few. But as the furor this week in Chile has demonstrated, there is still no agreement on the best approach.
Nowhere, perhaps, is the question more pressing than in Chile and, to a lesser degree, Argentina,which weathered the most repressive and bloody regimes during the era of dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s. Both nations have risked dangerous showdowns with the armed forces by trying to attain some level of accountability; both have been forced to pass sweeping amnesty laws that protected most of the guilty.
And Chile, at least, is learning the risks of turning a blind eye to the past. In Santiago this week, the arrest of Pinochet, South America's most notorious living military figure, who is wanted for interrogation and possible trial on human rights charges in Spain, touched off the biggest uproar since the country's transition to democracy in 1990. Dormant tensions flared and the nation's ruling center-left coalition showed signs of cracking. President Eduardo Frei, under enormous pressure from the right wing and the army, publicly condemned the arrest while leftist legislators bitterly criticized him and clamored for Pinochet to stand international trial.
Meanwhile, conservative legislators threatened chaos to keep Frei in line. They withdrew from the House of Deputies and the Senate in an attempt to halt debate on next year's national budget. Right-wing demonstrations and left-wing celebrations turned violent in the streets, underscoring just how divided Chile has become. Archbishop of Santiago Francisco Javier Errazuriz captured the feelings of many when he told reporters this week: "If the guilty parties would have been punished in our country in the first place, we wouldn't be facing what [this nation] is going through now."
But imposing such punishment is enormously difficult and often impossible. For example, it was only after intense pressure from the United States to solve the 1976 assassination of the former Chilean ambassador, Orlando Letelier, in Washington, that Chile's democratic rulers took their only major action against the old Pinochet regime.
Manuel Contreras, head of Pinochet's DINA, or secret police, and his second in command, Brig. Gen. Pedro Espinoza, were jailed in 1995. Although the move was hailed as a coup for justice, it caused a tense standoff between the government and the armed forces.
"They let Contreras go to jail, but only because the United States was screaming for his head," said Raul Sohr, a noted Chilean military expert. "After that, the message was, 'no more.' "
One reason that Chilean leftists were so giddy this week at the possibility of Pinochet's trial in Spain is that they know the probability of a trial in Chile is next to zero. After Pinochet was defeated in a plebiscite in 1988, he agreed to concede power, but only after he had negotiated amnesty for his actions as leader of Chile's military junta. No sweeping trials would be held, and the army would not be held accountable as an institution for its crimes.
That was hard to bear for the families of the estimated 3,000 people killed or "disappeared" under Pinochet's regime, and the thousands more who had been kidnapped and tortured but later released. It was especially difficult for the nation after the 1990 Rettig Report, which documented in shocking detail the excesses committed under Pinochet's rule -- including mass murders and the training of attack dogs to sexually molest female dissidents.
Yet whatever Chile's failure to square up accounts with the past, it has gone considerably further than, say, Brazil, the region's largest nation, or Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia, where former military leaders are generally enjoying comfortable retirements.
Brazilians sometimes argue that the past has been overlooked because the present remains so bleak. Massive social problems -- crime, corruption and poverty -- have tended to overshadow the need for cathartic, South Africa-style truth trials. Indeed, in 1994, more people were killed by police on the streets of Sao Paulo in one month than the total official tally of 139 people killed by the military government.
Argentina, where 10,000 dissidents "disappeared" during the 1970s and 1980s, has gone much further in coming to terms with its past. But doing so was easier for the Argentines. Unlike in Chile, where Pinochet enjoys the support of the wealthy right-wing elite, the Argentine military was disgraced after its defeat by the British in the 1982 Falklands War, losing virtually all public support. That helped President Raul Alfonsin initiate landmark trials for the military rulers who created the climate of terror. Trials that started in 1984 eventually put five junta members -- including the notorious Gen. Jorge Videla -- behind bars.
Yet even in Argentina, there are limits. In 1987, when more than 400 military men were under investigation for domestic war crimes, the armed forces threatened a coup, forcing Alfonsin and Congress to grant an amnesty that allowed the accused to testify on the fates of the disappeared without the threat of jail time. It allowed some of the most notorious murderers, such as former Navy Capt. Alfredo Astiz, known as "the Blond Angel of Death," to walk free. In 1991, President Carlos Menem, in what he called a "move for national reconciliation," eventually pardoned the jailed junta members.
But along the way, Argentine democracy in the 1990s has greatly solidified. In part, that is because some military torturers have publicly unburdened themselves. In 1995, former Navy officer Adolfo Scilingo admitted to throwing dozens of dissidents to their deaths from airplanes. His confession shocked the nation -- and eventually helped lay the groundwork for the court cases in Spain that were directed at Pinochet this week. Add to that the evolution of a free press in Argentina that has grown in power to the point where information and details about the "Dirty War" are now in wide circulation.
The Argentine army has slowly become more subservient to civilian rule than any other on the continent. For example, a judicial investigation into charges that the military here illegally sold arms to Croatia and Ecuador in the early 1990s is underway. And today, Videla is back under house arrest as he awaits trial for the kidnapping of the babies of female dissidents. The babies were given up for adoption to army officers.
But perhaps the best indication that confronting unpleasant truths can help heal old wounds is this: Congresswoman Graciela Fernandez Meijide, mother of a disappeared victim, is now the front-runner in next year's presidential race.
"We have a long way to go, but you have seen an extraordinary change in Argentina," said Horacio Verbitsky, a noted Argentine investigative journalist. "Come on, to have civilian [prosecutors] going into army bases and seizing documents? It's amazing to see how things have changed in that respect."
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