Settling Accounts with Torturers

By Lawrence Weschler

Pantheon. 293 pp. $22.95

A WOMAN WHO worked at the United Nations for the government of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet was speaking to Orlando Saenz, a former economic adviser to Pinochet who had become an opponent of the regime. It was the early 1980s and the woman had returned to Chile on vacation. She had chanced to read a magazine interview in which her old friend Saenz talked about torture in Chile. Though she knew Saenz was anti-Pinochet, she chided him that he had become unbalanced. "I know no one who has been tortured," she said.

Saenz told her that when he had been in the government, his girlfriend came to him in tears to report that her sister-in-law had been taken by the security forces. After an intense search he found her, in a clandestine prison, and used his influence to arrange a visit by his girlfriend. The sister-in-law had been beaten and tortured. The woman turned pale and began to cry. She had been his girlfriend; it was her sister-in-law who had been tortured. "Would you believe me if I tell you I forget?" she said to Saenz. "I am a very appreciative person. These years have been good to me. Part of my appreciation is forgetting."

"I believe her," he told me later. "After a while you don't know what is nightmare and what is real."

A Miracle, a Universe is about memory, and the efforts of people in Brazil and Uruguay, two torture-scarred lands, to confront the nightmare of their years under oppressive regimes. In Brazil, Lawrence Weschler (a staff writer for The New Yorker, where much of this book was first published) makes a gripping tale out of adventures in photocopying. He writes of the secret efforts of a small group of people, led by the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Sao Paulo, to spirit away the military government's own detailed records of torture, copy them under the military's nose and convert the information into a book, Brasil: Nunca Mais ("Brazil: Never Again"), that appeared one day on bookstore shelves, silently, with no fanfare, too late for the military to stop.

In Uruguay, Weschler writes about how the country known in the United States as "the Great Exception," Latin America's democratic welfare state where soldiers had so few military tasks that they also collected leaves, became the continent's torture house in 1973. Its principal chamber of horrors was a behaviorist prison named Libertad, whose purpose was to drive inmates insane. Later, with the military out of power and protected by a self-amnesty, a group of human rights activitists decided to push for a public referendum to revoke impunity for the torturers. URUGUAYANS chose prudence over justice after their generals made it quite clear that attempts to bring them to trial would have grave consequences. These consequences were visible in neighboring Argentina after its return to democracy in 1983. Civilian President Raul Alfonsin began historic trials for the military junta's crimes. But Army officers staged three uprisings protesting the trials, forcing Alfonsin to end them prematurely. His successor, Carlos Menem, has promised to pardon even those generals convicted, by the end of the year.

But if impunity seemed to protect Uruguay's democracy in the short-term, this is not necessarily the case over longer periods. Perhaps the certainty of trial would discourage further coups, disappearances and torture. Weschler quotes a Uruguayan general who unwittingly supports this view: "Who in the future will fight against subversion," said the general, "if he knows that at any moment he will be tried?"

After the publication of Argentina: Nunca Mas and Brasil: Nunca Mais, a Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in Santiago is at this moment working on what may become Chile: Nunca Mas. The prospects for justice are dim; the military amnestied itself for the bulk of its crimes. If the new civilian president revokes the amnesty, Pinochet, who remains as army commander in chief, promises to make it difficult for him to govern.

As a new country publishes a "Never Again" every few years (and there are many more nations where the truth will remain unwritten -- we will never see a Haiti: Jamais Plus or Turkey: Bir Daha Asla), what can help to make "never again" more than a plea? Weschler's recommendation, and I agree, is the revival of memory and the rule of law as principles that a society must follow always. Torturers must fear justice. State terror must be exposed, chronicled, catalogued and footnoted. Only in this way can a country heal; nightmares vanish completely only in the light of day. Tina Rosenberg, who lived in Latin America for five years, is a resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment and the author of a forthcoming book on violence in Latin America.