Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) met with President Augusto Pinochet for two hours tonight and afterward launched a fierce attack on the U.S. media for presenting a distorted view of the country.
"I assured President Pinochet that major media in the U.S. have a tendency to be very unfair to anticommunist governments," said Helms, speaking at the gates of La Moneda presidential palace. "I have never seen a socialistic government which The New York Times or The Washington Post did not like. I am ashamed of the major media in my country."
The comments came as local television and radio, including the state-run television station, quoted unnamed government sources saying the military government is planning a $500 million lawsuit against U.S. media for offensive reporting of recent events, including the death of U.S. resident Rodrigo Rojas, who witnesses said was burned by Army troops during last week's antigovernment protests.
There was no official confirmation of the reports of a lawsuit.
Helms, who said he is on a private visit to Chile, said yesterday that he opposed the State Department's call for a full and independent investigation of the death of Rojas, 19.
"The investigation by the government of Chile began immediately upon the occurrence of the incident, so the U.S. did not need to call for a full investigation because it was already under way," said Helms, who was invited to Chile by its National Agricultural Society. Helms is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and chairman of the Western Hemisphere Affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The U.S. ought to understand that Chile is one of two countries in the entire Latin American area that resists communism. Its transition to democracy is on an orderly course," he said, citing military-ruled Paraguay as the other anticommunist country. Helms made his comments after a one-hour meeting with Chilean Foreign Minister Jaime del Valle.
U.S. State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said today that Helms "was not on any mission for the administration." He also reiterated the government's position that "a thorough and completely impartial inquiry" be made of the circumstances surrounding the death of Rojas, a Chilean native.
Rojas, a Washington resident, left Chile in 1977. He died Sunday. Witnesses have said Rojas and 18-year-old student Carmen Quintana were soaked with gasoline by a military patrol, set on fire and then driven away. They were later found on a deserted road near Santiago's international airport.
The Army has denied any involvement in the deaths. Yesterday, Pinochet repeated government claims that the two were burned while handling a molotov cocktail.
The government-owned newspaper La Nacion yesterday accused U.S. Ambassador Harry Barnes of encouraging violence by his presence at Rojas' funeral Wednesday. Riot police broke up the funeral procession with water cannons and tear gas after clashes between mourners and police, who tried to prevent the procession.
In a strongly worded statement, the U.S. Embassy said the accusation was "completely false," adding that "the disturbances occurred approximately an hour after the ambassador's arrival and, until then, the area had been peaceful." Barnes attended the funeral out of a "humanitarian concern for the victims of this crime and their families," it said.
Kalb, speaking at the State Department yesterday, said he had reports that the violence started only after police intervened to break up what had been a peaceful procession. He said, "we have already conveyed strongly to the Chilean government our view that this police intervention at the Rojas funeral was unwarranted under the circumstances."
To prove the government's case, last night state-run television showed a videotape purporting to show Rojas' companion carrying a bag of flammable material during a past student protest. Still photos from the tape were published in the progovernment press.
Quintana's parents denied that the woman in the video was their daughter, and said they would file charges against those responsible for the accusation. The families' attorney, Hector Salazar, the lawyer for the Catholic Church's human rights office, described such claims as "very clumsy, and designed to inhibit the investigation by invading its territory."
A special judicial inquiry into the case was ordered by the courts Monday.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Concepcion, Pinochet made his clearest statement yet that he intends to continue in office beyond the end of his term, which expires in 1989. "We're not going to give up the government just for the sake of it," he said, referring to last week's two-day national strike calling for a rapid return to democracy. "This will continue beyond 1989," he added.
Pinochet said another term is necessary to consolidate his government's achievements. He also rejected any proposed changes to the constitution, under which a single candidate, named by the military commanders-in-chief, is to be put to a national plebiscite in 1989.
Pinochet's statement was the flattest challenge yet to those in the military, including non-Army members of the government junta, whose support for Pinochet appears to be wavering, or who may have considered encouraging elections with more than one candidate in 1989.
In Santiago, 15 of the 18 opposition leaders accused by the government of security offenses for calling last week's protest strike, gave themselves up yesterday after a week in hiding. The courts will now decide whether they should face trial