Chile Confronts its Painful Past

To expel the ex-dictator the left will have to manipulate the laws. Should they do so?

By Korey Capozza | 1998-05-01 12:00:00

On the morning of March 10, 1998, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte left his estate on the outskirts of Santiago on his way to an important moment in his career - the ceremonial termination of his eight-year term as head of the armed forces and the inauguration of his career as a Chilean senator.

Hundreds of protesters lined the major streets of Santiago and thousands of political leaflets covered the walkways downtown. The ceremony, televised live, was a staunchly traditional display of military bravado attended by a few social elites. Meanwhile, Chile's three principal cities were rocked by a growing mass of citizens who took to the streets demanding an end to Pinochet in the nation's politics.

The End of An Era

Pinochet's recent self-orchestrated promotion is hailed by many as the final chapter in Chile's long history of military rule. Others, however, see it as the ultimate victory of the military dictatorship that has haunted the country since its shaky transition to democracy in 1990.

On September 11, 1973 Pinochet seized power through a military coup that overthrew the coalition-leftist government of Salvador Allende, who by 1973 was unpopular. His radical economic campaign, with its takeover of private enterprises, agrarian reform, and income redistribution, had created tension.

Leftists attributed Allende's failure to his rejection of more militant means, while right-wingers, backed by the U.S. government, viewed Allende as an enemy of the state. Pinochet defended his brutal seizure of power as necessary to counter the Communist threat. One of his first projects was to assassinate Allende and thousands of leftist supporters - a tactic that continued through his 17-year dictatorship. His nationalist military regime promised a return to order and democracy. Said Jaime Castillo Velasco, president of the Chilean Commission on Human Rights, "After a while, we began to see that the Armed Forces didn't just want to restore democracy but wanted to stay in power for quite some time."

By then it was too late. Pinochet created a national state of terror, using his intelligence agency, the DINA, to repress all dissent. According to human rights advocates, Pinochet executed between 3,000 and 10,000 people while beating and torturing thousands more. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans went into exile to escape persecution and thousands more simply vanished without a trace and were never heard from again.

In 1980, Pinochet rewrote the constitution and presented it to the electorate as a plebiscite. One clause guar- anteed Pinochet's position until 1989 and allowed any president who has served for more than six years automatically to become a senator at the end of his term. The constitution was approved by two-thirds of the populace. Not until 1989 was Pinochet defeated by a left-of-centre coalition led by the Christian Democrats.

Many critics, however, claim that the constitution is not valid because the elections were not free. "There was no electoral process," explains Castillo Velasco. "People voted knowing they couldn't give their real opinion, and moreover there was no public information from the opposition." Others disagree. "The constitution of 1980 must be upheld because it was democratically approved," says Jose Antonio Galilea Vidaurre, deputy and member of the right-wing party, Restoracion Nacional. "The excesses of Pinochet must be understood as a consequence of the situation - the civil war - that was created by the left under Allende."

A Fragile Democracy

Pinochet's arrival in the senate has re-opened some painful wounds. "It disgusts and offends me to see Pinochet in my government," says Arturo Martinez, vice-president of the Central Workers Union (CUT), Chile's most powerful workers organization. Many of Martinez's colleagues were jailed or murdered during the dictatorship and Martinez himself spent more than eight years as a political prisoner. "Our (the left's) own party has betrayed us by allowing Pinochet to arrive in the Senate without a protest," he says.

In Chile's fragile democracy the recently elected government of the Christian Democrats has seen many defeats. "We have tried, on three different occasions, to pass a reform to the constitution that would eradicate the presence of appointed senators in the Senate," explains Enzo Pistacchio, vice-president of that party. With the constitution of 1980, Pinochet secured the right to appoint eight of the 46 members of the Senate. "We simply do not have any constitutional or legal means to confront his move to the senate because the constitution was written by Pinochet himself. We didn't mobilize [a larger effort] against Pinochet because we didn't want to put our president in an impossible position so early in his term," says Pistacchio.

On March 13, 1998, a group of leftist legislators introduced a new offensive to expel the ex-dictator from the senate. But for this tactic to succeed, the left will have to manipulate the laws Pinochet designed to protect his career. The imminent threat of another military coup still overshadows the Chilean democratic process.

Echoes of the Past

Pinochet's career in congress began with a rocky start on March 11 when the senate erupted in violence over of his presence. On his first day, leftist senators arrived bearing enlarged photos of "disappeared" victims of Pinochet's regime. As one Socialist Party senator tried to approach the ex-general with a photo, an enraged conservative senator attacked him in his path. The act of violence was the first of its kind in the history of the senate.

By his second day, over 500 people had been arrested and 30 people seriously injured in connection with widespread protests that raged throughout Chile. Among those detained were the president of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, several journalists, an American woman, and hundreds of students. The protesters occupied the plazas of Santiago and Valparaiso, shouting "Down with Pinochet, the Assassin!"

On the evening of March 11, a peaceful protest in downtown Santiago was dispersed by armored vans carrying tear gas and water cannons. Despite the increasing presence of riot police, the crowd continued to regroup and shut down the principal traffic route through Santiago's core.

As police repression intensified,the crowd grew, with Chileans of all ages joining. By nine o'clock the frustrated riot police stormed them with batons and shields, indiscriminately beating pedestrians while armored trucks dispersed tear gas. By the evening of March 12, Valparaiso was in chaos as protests became increasingly violent and destructive.

The right-wing and mainstream media called the protesters "delinquents" and "radicals." "The majority of the people protesting are young students who don't remember the dictatorship and who didn't vote for the constitution," said Galilea Vidaurre. "We must respect the constitution that was democratically approved in 1980. The people who are not in the streets are the ones setting a good example for the future of Chile."

Hope for the Future

Most Chileans agree that the path to democracy will not be easy. "People who suffered under the dictatorship are left with anger in their hearts," says Galilea Vidaurre, "but we need to leave the past and think about the future to reinforce our democracy."

Jaime Castillo Velasco of the Human Rights Commission disagrees, saying: "Unless the military admits to its crimes, or at least to its excesses, there can be no reconciliation." The main point of contention between Chile's political parties is this very issue: Is Chile's democracy best fostered by confronting the past or trying to forget it?

Whether democracy will progress despite Pinochet's presence in the Senate remains to be seen. During the demonstrations, police grabbed and attempted to carry a teenage girl to an armored vehicle. As her boyfriend desperately clung to her, a crowd gathered to denounce the police officers. An older man, perhaps a veteran of the Pinochet years, immediately appeared and asked for the girl's name so that her whereabouts would be known. The police finally gave up and let the two teenagers go. The crowd fell silent. A return to the painful years of Pinochet's terror seemed possible.

Korey Capozza is working in Bolivia.

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

Peace Magazine May-June 1998, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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