Chile revisits the coup

On September 11 a sudden and violent aerial attack on a symbolic building left many dead and the country in a state of fear and panic. But this was September 11 1973, the year of the coup in Chile that led to 17 years of military dictatorship, the violent deaths of nearly 4 000 people, the torture of an estimated 50 000, and the imprisonment and exile of hundreds of thousands.

On the eve of the 30th anniversary, Chile is engaged in a new debate on how to resolve the human consequences of the coup. Earlier this month President Ricardo Lagos, the Socialist Party leader who was elected as part of a centre-left coalition, unveiled a new set of proposals, called There Is No Tomorrow Without a Yesterday, for resolving what happened, and what should be done for the victims and to the perpetrators.

The coup overthrew the Socialist president, Salvador Allende, who is generally believed to have killed himself after the military attacked La Moneda, the seat of government.

In the wake of the coup, opponents of the junta were herded into the national stadium in Santiago and thousands in the country were jailed.

The coup had the tacit blessing and cooperation of the United States, whose then secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, famously said Chile could not be allowed to “go Marxist” just because “its people are irresponsible’‘.

General Augusto Pinochet ruled for 17 years before losing a plebiscite vote in 1988, which led to the return of democracy the following year.

Pinochet was detained in England in 1998 on a warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, in connection with crimes committed by the military against Spanish citizens. Medical experts in Britain decided that the general, now 87, was mentally too feeble to stand trial and he was returned to Chile where, in 2001, the courts reached the same conclusion.

Lagos’s proposals include an amnesty to low-ranking members of the military who supply information on the atrocities and where bodies may be found, compensation packages for the relatives of the dead and torture survivors, which include pensions and health care, and a truth commission on torture.

Lagos, who was himself detained during the Pinochet years, has said the measures are as far as he can reasonably go while maintaining the support of the armed forces. The new Commander in Chief, Juan Emilio Cheyre, the second to take office since Pinochet’s rule, has pledged the armed forces to a nunca mas (never again) approach to the atrocities, but says most service people have yet to be fully convinced of the necessity of the process of reconciliation.

Relatives of those who “disappeared” have been expressing their concern about the measures and voicing their dismay that many people may now escape punishment by acting as informers.

“The measure [of immunity] is a significant signal to the military,’’ said Mireya Garçia, of the Group of Relatives of the Disappeared. “The reduced sentences are so broad and extensive that anyone who has information could request the benefits. It is a veiled form of impunity.’’

The man who has been advising Lagos on the new proposals is José Zalaquett, a former deputy general secretary of Amnesty International.

Zalaquett was 30, a lawyer and university lecturer, at the time of the coup, having also worked for the Allende government. He worked with the Peace Committee, the body that tried to intervene on behalf of the jailed and disappeared, was jailed, and then exiled for 10 years.

“The very fact of the bombing of La Moneda was incredible,” he said last week. “For people abroad, it is hard to evoke the equivalent — like bombing the White House or Buckingham Palace. They notified the whole country in a brutal way that they meant business and they would not stop at anything. But even then we thought democracy would be restored in a few years. No one would have guessed 17 years.’‘

Zalaquett is critical now of some aspects of the Allende government. “I was looking at this footage from 30 years ago and I thought, ‘Were we that crazy?’ We thought the road to socialism was inevitable. We had this naive belief that, because the winds of history were blowing in our direction, somehow we would be taken to a safe harbour.

“A mixture of the spirit of the Sixties, a thirst for justice, well- intentioned irresponsibility and naivety, and you get what we were. Honestly speaking, we have very mixed views about Allende. We respect his self-immolation and his heroism. He was very well-meant, but a terrible administrator. We knew the government was doomed and it was just a question of time.’‘

Of the current attempts to bring to account the perpetrators of the torture and disappearances, he said: “It is a like an ice-breaking ship ... without Pinochet being detained in London, it is hard to believe that you would have had so soon the recognition and acknowledgement of a new generation of military people and even the most hardcore rightwing acknowledging some of their responsibilities ... I think Pinochet is a liar on the one hand and involved up to his neck on the other, but he is out of the picture now because he is not fit to stand trial. He is not unblemished. As far as history is concerned, his car has been ‘keyed’.”

Elizabeth Lira, who teaches at the centre of ethics at the University of Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, said if the coup had not happened, Allende would probably have lost the next election to the Christian Democrats.

“But we were part of the Cold War, and therefore the problems of Chile were amplified into a great conspiracy: the dictatorship justified the coup on the grounds that Chile would be like Cuba.’’

Opening up what happened to public debate had been a healthy experience. “Before, the problem of the disappeared or tortured was a private problem. Now it is a problem of society — of the military, the judiciary, the state. That is a great change.’‘

What everyone is waiting to see is what happens to those accused. So far, 40 people have been convicted and sentenced. They include Manuel Contreras, who headed the notorious secret police, the Dina. A further 300 cases are at various stages. Because of the passage of time, most of the sentences of those convicted will be no more than a few years.

The prosecutions are further complicated by a controversial amnesty law — which was introduced under Pinochet in 1980 — covering the period 1974 to 1978, when most of the atrocities took place. But many of those who disappeared have never been found, so under a legal technicality their abduction is still current and those who seized them are not covered by the amnesty.

There is no shortage of cases to investigate. The official figure for the dead or disappeared is 3 150 although there are about 500 or 600 other cases that are classified as “fallen”.

Zalaquett estimates that between 150 000 and 200 000 people spent time in jail for political reasons, although most of them were held for only days or weeks.

He also estimates that between 40 000 and 50 000 suffered “ill-treatment”, ranging from roughing up to sophisticated forms of electrical and psychological torture.

Among those who have been asked to give evidence is Kissinger. He has so far declined and now travels abroad only after receiving legal advice, for fear of arrest.

Behind La Moneda there is a statue that shows Allende wrapped in the Chilean flag above his words: “I have faith in Chile and its destiny.” It attracts admirers of the late president from Chile and abroad.

Today Chile faces different problems: a minimum wage of $165 a month, high unemployment and growing labour unrest, which led to the country’s first general strike for 17 years on August 13.

But for many the coup and its aftermath still cast a long and enduring shadow over the country, which must be removed before the country can move on. — Â

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