Abnormal Events in an Increasingly Normal Chile
Abnormal Events in an Increasingly Normal Chile
In 1973, Salvador Allende died by his own hand during a quixotic effort to defend La Moneda, the presidential palace in the heart of Santiago, against the aircraft and tanks of General Augusto Pinochet’s military junta. Since March, the austere, neo-classical palace has once again been occupied by a socialist, Ricardo Lagos, though he is a far more moderate one than Allende. One of his first acts was to open the courtyards of La Moneda to the public.
It is a sign that 'this country is calm', Mr Lagos said recently. 'The institutions are working.' Those words have been severely tested this week, in the aftermath of the decision by a Chilean judge, Juan Guzman, on December 1st to charge General Pinochet with kidnapping and murder, and to order his house arrest.
For almost three years, Mr Guzman has been investigating legal claims (now totalling 184) against General Pinochet for human-rights abuses during his dictatorship in 1973-90. The crimes with which the judge has charged the dictator concern the execution of 75 political prisoners (18 of whose bodies are still missing) by the 'death caravan', a group of officers who toured the country after the 1973 coup.
Even so, Mr Guzman’s decision came as a surprise to many, including the armed forces and Mr Lagos himself, who was in Mexico for the inauguration of President Vicente Fox. In August, Chile’s Supreme Court had rejected General Pinochet’s claim that he was immune from prosecution, both as a senator-for-life (a self-bestowed title) and under a 1980 amnesty law. But Mr Guzman then ordered medical tests to determine whether the former dictator, who turned 85 last month, was fit to stand trial. Until those reports are completed, perhaps in January, no arrest had been expected.
Military commanders were furious. They wanted Mr Lagos to call a meeting of the National Security Council. On paper, this is a threatening outfit, a Pinochet-era invention dominated by the armed forces; in practice, it is fairly toothless safety valve.
Even so, ministers had said that calling the council into session on this issue would be unconstitutional, and would be seen as applying political pressure to the courts. So it was an embarassing climbdown for Mr Lagos when he agreed on December 6th to summon the council—though not until after the courts have dealt with an appeal by General Pinochet’s lawyers against the arrest warrant.
The government clearly expects that the courts, by upholding the appeal, will defuse the situation. The Santiago Appeals Court had quickly accepted a defence request to halt the arrest procedures pending the appeal. It was due to start considering the appeal on December 7th.
In another sign of political pressure, one of the judges due to hear the appeal took medical leave; his replacement is a known conservative. Anyway, under Chilean law, a defendant must be questioned before being arrested. Mr Guzman had sent a written questionnaire to the former dictator last year, during his 17-month detention in Britain on the order of a Spanish judge, but it had been returned uncompleted.
What seemed to have pushed Mr Guzman into issuing his arrest warrant was a campaign by Pinochet supporters to have the judge dimissed from the case. This week, he was reprimanded by the Supreme Court for sending a private letter (later leaked) to a government lawyer working on the Pinochet case, offering his support in an unrelated matter. A similar campaign last month secured the removal of another judge who had ordered the forfeiture of General Pinochet’s passport in response to an extradition request from an Argentine court.
All this suggests that General Pinochet, who spent the week at his holiday home by the sea, remains above the law in Chile, and is unlikely to be tried. He does now appear to be close to senility. And while Mr Lagos insists that the Pinochet affair is a matter for the courts, in practice his centre-left government wants to avoid the political stresses a trial would involve.
The events of the past week have highlighted once again that a decade after the end of the dictatorship, Chile is still less than a normal democracy. In many ways, however, the dictator’s long-lingering grip on his country has gone at last. Chile has been governed by the centre-left Concertacion coalition since 1990. But until General Pinochet’s detention in London, the Concertacion seemed to be in office, not in power. The armed forces and Chile’s clannishly conservative businessmen held a de facto veto over policy in important areas.
That is changing. On human rights, the army seems to have accepted that nobody except General Pinochet is untouchable. Five retired officers have been charged over the 'death caravan' case. Last month, for the first time, a serving general was charged with a human-rights offence (involving the murder of a trade-union leader in 1982). The army has also agreed to provide what information it has on the fate of some 1,200 people who 'disappeared' during the dictatorship (though as yet it has offered little).
In this, the army is recognising that, although General Pinochet represents a past that it still defends, its future is as a modern force in a democratic society, in which it must compete for public respect and funds, like any other interest group. It is quietly changing the curriculum at the staff college.
Still pending is a constitutional reform to abolish unelected senators and the National Security Council, and allow the president to fire military commanders. This remains a 'priority', says Mr Lagos, But until this week at least, some of the urgency had gone out of the issue: the government now has a narrow majority in the Senate, and Mr Lagos had taken a more robust approach to the army than his predecessor, Eduardo Frei.
For now, the government’s first priority is the economy. This is recovering from a recession, and should grow at around 5.5% this year and next. But unemployment remains high, at 10%, and consumers remain cautious. Returning to the annual growth rate of 8% that Chile enjoyed in 1991-97 will require a big increase in private investment.
Mixed messages from the government are hindering this, according to the opposition. Private-sector economists give high marks to Mr Lagos’s economic team, which they say is more pro-market than its predecessor. But government plans to crack down on tax evasion, to introduce unemployment insurance and to boost trade-union rights have drawn fire from businessmen.
Yet on all these issues there are signs of compromise. Mr Lagos won election only narrowly. He must get the economy moving again, or the Concertacion risks defeat both in a congressional election next year, and in the next presidential vote. The prospect of winning power democratically may slowly be making the right less defensive and more pragmatic. Except when it comes to General Pinochet: until the dictator dies, however much progress is made, Chile’s democracy will be less than complete.
Copyright 2000 The Economist