Hope Comes to Chile

18 မေလ 2000

Under Lagos, the majority of Chileans may again restore their memory of struggle.


TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Chile, 4 November 1970. I filmed Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei (the father) as he placed the red, white, and blue sash of the presidency across the shoulder of the incoming Socialist executive, Salvador Allende. Then Frei gave the bespectacled doctor the Latin abrazo (hug). The brief swearing-in contained promises to uphold the law and the constitution. Then came the parade, Allende standing and waving from the convertible limo, bodyguards running alongside military officials on horseback.

Chile, 11 March 2000

I watch Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei (the son) as he places that presidential sash across the body of the incoming Socialist executive, Ricardo Lagos. Then come the abrazos, the oaths, the glad-handing-just as in 1970. Socialists and progressives around the world again begin their expectant watch, albeit with a bit more skepticism.

In the early 1970s, socialists flocked to Chile to help Allende carry out basic reforms. They promoted the first significant social democratic experiment in the post-war world. Allende endured for three conflict-ridden years, despite a heavy CIA campaign to "mash up his good order" and a banking-credit squeeze that would have destroyed any struggling Third World nation. He planned to hold a plebiscite on 11 September 1973. The voters of Chile would have him continue or leave. But it never happened.

On that fateful day, Chilean workers and millions of their backers felt the painful shudder of loss as they watched the tanks surrounding and bombarding the Presidential Palace.

Then came seventeen long, dark years of military dictatorship. The obsequious, moderate Augusto Pinochet, who joined the plot at the last minute, outperformed the most zealous fanatics. His forces executed or "disappeared" 3,197 people. Tens of thousands were tortured, hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. Pinochet destroyed the constitution, the parliament, the political parties, the trade unions, and the free universities. His soldiers made bonfires out of books that contained the word "Marx". To fix Chile's economy in a way that would curry favor with the world's richest and most powerful, he brought in the Chicago Boys - the disciples of Milton Friedman. They taught their free market philosophy, which, after ten years of austerity imposed on the working class, showed impressive growth figures. Though real wages declined steadily during the Pinochet years, the free market model finally thrived under the culture of dictatorship.

Times have changed - for socialism and for Pinochet.

Missing at Lagos's inauguration is the eighty-four-year-old general, who returned from England one week before, after spending 503 days under arrest. A Spanish judge had ordered British authorities to detain him and then asked for his extradition to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity, genocide, and terrorism. Only after British authorities deemed him too ill to stand trial was he allowed to return home, disgraced.

On Sunday, March 12, I join some 250,000 people, mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, as they celebrate in Parque Forestal in Santiago's downtown. Lagos will speak in the early evening. In the meantime, it's music and song. Young people wave banners demanding that Pinochet face trial. I see tattooed and pierced youth passing bottles and joints. Giant speakers emit rock rhythms from the pop bands playing on the stage hundreds of yards away. Every few minutes, groups rise from the grass amidst the familiar sweet, smoky odor and shout Juicio a Pinochet (put Pinochet on trial). An eighteen-year-old carries a banner bearing a picture of Allende's face.

"What does he mean to you?" I ask the young woman. "You surely have no memory of him".

"Freedom", she says, without pausing. "He means social justice and an end to the horrible black years of military fascism and the ten gray years of so-called transition to democracy under the Christian Democrats".

"Yes", adds a young man from the northern city of Antofagasta, who was sipping rot gut with a friend and holding up a Lagos poster that reads, "Say no to drugs". "We want real democracy, real freedom", he says.

Six months before, pot-smoking would have brought a swarm of pacos (cops), a quick arrest, and a long jail sentence. "On the day after Lagos's inaugural, it's time to declare independence from the tight-assed years", says a young woman with pink hair. "This is the time for the young people to come out of the closet and create our own freedom".

Juicio a Pinochet, they begin to shout, jumping and laughing.

"We're not afraid of him any more", an older man comments. "We're beginning to restore our memory".

"Ridiculous", says another elderly onlooker, who claims the military will never allow Pinochet to be tried.

"Fear", responds Carolina, nineteen years old, a university student with a stud in her lip. "Pinochet has thrown fear like a blanket across this country. But now, after his detention in London and after four countries are demanding his extradition, he no longer frightens me or my friends. Maybe we're too young. We did not know the murders, the disappearances, the torture, the constant sense of dread that the old goat's secret police inflicted".

A group of dancers fly through the street next to the park. Their faces are painted red, and some hold banners saying, "Include culture", a reference to the neglect of artistic creation during the seventeen Pinochet and ten Christian Democratic years.

Lagos has pledged to make culture an investment. At the gala on the night of the inauguration, dancers appear again as the words of Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, Chile's greatest twentieth century poets, fill the auditorium. An older woman says nothing as the dancers swoop past her. A faint smile appears on her lips.

"Perhaps", she finally says.

Perhaps she is referring to candidate Lagos wagging his finger at the Chilean military, warning them not to overstep their bounds. Later that night, from the balcony of the Presidential Palace, he says Chileans "will always remember the traitors who bombed the palace". He calls for the elimination of "authoritarian enclaves" in Pinochet's constitution and declares his intention to complete the transition from military to civilian government.

Lagos appears to be getting help in this effort from the US Justice Department, which has reopened the Letelier-Moffitt case. Orlando Letelier became Allende's last defense minister in August 1973. Letelier's widow still has a gift from Pinochet and his wife, an expensive copper plate with the engraved words: "To Orlando and Isabel, with eternal loyalty and affection, Augusto and Lucia". After the coup, Pinochet banished Letelier and other Allende ministers, without charges, to a concentration camp on Dawson Island, a frigid place off Chile's southern coast. Pinochet freed Letelier in late 1974.

By 1975, Letelier had moved with his family to Washington, D.C., to accept a fellowship at the Institute for Policy Studies. I worked with him back then at IPS as he tried to shake off the experiences of being tortured and imprisoned and as he dedicated himself to the task of restoring democracy in Chile.

In June 1976, according to senior FBI officials, Pinochet ordered his secret police chief to remove Letelier. Agents of the Chilean government blew up Letelier's car on Washington's Embassy Row, as he and Ronni Moffitt, an IPS colleague, were riding to work.

The FBI discovered that Colonel Manuel Contreras, head of the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), Chile's secret police, and Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Espinoza, his operations' deputy, had given the orders.

That one action-out of all the killings of the Pinochet era-may hold the key to the former dictator's fate. The FBI agents who investigated and the Assistant US Attorney who prosecuted some of the assassins all said it is inconceivable that a crime of such magnitude could have transpired without Pinochet's authorization.

For more than twelve years, the case had been in a coma inside the bureaucracies of the Justice and State Departments.

Then, as the Spanish judge prosecuting Pinochet began to demand material from the United States under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, the case began to stir. In December 1998, former Assistant US Attorney E. Lawrence Barcella wrote a scathing critique of the Department of Justice in The Washington Post for not going after Pinochet. The Justice Department assigned Assistant US Attorney John Beasley to work with a team of FBI agents. And nine months ago, the Bureau assigned Special Agent Kevin Currier to become Legal Attaché at the Santiago Embassy. In the late 1980s, Currier had put the handcuffs on two of the anti-Castro Cubans who pled guilty to roles in assassinating Letelier.

Currier and US Ambassador John O'Leary both tell me that the Letelier-Moffitt car-bombing is still considered the most serious act of international terrorism ever committed in the US capital.

"The US government will not forgive or forget a terrorist crime in Washington until the last culprit, including the real author of the act, is indicted and tried", says Currier.

As if to emphasize the shift in US attitudes toward Pinochet, Attorney General Janet Reno appeared as the US representative at Lagos's inauguration. She met with Hortensia Bussi Allende, the widow, and with Sofia Prats, the daughter of slain General Carlos Prats. Allende's former defense minister and chief of staff, Prats resigned in August 1973, paving the way for Pinochet to take his place. Reno is cooperating with an Argentine judge investigating Prats's assassination in 1974, when he and his wife were blown nine stories high by a car bomb in Buenos Aires. As in the Letelier case, evidence is emerging that ties the Prats hit to Pinochet.

During Lagos's first week in office, Chile accepted a formal US request for judicial assistance in questioning forty-two witnesses, most of them high-ranking military or former military and secret police officials whom the FBI believes had connections to the Letelier assassination. At the same time, the Justice Department convened a grand jury in Washington to reopen the Letelier-Moffitt case, and a team of FBI investigators accompanied Assistant US Attorney Beasley to Chile to question the witnesses.

One person they want to question is Espinoza, who was convicted in Chile in 1995 of conspiring to assassinate Letelier. In late March, Juan Pablo Letelier, Orlando's youngest son and now a Socialist member of the lower house, released a 1978 document bearing Espinoza's signature. Espinoza's affidavit appears to implicate Pinochet in the Letelier assassination.

"The Director of National Intelligence called me to his office", Espinoza writes in that document, "and told me that by order of the president we must begin an investigation of Orlando Letelier, who is threatening the stability of Chile". Espinoza claims that General Hector Orozco later forced him to sign an inaccurate statement about the case "in order to clear his excellency the president of any dust or dirt.'' Espinoza alleges that Orozco prevented him from including in his statement that the Letelier mission was initiated "by order of the president.'' Former US prosecutor Barcella says: "We never had anybody back then that gave us a direct link to Pinochet. Now we do.''

The CIA also has evidence of a direct link. In March, it released a May 31, 1978, cable from its station in Santiago informing headquarters at Langley that Pinochet was involved in a coverup: "Pinochet intercession with Supreme Court to prevent extradition of officials, re: Letelier".

Another Letelier plotter, Captain Armando Fernandez Larios, who pleaded guilty to his involvement in the assassination, told a US judge in 1993 that Pinochet had called him into his office and told him, "Be a good soldier. Follow orders, and all will be resolved".

With this mountain of evidence, the Justice Department may have enough to indict Pinochet on charges of obstruction of justice, at the very least.

Around the dinner table, a dozen Chileans discuss the coincidence of the US reopening the Letelier case just as Lagos takes office.

"We may soon see the holes in Pinochet's immunity cloak", predicts one Chilean lawyer, a socialist.

"The military will never agree to his being tried, even if Washington demands it", says another.

They give several toasts to Lagos, saluting him for the changes he is setting in motion.

In his first week in office, Lagos pledges to restore the rights won by Chilean workers more than a century ago.

He promises to undo the "harmful legacies of the military dictatorship that limit the exercise of democracy", referring to the immunity decrees and the nine nonelected Senate seats the military brass allocated for itself in perpetuity.

He has already introduced legislation to help the unemployed and to strengthen social security.

He vows to reduce waiting lines at health clinics to a maximum of three hours. (Currently, the Chilean poor sometimes wait for more than a day to get medical attention.)

But unlike Fidel Castro, who directs a state socialist model in Cuba, or Hugo Chavez, who is experimenting with populism in Venezuela, Lagos will not tamper with the basic elements of the free market model. He accepts the corporate global system as a given.

Under Lagos, the majority of Chileans may again restore their memory of struggle. They may also begin again to make their own history-but with immense limits imposed by the times. The terrain has shifted. What seemed possible back in November 1970, before Pinochet's coup altered Chile's destiny, is no longer an option.

Lagos may not be just another Clinton lite, a Third World version of Tony Blair. He may actually reintroduce a version of Chilean social democracy.

It may be a less heady brew than the one Allende offered, but for the revelers in the streets of Santiago, it's intoxicating enough.

Copyright 2000 The Progressive