Chileans will be voting this Thursday in a historic free nationwide election, the first since Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte led a September 1973 military coup d’etat that replaced democracy with reign of terror. For Pinochet and his fellow generals, more will be at stake than presidential and legislative offices.
After the election, a decision will have to be made whether to grant amnesty or prosecute the well-documented violations of basic human rights the Pinochet regime committed in the last 16 years in the name of protecting “Western Christian civilization from subversion.
Pinochet and his colleagues fear a tribunal similar to that in neighboring Argentina, which sent members of juntas that ruled between 1976 and 1983 behind bars for ordering the torture and disappearance of thousands of alleged subversives.
For the same reason, the election will be closely monitored in Washington. Reexamination of the last two decades will remind the world that following Chile’s 1970 presidential election, President Richard M. Nixon instructed the CIA to use any means necessary to prevent the accession to power of the socialist Salvador Allende Gossens. Allende survived three years of CIA destabilization maneuvers, only to be assassinated during the Pinochet-led coup.
Conservative estimates place at 1,000 the number of Chileans executed for political reasons in the coup’s aftermath. Tens of thousands were held in concentration camps, and many of them were tortured. Nearly 1,000 disappeared after detention. Their corpses are still turning up in mass graves.
That was just the beginning. The state of siege continued from September 1973 until April 1978, when the junta granted amnesty for crimes committed over that period, except for those already prosecuted in civil courts. The violence has continued another decade. According to a report issued last month by Americas Watch, the human-rights monitoring group, the Catholic church’s Vicara de la Solidaridad claims some 40,000 files on victims of the regime.
Thousands more files would no doubt eventually have to be added if not for the fact that on Oct. 5, 1988, Pinochet was the lone candidate for president in a plebiscite that figured to rubber-stamp eight more years of his reign. When the votes were tallied, the ‘nos’ totaled a remarkable 55 percent. A crippled economy and 15 years of brutality had finally taken their toll. Plans were soon made for the transfer of power.
Nonetheless, the violence and abuses have continued. Just last month, masked, armed men broke into the Santiago home of Enrique Silva Cimma, campaign manager for Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, the presidential candidate of the moderate coalition, Concertacion, and the odds-on favorite to win Thursday’s election. The thugs beat Silva Cimma’s wife and granddaughter and stole nothing but family documents.
Pinochet also has placed legal roadblocks in the path of his successors. For any party to secure two legislative seats from a single district, it must receive at least two-thirds of the vote. A party with only one-third of the vote, such as the minority coalition favored by Pinochet, is guaranteed one of two available seats.
Pinochet also intends to remain the army’s commander-in-chief. And in September, he demanded retention of the 1973-78 amnesty. In October, he declared: “The day they touch any of my men will be the end of the state law.”
Confrontation appears inevitable. The platform of the Concertacion coalition states: “The democratic government will seek the derogatory or annulment of the Degree Law on amnesty.” Even the conservative Union Democrata Independiente supports investigations and, where appropriate, prosecutions.
The longevity of the post-election government will hinge on how its words translate into action. In neighboring Argentina, threats from a disgruntled military have already evoked a pardon of nearly all convicted officers and amnesty for those not yet tried. In Uruguay, where on a per capita basis more political prisoners than anywhere else in Latin America were incarcerated and tortured under the military dictatorship of 1973-1985, fears of the same kind defeated a movement to prosecute the perpetrators in a plebiscite held there last spring.
US hands are far from clean
Those decisions were unfortunate, according to Harvey Cox, professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, who has written extensively on Latin America. “Even if people go unpunished,” Cox said recently, “such trials are enormously important for everyone’s mental health and the health of society as a whole.”
For the new Chilean government to investigate – and prosecute – the crimes of the Pinochet regime, the solid backing of the US government would appear necessary. However, the Bush administration is an unlikely supporter. For as Cox notes, if an investigation is undertaken, “the strings will lead to the US and agencies of the US government.”
The Reagan administration distanced itself from Pinochet and supported restoration of democracy. Nonetheless, the State Department ended a ban on financing from the Export-Import Bank, and Washington was lone in opposing continued UN monitoring of Chilean human-rights abuses. In September, the Bush administration sent Chile 15 helicopters, seemingly violating a ban on the sale of military equipment.
If the Bush administration discourages the Chilean government from investigating, some of Bush’s predecessors in the White House will be grateful.
Nixon and Allende
The role of the Nixon administration in destabilizing the Allende government – eventually ousted by Pinochet – was established long ago by a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee headed by the late Sen. Frank Church. However, because the CIA was the committee’s primary source of information, much of the truth remained hidden, according to biographies of then national security adviser Henry Kissinger, written by journalist Seymour Hersh and by former National Security Council staffer Roger Morris.
The CIA’s own intelligence reports concluded that Allende, though a socialist who nationalized American-owned companies, represented no real threat to US national security. In fact, nationalization was initiated by Allende’s Christian Democrat predecessor, Eduardo Frei. Nonetheless, as Hersch revealed, the Nixon administration’s response to Allende’s 1970 election victory included an (unsuccessful) plan to have him assassinated.
According to Hersch and Morris, the great contempt for Allende was on the part of Nixon and adviser Kissinger was primarily ideological in origin. At a White House planning session prior to Allende’s victory, Kissinger declared: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
According to Hersch, Kissinger’s “fear was not only that Allende would be voted into office, but that – after his six-year term – the political process would work and he would be voted out of office in the next election.” Proof that communists could participate in a fair political process was considered dangerous.
Kissinger, Hersch states, took charge of the anti-Allende plotting. By the coup of 1973, the CIA had spent $8 million, which became five times that amount on the black market. Though neither the White House nor CIA have been implicated in either the takeover or Allende’s assassination, Pinochet’s mob was well aware of what Washington wanted.
Kissinger’s decisive role
Washington’s attitude was clear. Facing defeat in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger sought victories elsewhere and viewed authoritarian Latins as comrades in arms – much as the Reagan and Bush administrations have viewed El Salvador’s army.
But as Edmond L. Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, declared following the recent killings of church workers in El Salvador: “There comes a time when accountability must be demanded of our government’s actions.”
If anyone should be called to account, it is Kissinger, whose decisive role in the Chilean disaster is clear. Moreover, according to State Department documents obtained by journalist Martin Andersen and excerpted two years ago in the Nation, as secretary of state in the Ford administration, Kissinger also gave the Argentines a green light for their “Dirty War.”
According to a State Department memo, in June 1976 – at a meeting in Pinochet’s Chile – Kissinger asked the Argentine foreign minister, Adm. Cesar Guzzetti, “How long will it take you [the Argentines] to clean up the problem?” The “secretary wanted Argentina to finish its terrorist problem before year end – before Congress reconvened in January 1977.” Mass execution of prisoners and suspects, Andersen notes, became widespread only after the Kissinger-Guzzetti meeting.
If America is to avoid repeating such costly mistakes, a thorough accounting for past policies is in order. After all, if the Soviets can face reality in Eastern Europe, then surely we whose institutions are so much stronger can face ours in Latin America. Washington has an obligation to enthusiastically support Chile’s new government when it comes to grips with the recent past.
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