Tuesday, January 25, 2005


In December of 2004, Judge Juan Guzman nudged the collective Chilean conscience a step closer to what some might see as closure, but what I interpret as the nature of justice.
With the statement: “Pinochet has been declared mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation” it seems that karma is as slow as New York traffic during the holidays, has finally started to come around on that wheel.

It was thirty-one years ago, September 11th , when the democratically elected government of Salvadore Allende was overthrown by forces led by General Augusto Pinochet with CIA backing.

Chileans have long memories and the clock is running out for a nation seeking justice against the man who has come to represent the suffering and horror of that time. They are hoping to catch him on tax evasion, the same crime they locked up Al Capone on.

Still, the country’s leaders exercise due process, not like in 1973 when it was believed the Chilean judiciary was complicit in illegal detentions, torture and disappearances.

One would think there would consensus about this man in Chile. One would think the issue of national psychic healing would be a monolithic fait accompli, but this is not the case. When I was there visiting in 1986, I started an argument, trying to evade some very difficult political questions some locals were asking me. It was in a social setting, and I was visiting the poblacion (barrio) of La Victoria.

One thing I will say is that even among the poorest of the poor in Chile, everyone seems to have an interest and a knack for global international politics. No discussions were off base. I found the Chilean people more knowledgeable about U.S. foreign policy than most Americans.

I derailed the discussion by asking one of my guests what he thought of the Pinochet government, still in direct power at that time, before the plebescite in 1989 that ostensibly removed him from power. That started vigorous discussion among my guests. My point being, that even here, in La Victoria, a plot of land that was originally created by what the locals called a “toma!” - a land take by the poor of government property - there was no consensus. Why should there be now?

To its credit, the current military has acknowledged its part in the suffering. An average compensation of $190 per victim claim is the suggested financial remuneration.
Yes, it’s laughable by U.S. standards, but that is not the point. “Justice is the principal method of reparation,” Pedro Matta, a survivor of the Villa Grimaldi torture camp insists. But how justice? When justice?

Commander in Chief Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre has taken the difficult and almost unheard of task of forging through the guilt and complicity of his military during this dark period of Chilean history.

When I was there, I went by the National Stadium. I was driven by friends, speeding through the streets of Santiago in an open-air jeep, probably in the same the same manner that many of the victims who were taken by the police; in the dark of night, the frenetic speed and blackness ahead, I saw it all lit up. The light cast ominous shadows and its history made it seem sinister, even some 15 years after the events. After the detention and torture of 5,000 men; after the madness that turned this place from a sporting area, to some collective neurons of pain for a whole nation, this place seemed nightmarish dressed in its shadowy face.

Folk singer Victor Jara was one of the 5,000 brought here, tortured and then executed. My brother who lived in Santiago for years, later bought me a “genuine Chilean guitar” and the chords and lyrics and a tape so I could listen to his songs and learn them.

“Plegaria a Un Labrador” – was the only song I attempted. Levantate, y mira la Montana – Rise up, and look at the mountain! and then finally he sings: Levantate, y mirate las manos – rise and look at your hands.

The first supplication asks us to look at the power of the mountains, the land, nature as a force and then he asks us as workers to look at our hands which unlock the power of objects around us, of the land and ultimately of our own destiny.

The first line was as far as I got.

Somehow, I didn’t feel worthy of singing these songs, or playing this guitar, or even sharing in any way in the misery or hope of these people. It was sort of like white guys singing the blues, or rap. I didn’t seem to have the “props” to pull off such humanity.

There is still denial by some segments of Chilean society. Even among those like Cheyre who want to make some sort of accounting and begin the healing process, no one is talking about accountability. Everyone involved is waiting for that other shoe to drop, and the thoughts of human rights trials, years after the events has everyone nervous. But can there be justice if some of those who committed these abuses are still in office?

Pinochet is 89 and is approaching the end of his life. They say for the last few years he has been a pariah within his own country and even abroad. Still, that is hardly consolation for the suffering this man – and others – has caused. Not that I would like to see anyone executed, but it seems to me, if you are a nation of laws, and if a law has been broken, there should be some consequence beyond the civil restitution of a few pesos in some poor victim’s pocket.

If Pinochet only spends one day in jail, and then dies, it will have sent a message to tyrants everywhere (are you listening George W.?) that no matter how much time passes, there is no statute of limitations for human rights.

But the accountability issue – who will be punished after all these years – is likely to stir up some debate. As much as I want accountability, what is the likelihood that the evidence to ensure fair trials is preserved and can be unbiased after all this time? Can witness’s testimony be trusted after all this time? How do we keep this from becoming a witch hunt and does this, in the final analysis, create healing?

Still, these goons perpetrated enough of the abuses on such a wide cross section of the population surely some of the testimony can be corroborated. And here’s the thing: if justice implies necessary accountability, are the victims of this regime comfortable knowing that some will never be held accountable? If they can imprison a percentage of those responsible, using due process and rules of evidence that are tried and true in democracies everywhere, will that be enough?

Ironically, we share September 11th with Chile as a date of infamy. This was the same date it seems that democracy here was pitched over the side for the security of a Patriot Act in this country. And also ironically this country, has been engaging in all sorts of revisionist thinking, (think, “we never lost Vietnam, we were just never really in it all the way and oh by the way, here is Iraq, which we will do right”). There are some here who are reconsidering the CIA’s role in the September 11th overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president.

I refer you to the Kenneth Maxwell affair. Maxwell is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin Studies. His now well documented dispute with the editors of a December issue of Foreign Affairs, who says that his claims about Kissinger’s role in the overthrow inflamed some statesman close Kissinger. The editors of course deny this. Kissinger, true to form, says nothing.

Here are the links for specifics.

Clearly, the intellectual ground is fertile enough in this country now to start planting those seeds, what with terrorism and Iraq occupying the greater portion of most people’s frontal lobes.

But while we in this country struggle with moral amnesia and a case of seeing a naked emperor who we swear wears the most expensive Armani hand tailored suits, those in Chile hold on to memories of loved ones. Photographs and the hope of justice, however the people of Chile come up with a definition of this term, are all that sustain them. That, and that if Pinochet dies before he can be imprisoned, declared guilty before the world, we can only hope there will some sort of cosmic justice for him.

Sometimes that’s all we have to go on.

M C Biegner
Jan 2005


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