Pinochet’s Trial and Tribulations
The return of Augusto Pinochet to Chile
has sparked a broad movement to bring the former dictator to trial. Ricardo
Lagos, the newly installed socialist president, in his first public address
from the balcony of the presidential palace, proclaimed that Chileans “would
always remember the traitors who bombed the palace” on September 11,
1973, leading to the death of the last Socialist president, Salvador Allende,
and Pinochet’s assumption of power. This came as the packed plaza in
front of Lagos chanted “Juicio a Pinochet.”
Along with the clamor for Pinochet’s prosecution, there is also a drive
to revitalize Chile’s civic and governmental institutions. The day after
his inauguration Lagos declared to an even larger anti-Pinochet gathering
that the “authoritarian enclaves” of Chile’s constitution must
be removed, and that he intends to complete the “transition” from
the dictatorship to a full-fledged democracy.
Pinochet’s return to Chile on March 3 stirred intense public antipathy.
Released by the British government for health reasons, including dementia
and impaired physical mobility, his ailments seemingly disappeared as he got
off the plane. He rejected the use of a wheel chair and walked across the
tarmac, waving his crutch in the air to the delegation of assembled loyalists
who had come to greet him. After a brief physical exam, he retired to his
country estate, south of Santiago. The departing government of Eduardo Frei
was incensed, telling the military that there should be no further public
episodes or appearances by the dictator and that he should stay away from
the inauguration festivities.
During the presidential campaign, Lagos as well as his right-wing opponent,
Joaquin Lavin, largely ignored the issue of Pinochet, calling only for his
return to Chile. They both insisted that only Chileans had the right to try
Pinochet for his crimes, although few thought he would ever stand trial at
home because of immunity laws and a legal system Pinochet had put in place
before he left office in 1990. Lagos’s position reflected that of the
center-left coalition government of Eduardo Frei which did not want to offend
a military that still exercised considerable power in Chile.
However, during Pinochet’s detention in London, Chilean society underwent
a transformation. As Elias Padilla, a university sociologist and a former
president of Amnesty International in Chile notes: “We finally felt free
to discuss and say things that were considered taboo even after years of civilian
rule. It was as if an oppressive shroud had been lifted from the country.”
Human rights groups were emboldened to move against high ranking officers
of the Pinochet regime. Before leaving office Pinochet had implemented an
amnesty decree covering acts of torture or executions from 1973-1978, the
years when the bulk of the human rights violations occurred. But the courts
found a loophole in the cases of over a thousand “disappeared” victims
whose bodies have never been found. The legal argument, which the country’s
Supreme Court upheld, is that these cases were not covered by the amnesty
decree because they constitute ongoing crimes that have not been resolved.
Lagos in his early days in office made few comments on the prosecution of
Pinochet, saying that, “the judicial process must take its course”
and that the executive branch will not interfere. However, as Lagos is aware,
no judicial system functions in a vacuum. Pinochet is easily the most despised
figure in Chile with polls showing that upwards of 70 percent want to see
him stand trial. Jose Bengoa, the rector of a private university in Santiago
and a noted political analyst, states: “Failure to prosecute Pinochet
would impair the integrity of the court system and the justices who are trying
to demonstrate that they are no longer the pawns of Pinochet.”
On March 18 more than 50,000 people attended a concert at Santiago’s
soccer stadium to raise funds for a memorial center dedicated to the victims
of the Pinochet regime. The crowd was comprised overwhelmingly of people in
their teens and twenties who chanted and jeered at every mention of the name
of Pinochet. Also in attendance were a number of high ranking ministers of
the Lagos government who appeared to enjoy the gathering as much as the youth,
sometimes rising to chant and even dance to anti- Pinochet lyrics.
Viviena Diaz, the president of the Organization of the Families of the Detained
and Disappeared that convened the concert, made it clear that many Chileans
are intent on building a new Chile that goes beyond the prosecution of Pinochet.
“We want health care, education, work, housing, justice, and human rights”
she proclaimed. “We will support the Lagos government when it is implementing
these rights, we will criticize when it doesn’t.”
Lagos has already taken steps to revitalize the social infrastructure gutted
by Pinochet. The public health system, which is a shambles, is a priority
for Lagos. He has promised to end the lines of people seeking emergency treatment
at the public medical centers and hospitals. He has also ordered the military
to send its doctors to work in the clinics.
New labor legislation will mean that for the first time since Allende’s
adminstration meaningful unemployment compensation will be paid to workers.
At present some of the unemployed receive the meager sum of $36 per month
from the municipal governments if they correctly fill out all the forms and
wait in interminable lines. Once Congress passes the new legislation, unemployed
workers will receive 80 percent of their salaried income.
Education is also a top priority for Lagos who was Minister of Education in
the previous government. He has stated that every Chilean regardless of income
should receive a free education. In his address at the Belles Artes museum,
Lagos declared that culture is also a priority. The country’s rich tradition
of poetry, music, literature, and community theater was decimated by the Pinochet
regime as many of the country’s artists were exiled, imprisoned or killed.
The prosecution of Pinochet, however, is at the center of the efforts to revitalize
Chilean society and democracy. Over 70 charges against Pinochet have already
been presented in the Chilean courts, and the list grows daily. The Belgium
government, which along with Spain was also seeking the extradition of Pinochet
from London, is now pressing its 19 counts against Pinochet in the Chilean
Even the U.S. justice department is involved. Attorney General Janet Reno
was the highest ranking official to attend Lagos’s inauguration, and
after her departure the Chilean Supreme Court approved her request for the
deposition of more than 40 Chileans in relation to the assassination of Orlando
Letelier and Ronnie Moffit in Washington, DC in 1975 by Chilean secret police.
All were high ranking military and civilian officials in the early years of
the Pinochet regime. Prosecutions concerning the Letelier case are specifically
exempted from the amnesty decrees due to earlier pressures from the U.S. government.
The head of the Chilean secret police, Manuel Contreras, is already in prison
for his role in the Letelier assassination.
Pinochet currently enjoys immunity from prosecution because he is Senator
for Life, a position he created for himself after he stepped down as head
of the military. The courts, however, can lift this immunity if serious crimes
are involved, and it is widely believed that they will do so. After this Pinochet
will be prosecuted case by case. The first case that will be brought against
Pinochet revolves around the Caravan of Death in October 1973. With Pinochet’s
official authorization, General Arrellano Stark headed up a special military
expedition that traveled around the country, carrying out at least 79 summary
executions. In some instances local military officials were castigated for
having been too lenient with prisoners that Stark ordered executed. Pinochet
received daily reports of the actions of the Caravan. Stark is now under house
arrest and is being tried, specifically for the 19 of the 79 whose bodies
have never been located.
Pinochet’s lawyers appear to believe that he will be indicted and have
openly stated that their main legal defense will be that Pinochet’s deteriorating
mental and physical health make it impossible for him to stand trail. However,
Chilean law is stricter than that of Great Britain, only allowing a defendant
to avoid trial if he is insane, or mentally incoherent and incompetent. To
help advance this defense, Pinochet is not attending sessions of the Chilean
Senate, allegedly for “health reasons,” and his family and close
associates do not allow him to talk to the press. Every few days Pinochet’s
associates or the military leak information to the media of his deteriorating
health. In one case a local tabloid’s headlines proclaimed, “Pinochet’s
It is impossible to predict the exact course of the legal process in Chile.
It will drag on for months if not years. But the length of the process will
help rather than hinder those who want to “de-Pinochetize” Chile.
Every court decision will provoke a public response, with demonstrations and
statements by public officials. It also means that Pinochet’s life will
not be an easy one, as he and his lawyers are dragged through the courts and
his specific crimes are the subject of endless debate and discussion. Z
Roger Burbach is with the Center for the Study of the Americas.