Betrayed Redemption in Chile

Vijay Prashad


Friday, 10 November, the Santiago (Chile) Court of Appeals refused to grant

parole to retired army General Torres Silva. A few hours later, Judge Sergio

Munoz indicted a general on active duty, Hernan Ramirez for the same crime. Both

these leading figures of the ousted regime of former General Augusto Pinochet,

the Courts allege, tried to cover up the assassination of labor leader Tucapel

Jimenez in 1982 by another retired army officer, Major Carlos Herrera. Herrera

sits in a jail cell for life, one of eighteen army officers indicted in the

killing. The Chilean newspapers, of all political stripes, report that the

verdict astounded them: Ramirez is the first general on active duty to be

indicted for human rights violations. The verdict also puts in doubt Pinochet’s

legal challenge against the 177 criminal complaints against him for the

estimated 3197 political murders committed in his name from 1973 to 1990. While

the fate of Pinochet hangs on these court cases, the fate of Chile hangs on a

proper account of the trauma of the dictatorship: only with truth can there be

reconciliation, but only with justice can there be a tomorrow.


days after the court case, the Chile Declassification Project of the Clinton

White House released 16,000 secret US records of Washington’s role in the 1973

overthrow of Salvador Allende as well as in the advent of the military junta to

power. These 50,000 pages from the US State Department, CIA, White House,

Defense and Justice Department are the third and final collection of documents

(the Declassification Project released the first two sets of 8000 documents in

1999). Peter Kornbluh (a senior analyst of the non-profit National Security

Archive) hailed the release as ‘a victory for openness over the impunity of

secrecy.’ Further, he pointed out, the documents ‘provide evidence for a verdict

of history on US intervention in Chile, as well as for potential courtroom

verdicts against those who committed atrocities during the Pinochet



records from the Declassification Project provide the documentary evidence to

support the findings of the 1975 Select Committee to Study Governmental

Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (also called the Church

Committee). There is little here that is not known, except that now we have

evidence for what was previously hearsay (or else conclusions made on the basis

of concealed documents). We know from the released papers that Henry Kissinger

convened a high-level intragency group (the ’40 Committee’); to plot the

overthrow of Allende, that the group formed ‘drastic action’ strategies to

‘shock’ Chileans into action against their democratically elected socialist

leader, and that President Nixon authorized this course of action to ‘do

everything we can to bring Allende down.’ Among the notes is a censored, and

therefore barely readable set of accounts that show the CIA’s hand in the

October 1970 assassination of General Rene Schneider. We get a September 1972

CIA report in which Augusto Pinochet says that Allende should be forced from

office, and then, finally, we are privy to US National Security intercepts of

conversations and information on the 11 September 1973 coup. When the Chilean

government asked for ‘advisers,’ Washington responded that it was ‘hampered by

US Congressional and media concerns with respect to alleged violations of human

rights,’ so that any US assistance would come in ‘back channels.’ Much of the

material is well-known, some of it as far back as the early 1970s (and made

quite graphic in the two part documentary by Patricio Guzman entitled ‘The

Battle of Chile: the struggle of an unarmed people’);.


1973 to 1990, General Augusto Pinochet led a military junta at the behest of the

CIA, significant multinational corporations and the Chilean bourgeoisie. The

first order of business was to dismantle the structures of civil society that

enabled the socialist regime as well as that provided Chile with a cultural

efflorescence. The military converted the National Stadium into a detention

center where they interrogated and tortured 7000 prisoners. On 14 September

1973, the military beat and killed the folk singer and theatre director Victor

Jara, a premonition of the destruction of Chile’s active independent theatre.

Two navy ships (Lebu and Esmeralda) became prisons as the military built

concentration camps in towns up and down the length of the country. The military

was particularly harsh in its attacks on young radicals, especially in the

assassinations of two US citizens Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi (made

immortal in Costa Gavras’ 1982 film ‘Missing’);. The documents now show that by

1972 the CIA perhaps shared information about Horman’s radicalism with the

Chilean secret service, and it certainly was party to the murder of both Horman

and Teruggi in the days after 1973. Crucially, the newly declassified documents

show that the US may have colluded in the 1976 Washington, DC assassination of

Orlando Letelier, a Chilean leader in exile. In 1978, Michael Townley, a US

national, confessed that he killed Letelier under orders from the Chilean secret

police. CIA Director George Bush gave an assurance that the CIA had nothing to

do with the murder. It now appears that this was a lie, and we shall learn more

of this in a pending court case around the murder. Incidentally, intelligence

records that could implicate Pinochet in these matters remains classified.


year after the Chilean people overthrew Pinochet, the government established a

National Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the lawyer Raul Rettig. The

Rettig commission studied ‘the most serious human rights violations’ and on 4

March 1991 it offered its report. The front pages of all Chilean papers carried

news of the disappeared, and many papers printed the entire report verbatim.

President Patricio Aylwin (Christian Democrat, right of center) went on

television and wept, asking the people to forgive the government and to move

forward. The new government denied nothing, even if they could not prosecute

Pinochet because of a legal maneuver set-up by him before he left office. The

Rettig report showed that the DINA (Directorate of National Intelligence) was

‘directly answerable to the office of the President of the Republic’ and that

(according to a CIA document) the President had issued a ‘secret decree’ that

gave DINA the sole power to detain political prisoners. Since these are powerful

grounds to prosecute Pinochet, the fight continues, but at least it does so with

a certain measure of honesty from the new political apparatus in the country

(except the army, who rejected every point in the Rettig report).


Clinton asked that the reports on Chile be declassified, the CIA tried to block

him. ‘I think you’re entitled to know what happened back then and how,’ said

Clinton in response, and only after concerted struggle within the administration

did the CIA release the documents. Of course they are heavily censored and the

National Security Archive pledges to continue to press for full disclosure. But

the fight waged by Clinton begs the question, why does the new US regime want

this openness? Clinton’s Chile Declassification Project is unique within the

administration, and it has been commended by liberals across the country. The

administration has not, however, pledged to declassify documents on CIA dirty

operations in Africa or in Central America. Why Chile? Part of Clinton’s

economic package for the US is to create ‘free trade agreements’ across the

globe, first within North America (NAFTA in 1994), then with Africa (the ongoing

trade pact with Africa, currently blocked in the US Congress), and

simultaneously with South America. The neoliberal assault on South America will

need to come plated in impeachable ideological armor. To say that one is a

genuine champion of human rights (and therefore able to be open about one’s past

with the much reviled dictators of the Southern Cone) is critical in that part

of the world. Since the Rettig commission and the Church commission already

document US activities with the Pinochet junta, little can be gained from

denial. In 1975 a US State Department official said that secret evidence should

be made available to the public because ‘in the mind of the world at large, we

are closely associated with this junta, ergo with fascists and torturers.’ To

disassociate itself from that past means the US can reinvent itself as the

leading force for human rights (even if these only mean political and not

economic rights for the US).


declassification was met by US newspapers in silence. No-one seemed interested.

As it released the documents, the US State Department pledged that the ‘United

States will continue to work closely with the people of Chile — as their friend

and partner — to strengthen the cause of democracy in Latin America and around

the world.’ Chile is in the process of its national reconstruction, but the US

meanwhile has met its own past without comment. The US has not faced its dirty

history of coups and repression, from Guatemala to Iran, from the Congo to

Italy. Nor has the US been open about its history of economic insurgency in the

Southern Cone, what with the role of the Chicago Boys in the collapse of the

Peruvian economy, the slow Vietnamization of the Colombian rebellion, the role

of the CIA in the anti-Marxist Operation Condor exercise, and finally, in the

fierce dollar war against most currencies in the region. Besides there is little

to show that the US has rejected its policy to violate the human rights of those

who will not accede to its power (such as the Yugoslavians, the Cubans, the

Iraqis, and others).


February 2001, Peter Kornbluh and The New Press will release the complete

documents in a volume called ‘The Pinochet Files: A Declassified Dossier on

Atrocity and Accountability.’ Pablo Neruda of Chile wrote of those who betray

the people that ‘I’m going to leave their numbers and names nailed to the wall

of dishonour.’ Kornbluh will do just that with his book, but it would not serve

Neruda’s purpose well if the recent revelations allow the current atrocities to

go by without accountability or anger.


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