Betrayed redemption in Chile

Published : Nov 25, 2000 00:00 IST

The Clinton administration releases the third and final set of documents on Washington's role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile in 1973, adding evidentiary value to known facts.

ON November 10, the Santiago Court of Appeals refused to grant parole to Torres Silva, a retired Army General. 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 General Augusto Pinochet, the courts allege, tried to cover up the assassination of labour leader Tucapel Jimenez in 1982 by another retired Army officer, Major Carlos Herrera. Herrera sits in a jail cell for life, one of the 18 Army of ficers indicted for 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 cr iminal complaints against him for the estimated 3,197 political murders committed in his name from 1973 to 1990 when he led a military junta.

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.

Three days after the court case, the Chile Declassification Project of the Clinton White House released 16,000 secret United States records of Washington's role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973 as well as in the advent of the military junta t o power. These 50,000 pages from the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the White House and the Defence and Justice Departments constitute the third and final collection of documents released by the Declassification Project. It relea sed the first two sets of 8,000 documents in 1999. Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst of the non-profit National Security Archive, hailed the release of the documents as "a victory for openness over the impunity of secrecy". Further, he pointed out, the do cuments "provide evidence for a verdict of history on U.S. intervention in Chile, as well as for potential courtroom verdicts against those who committed atrocities during the Pinochet dictatorship."

The records from the Declassification Project provide 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 h ere that is not known, except that the papers provide evidence for what was previously hearsay (or were conclusions made on the basis of concealed documents). The papers say that Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser in the Nixon administration, convened a high-level group (the '40 Committee') to plot the overthrow of Allende, that the group drew up 'drastic action' strategies to 'shock' Chileans into action against their democratically elected socialist leader, and that President Nixon authori sed 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. There is a September 1972 report of the CIA in which Pinochet says that Allende should be forced out of office. And then, finally, there are U.S. National Security intercepts of conversations and information on the coup that took place on September 11, 1973. When the Chilean government asked for "advisers", Washington responded that it was "h ampered by U.S. congressional and media concerns with respect to alleged violations of human rights", and hence any U.S. 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 qui te graphic in the two-part documentary by Patricio Guzman entitled "The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of An Unarmed People").

PINOCHET led a military junta at the behest of the CIA, significant multinational corporations and the Chilean bourgeoisie. The regime's first order of business was to dismantle the structures of civil society created by the socialist regime that provide d Chile with a cultural efflorescence. The military converted the National Stadium into a detention centre where 7,000 prisoners were interrogated and tortured. On September 14, 1973, military personnel beat and killed Victor Jara, a folk singer and thea tre director. The murder provided a premonition of the destruction of Chile's active independent theatre. Two navy ships (Lebu and Esmeralda) were converted into prisons as the military built concentration camps in towns across the country.

The military was particularly harsh in its attacks on young radicals, especially Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi (made immortal in Costa Gavras' 1982 film Missing) who were involved in the killing of two U.S. citizens. The documents now show that by 1972 the CIA had perhaps shared information about Horman's radicalism with the Chilean secret service, and it certainly was a party to the murder of bot h Horman and Teruggi in the days after the 1973 coup. Crucially, the newly declassified documents show that the U.S. may have colluded in the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean leader in exile, in 1976 in Washington. In 1978, Michael Townley, a U.S. national, confessed that he killed Letelier under orders from the Chilean secret police. CIA Director (and later President) George Bush gave an assurance that the Agency had nothing to do with the murder. It now appears that this was a lie, and mor e of this is expected in the course of a pending court case on the murder. Incidentally, intelligence recordsthat could implicate Pinochet in these matters remains classified.

A year after the Chilean people overthrew Pinochet, the government established a National Truth and Recon- ciliation Commission headed by Raul Rettig, a lawyer. The Rettig Commission studied "the most serious human rights violations" and submitted its re port on March 4, 1991. The front pages of Chilean newspapers carried news of the disappeared, and many of them reproduced the entire report. President Patricio Aylwin (Christian Democrat, right of centre) went on television and wept, asking the people to forgive the government and to move forward. The new government denied nothing, even if it could not prosecute Pinochet because of a legal manoeuvre set up by him before he left office. The Rettig report showed that the Directorate of National Intelligen ce (DINA) 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 gro unds 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, which rejected every point in the Rettig report).

WHEN 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 a concerted struggle within the administration did the C IA 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 U.S. regime want this openness? Clinton's Chile Declassifica-tion 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 the CIA's dirty operations in Africa or in Central Ame rica. Why Chile? Part of Clinton's economic package for the U.S. is to create 'free trade agreements' across the globe, first within North America (the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994), then with Africa (the ongoing trade pact with Africa, cu rrently blocked in the U.S. Congress), and simultaneously with South America. The neoliberal assault on South America will need to come plated in unimpeachable ideological armour. 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 Committee have already documented the U.S.' activities with the Pinochet junta, little can be gained from denial. In 1975, a U.S. 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". T o disassociate itself from that past means the U.S. can reinvent itself as the leading force for human rights (even if these only mean, for the U.S., political and not economic rights).

The declassification was met with silence by U.S. newspapers. No one seemed interested. As it released the documents, the State Department pledged that the "United States will continue to work closely with the people of Chile - as their friend and partne r - to strengthen the cause of democracy in Latin America and around the world." Chile is in the process of its national reconstruction, but the U.S. meanwhile has met its own past without comment. The U.S. has not faced its dirty history of coups and re pression, from Guatemala to Iran, from the Congo to Italy. Nor has it 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 Vietnamisation 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 U.S. has renounced its policy of violating the human rights of those who do not accede to its power (such as the Yugoslavians, Cubans, Iraqis, and others).

In 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. "I'm going to leave their numbers and names nailed to the wall of dishonour," wrote Pablo Neruda, the revolutionary poet of Chile, of those who betray the people. 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 withou t accountability or anger.

Vijay Prashad is Assistant Professor, International Studies, at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

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