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20 November 2000

Sleepless in Santiago

In Chile, General Pinochet, once more pleading unfitness to stand trial, is no longer a power in the

By Maurice Walsh

It is springtime in Santiago, and the warm weather and blue skies have finally settled in after days of inexplicable cloud and sudden little showers. When the wind carries away the acrid smog, you can see clearly the snow on top of the Andes. Here, nearer the mountains than the city, General Pinochet, 85 next weekend, is living out his last days under conditions not so different from his house arrest in England.

When he returned to Chile in March, he was greeted by a military band and embraced by the generals whom he had once commanded. But the euphoria of the triumphal return did not last long: Pinochet does not appear in public these days. Since the courts removed the immunity he enjoyed as a lifelong senator, his lawyers have been busy trying to fend off charges of torture and murder in Chile. There are now nearly 200 cases filed against him. Argentina has asked for his extradition for the assassination of his predecessor, Carlos Prats, in a car bomb in Buenos Aires in 1974.

In the past few weeks, Pinochet is said to have had pneumonia, and has been a frequent visitor to the military hospital not far from his old presidential residence. His only hope to put a stop to an endless procession of charges is that a series of medical tests will show him to be unfit for trial. Pinochet’s friends and supporters speak of him as if he were a national patriarch, abandoned by an ungrateful family in his last days and condemned to the workhouse. One of his close friends says he is depressed.

But Pinochet’s predicament is no longer just personal or symbolic. Since his return from Britain, a vast change has come over the Chilean judiciary. For years, Chilean courts had accepted at face value the amnesty that Pinochet himself dictated before he was forced out of power in 1990: it conferred automatic pardon on all who had committed political crimes in Chile during the first five years of the military junta – the most violent period of repression.

Before his London arrest, this amnesty and Pinochet’s own domineering presence seemed like permanent blocks to any prosecutions for any crimes. However, once the strains of the martial music that greeted Pinochet when he stepped off the plane from London had died away, the old dictator no longer seemed a power in the land who could protect those who served under him. One after another, retired officers of the armed forces and the secret security police have been tried for murder and given harsh sentences. Just this month, the newly emboldened judges have gone after a serving Chilean military officer suspected of involvement in the murder of a trade union leader 18 years ago.

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But there are many people who do not want to meddle with the past, or who revere Pinochet as a saviour whose troops committed a few “excesses” in ridding Chile of Marxists. In Chile, you are constantly confronted by a mathematics of history: half the people love Pinochet and will mourn his death; half the people hate him and will smile with joy at the sight of his coffin. No, 80 per cent hate Pinochet, only 20 per cent love him. A tiny minority, 3 per cent, want Pinochet put on trial. And on it goes. A cab driver, Senor Rojas, who stuck his thumbs up at the mention of the general’s name, told the story of his brother-in-law as a warning that even the most mild-mannered people deserved their fate under the military regime.

The brother-in-law was a quiet man who drove a bus. One day, Senor Rojas received a call from his sister to say her husband had been taken away by the military in the middle of the night. Senor Rojas related that when he went to the barracks to express his disbelief that his brother-in-law could be guilty of anything, the soldiers showed him how this timid man had been hiding rifles and bombs. Senor Rojas’s brother-in-law was never seen alive again. Not that Senor Rojas seems to care.

About an hour’s drive from Santiago is a small town called Paine, the scene of bitter struggles between local landowners and the left during the years of the Allende government. At the time of the 1973 coup, paramilitary groups exacted vengeance – nearly a hundred people were killed and disappeared.

The mayor of Paine is a Pinochet supporter, a Pinochetista, who has been re-elected twice. He attributes his popularity to having provided free buses to take children to school. On the wall of his dining room, there is a large portrait of Pinochet hanging askew, in which the general’s face is fixed with a foxy smile. The mayor also keeps a little photo gallery in which Pinochet always appears in a suit. The mayor of Paine – where one street is known as Widow’s Alley, because 16 people disappeared from homes there in the first weeks of the junta’s regime – is intolerant of any of his citizens who want to exhume the past. They should stop moaning and move on, he believes.

Meanwhile, Juan Guzman, the judge who is handling the most important cases against Pinochet, has come up with a legal argument that raises the possibility that the all-powerful amnesty could soon be circumvented. Guzman’s bald head and silver beard appear on the news most nights in Chile, dodging the microphones as he leaves a courthouse. A conservative member of the court who was apparently chosen at random to carry forward the cases brought against Pinochet has reinterpreted the amnesty by ruling that anybody who has “disappeared” is assumed kidnapped until their remains are found – thus leaving the case open and uncovered by the amnesty. He is also applying the Geneva Convention to the period just after the coup when the military junta insisted they were in a state of war.

All this is still very tentative and testing; so far, the Supreme Court has accepted Judge Guzman’s ingenious legal reappraisals, but they could be thrown out at any time.

The Chilean armed forces are perturbed not only by the Pinochet case, but also by the number of prosecutions against retired junior officers, and especially by the new charges brought against a serving general. While Pinochet was in England, the military held a series of meetings with a group of human rights activists, splitting the human rights lobby. The benign interpretation of the military’s motivation, advanced by those human rights lawyers prepared to sit down with the generals, was that they sought to improve their image and remove the taint of the dictatorship from the modern army by stressing that the armed forces were now run by a generation that had little or nothing to do with the coup.

Those who refused to negotiate with the military – including the families of the disappeared – argued that the armed forces were seeking to have the slate wiped clean in return for an offer to provide information on the whereabouts of the remains of roughly 1,200 people still registered as disappeared. There has been no information – and so a renewed determination that only by bringing army officers before the courts can the truth about the disappearances be revealed.

Yet there is a sense that the humiliation of Pinochet in London has finally allowed a postponed reckoning to take place. For the past decade, Chile has presented itself as a paragon of prosperous normality. The report presented by the truth commission in 1991 was meant to act as the definitive account of the repression. However, it was forbidden to name names, and the report accounted only for those who had been killed, not the thousands who had been tortured.

All over Chile, anonymous torturers and secret policemen remain hidden in quiet streets, staying friendly with their neighbours. In the past few months, a group of young people – many of them the sons and daughters of those who were killed, disappeared or tortured – have been identifying agents of the secret police, the Dina, whose names have appeared in court documents, and then demonstrating outside their houses or workplaces with drums and banners.

We were given the name of one former Dina agent and driven across Santiago to a dead-end street in a lower-middle-class suburb. On a hot Sunday afternoon, there are children lying in the grass beside the pathway. A little girl is trying to balance as she walks along the edge of the pavement. Behind one set of black railings is the house of Jose Arvelino Yevenez Vergara. Ostensibly a retired policeman, he was also a corporal in the Chilean secret police whose job was to arrest people, bring them to torture centres and get to work on them with electrodes and cigarette lighters. A few years ago, before Pinochet’s arrest in London, an attempt was made to bring him to trial, but he escaped prosecution because of the amnesty law.

We walk down the street and ring the bell. A girl comes out and I ask for Don Jose. She says she will fetch him. Then his wife appears to say he is not in. She says he has never tortured anyone, and that he will answer only to the courts. She excuses herself and goes inside. But Don Jose and others like him are sleeping less easily in Chile these days.

Maurice Walsh’s report on Chile can be heard on File on Four on Radio 4 at 8pm on Tuesday 21 November and on Assignment on the World Service on 2 December

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