TOPICS > Politics

Confronting the Past in Chile

March 13, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The dead in Chile refuse to stay buried. This is a court-ordered removal of bodies from a mass grave in the north, part of Chile’s efforts to recover its past. These are the remains of students, workers, maybe some officials in the government of Salvador Allende, all killed after the military coup of 1973 and buried together in an unmarked grave.

The exhumations, which have also occurred in the capital city and elsewhere, are aimed at finding the 1,000 or so people still missing, often referred to as “the disappeared.”

In this old Santiago cemetery, where almost every Chilean president is buried, are places that help a visitor understand many people in this country can’t — or won’t — forget the past. Salvador Allende’s tomb, for example: He apparently committed suicide in 1973 as the military bombed the presidential palace. His remains lay in an unmarked grave for 17 years. They were brought here with much ceremony in 1990, an early step in this country’s efforts to forgive and forget.

And just down the way in the same cemetery is a memorial wall with the names of nearly 3,000 people killed in the years after Allende fell. The families of these people don’t want to forget — Paula García, for example, whose father, Ricardo, was executed in 1973, when she was three years old. He was director of one of Chile’s largest copper mines. His body has never been found.

PAULA GARCÍA: (speaking through interpreter) I need… I don’t know, the ritual, to leave him flowers. I never really had him, but at least I could have somewhere to leave him flowers. Justice is necessary here so we can have some peace. Without it, there will never be reconciliation. We will always be a divided people with much pain, and the pain will be passed down within families from generation to generation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A retired army general, Sergio Arrellano Stark, has been indicted and arrested for the murder of Ricardo García and 74 other people.

GROUP: Pinochet! Pinochet!

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: General Pinochet, who returned March 3 from house arrest in London, is a defendant in these cases, too. And a Santiago appeals court is currently considering whether to strip him of the immunity he enjoys as a senator, so he can be tried in court. The Chilean state prosecutor last week joined in the effort to lift the general’s immunity. As a result, a major debate is underway in Chile now about whether trials and convictions are the best way to heal the wounds of the past. On one side are people like the relatives of the disappeared who want prosecutions. On the other side are people like retired General Guillermo Garín.

GEN. GUILLERMO GARÍN (Ret.) Chilean Army: (speaking through interpreter) Who’s going to gain anything from putting a person of such advanced age in prison? How will that benefit a victim?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Garín, second in command of the army in the mid-90s and a close associate of Pinochet, admits the military made mistakes, but wants the country to stop dwelling on the past.

GEN. GUILLERMO GARÍN: In this struggle, errors were committed, of course, perhaps even abuses, but without a doubt, the goal was to pacify the country as quickly as possible, and prevent terrorists and subversives from endangering the great majority of people. I think the only remedy for those who feel they’ve been unjustly treated is somehow to get financial compensation, if they can prove it. There’s a lot of fiction here, too.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pedro Matta says financial compensation is not the answer. He was a law student in 1975 when he was arrested for organizing against the Pinochet dictatorship.

PEDRO MATTA, Former Political Prisoner: To rebuild a really democratic society, you have to rebuild according to your history. You cannot erase your history. This was a very isolated place.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Matta took us through a memorial park, the site of Villa Grimaldi, a secret police torture center in the 1970s, which has been torn down. Matta was tortured here, spent 14 months in prison, and then was exiled to the United States. Since his return to Chile in 1991, he has devoted much of his life to reconstructing the day-by-day history of this place.

PEDRO MATTA: This notebook which shows us day-by-day — for instance, we are in August 1976 — blue ink, meaning people that survived; red, people that were killed or disappeared.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Matta took us to the places, now memorialized with tile markers, where prisoners were held and tortured.

PEDRO MATTA: So people were taken to here, and their head was forced down — up to the point they would start getting liquid in their lungs.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This was water, essentially, or something else?

PEDRO MATTA: Well, there was urine…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Feces, everything?

PEDRO MATTA: Everything. And when these people start getting liquid inside their lungs, well, they took out their heads, and in the middle of their desperate breathing of the people, trying to get air, the torturer would put back the head inside that liquid.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in another location, people were hung from ropes.

PEDRO MATTA: With the person suspended came the torture. In the case of men, it was knocks over the plexus; in the case of women, over the breasts. In the case of women, they used… it was very common, the use of lighters to burn the genital area of women, the introduction of things in the anus.

PEDRO MATTA: This is the wall which holds 240 names.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Of the 5,000 people Matta believes passed through here, 240 were killed. A wall commemorates their names. Now Matta and other survivors are searching for the killers, nearly all of whom remain free. Last year, French television aired a documentary including hidden camera video of Matta confronting someone he is convinced was a torturer at Villa Grimaldi. The alleged torturer admitted he worked for the secret police and that he visited Villa Grimaldi, but said he never saw any mistreatment of prisoners. Matta tried but could not get any other admission. Matta has also taken his case to court, and he names Pinochet responsible for the torture. But human rights lawyer Nelson Caucoto is skeptical about ever seeing Pinochet in court.

NELSON CAUCOTO, Human Rights Lawyer: (speaking through interpreter) Conditions do not exist to bring Pinochet to trial in Chile because the armed forces still exercise a powerful influence over Chilean society, government officials, and political leaders. It is a force that at a given moment will be brought to bear, and people outside Chile should understand that the armed forces and Pinochet are one and the same.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The high profile military reception for Pinochet on his return from London was a symbol of this unity, Caucoto says. It so angered them, it canceled talks they’d been having with the military about how to find the disappeared. Sebastian Piñera, a successful businessman, who was also leader of a center right political party worries that the national debate over justice is divisive.

SEBASTIAN PIÑERA, Businessman: I think what we need I to realize that those human rights violations should never, ever be repeated in this country, that there’s nothing that can justify those kind of things. But, at the same time, if you really want to take to court every person that was responsible for that, you will end up sacrificing peace and reconciliation in this country. So it’s a difficult equilibrium. I hope that President Lagos will be able to manage those values and find a good equilibrium.

PRESIDENT RICARDO LAGOS, Chile: As a president, I have to guarantee that the tribunals are independent. As a president, I’m nobody to say who is guilty and who is not. This is not my duty. My duty is to allow the judges to perform their duties; that’s all.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ricardo Lagos, a socialist who was inaugurated as president over the weekend, told The NewsHour in an interview broadcast March 2 that finding the right balance between competing interests would be hard.

PRESIDENT RICARDO LAGOS: We have two very different sides of Chilean society. Now I understand as president I should try to build some bridges between those two different sides, but the question is that we have to recognize that sometimes we are committed, and it’s essential for the relatives of those victims that they also want to know where they are.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The debate involves the United States, too.

JOHN O’LEARY: The Letelier-Moffitt murders in Washington in September of 1976 are the subject of an open and active Department of Justice investigation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: U.S. Ambassador to Chile John O’Leary is speaking about the U.S. effort to prosecute those responsible for the Washington, D.C., car-bombing murder of Orlando Letelier, an Allende government official, and Ronni Karpen Moffit, an American citizen. The director of Pinochet’s secret police was convicted in Santiago in 1995 for the crime, and is in prison now. The question is: Did Pinochet order him to do it?

JOHN O’LEARY: The Justice Department has never been satisfied that it was able to pursue the case with respect to responsibility for those murders. The Justice Department has documents that it wanted to see, has now seen some of those, will seek others, and to people it wants to talk to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so the debate goes on. Relatives of the disappeared continue to demonstrate often downtown, and people on the sidelines continue to argue over what should be done.

MAN ON STREET: (speaking through interpreter) Whether we like him or not, Pinochet is a weight upon us — a burden of the government, the opposition, everyone.

MAN ON STREET: (speaking through interpreter) I’m not in favor of always looking backwards. In this country we have to look forwards.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But Pedro Matta and others in the demonstration say the past weighs too heavily to let go until justice is done.