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Background: Confronting the Past in Chile

March 2, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Chile that Augusto Pinochet returns to has changed greatly since his arrest in London a year and a half ago.

JOSE ZALAQUETT: When he was still in Chile, he was indeed a fearful figure, and judges would hesitate before initiating any proceedings against him. But now the situation has changed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chilean human rights lawyer Jose Zalaquett is a former chairman of Amnesty International.

JOSE ZALAQUETT: There’s a new generation of judges, and they have been emboldened by the attitudes of their colleagues in Britain or Spain, so now they’re taking a more active role; they have started prosecutions against Pinochet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The prosecutions are for crimes like torture and murder allegedly committed under General Pinochet’s rule in the years after 1973 when he led a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende. Some 3,000 people were summarily executed then, and tens of thousands more were tortured and imprisoned. Pinochet ruled the country for 17 years, but even after 1990, when he became a senator for life, he continued to wield enormous influence behind the scenes.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now Pinochet returns to a country which has just elected another Socialist as president. Ricardo Lagos won the election last month as head of a coalition of center-left parties. He will be inaugurated March 11th — the third president since Pinochet stepped down. Lagos barely defeated center-right candidate Joaquin Lavin, who was a Pinochet advisor in the ’80s but who rarely mentioned the general in the campaign except to say that he should be subject to Chilean law like any other citizen. Lavin showed up at the Lagos victory rally to wish him well, an unusual sight in a country with Chile’s recent history.

JOHN O’LEARY, U.S. Ambassador to Chile: That was a very significant thing and it said a lot about democracy in this country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: John O’Leary is the U.S. ambassador in Chile.

JOHN O’LEARY: And what was so remarkable about the 1999-2000 election is you had in the governing coalition for the first time a Socialist — not a Christian Democrat — who won a competitive primary to get that nomination — held the coalition together; someone who I think will be a great leader for Chile going into the new century, but someone who plainly has historical roots that go back to 1970 and Allende.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A leading businessman who was a key advisor to the center-right candidate agreed that Lagos has the potential to be a good president. Sebastian Pinera owns LanChile Airlines, among other companies.

SEBASTIAN PINERA: Well, I know him very well. He’s a very smart guy. He has a tremendous sense of power and authority. He was very wrong 20 years ago with his socialist ideas.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you mean 30 years ago?

SEBASTIAN PINERA: Thirty years ago. But I think that he’s a smart guy, and smart people can learn from their mistakes. So I hope that he will protect assets that we have been able to build in Chile in the last 10 years. And I hope also that he will be able to produce more justice in terms of social justice.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Social justice — economic growth with equality — was the president elect’s key campaign promise. The free-market economic policies implemented during General Pinochet’s long government gave Chile one of the fasting growing economies in the world — until a recent recession. But income disparity grew rapidly too, and Lagos vowed to do something about it. The president-elect is an economist with a Ph.D. from Duke University.

A long-time opponent of the military government, he gained national fame in 1988 when he challenged Pinochet on television. Pointing at the camera as if at the general, Lagos said that it was time for him to go, that the torture and repression must end. It was an electrifying event at a time when few dared criticize the General publicly.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now Lagos is the president-elect and at his supporters chant — without fear — that Pinochet must be judged in Chile upon his return. I spoke with Ricardo Lagos in Santiago last week. He said Pinochet should return to Chile and then the courts should decide his fate.