The author of The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents stayed in Chile during part of Pinochet’s reign. He explains why he risked his life to report on the murders and human rights abuses in Chile.
Once I decided to stay on in Chile after the military coup in 1973, I placed myself in a situation in which I would be confronted by human rights abuses and would have to decide what to do. I didn’t think much about it at the time. It wasn’t even the most important reason I stayed in Chile. I’m a journalist, not a human rights activist. For me the decision was how I could investigate and tell the truth about what was happening and overcome the veil of fear, secrecy and impunity that kept most people — willingly or not — from seeing what was going on in Chile, both inside and outside the country.
I was influenced by my very wobbly Christian faith and by the example of the Catholic Church in Chile: Both put me in front of a reality I could not turn away from. There was nothing abstract about it. Because I was in a position to investigate and write stories, and because Cardinal Silva and the Church had created the Vicariate of Solidarity, an institution whose function was to gather secret information about the deaths and disappearances, my only decision was to do what I was called upon to do. Being young and naïve also helps because you are not paralyzed by fear. You just get up in the morning and go to work: the work in this case being gathering information about the atrocities, confirming my facts as best I could, and writing stories for The Washington Post and my other clients. The solidarity with other journalists was also very important. They were facing more dangers than I was, with the relative security afforded by my us passport. In some cases, when they discovered something that could not be published in Chilean media, we collaborated: I would publish it outside Chile, and it would bounce back through the news services. In other cases, when I had done an investigation with details that were especially important inside Chile, I arranged to write with a pseudonym — Ramon Marsano — in a Chilean magazine willing to take the risk.
Later, after relative democracy returned to Chile, it was easier to talk openly about the facts of what had happened. Some people, even journalists, continued to avert their eyes from these facts even then. Ideology, pusillanimity, careerism, even residual hate from the past were factors. Each must judge himself or herself according to their own conscience. Most people in Chile, I feel, eventually opened their eyes, and the veil of impunity for the military finally dissolved.
John Dinges was a stringer correspondent in Chile from 1972 to 1978 for The Washington Post, Time and other publications and is the author of two books on the period, Assassination on Embassy Row (1980) and The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents (The New Press 2005). He is currently the founder and co-director of the Centro de Investigación e Información Periodistica (CIPER) in Chile and professor of journalism at Columbia University. Find out more about his work in Chile at www.johndinges.com/condor. He is also featured in The Judge and the General.