The author of Chile Under Pinochet: Recovering the Truth ponders why so many Chileans acquiesed to the state’s repression and terrorism, and what it took for Chileans to break that cycle.
There is a societal corollary to Newton’s First Law of Motion — “an object in motion tends to remain in motion unless an external force is applied to it.”
The military junta that seized power in Chile on September 11, 1973, set in motion 17 years of dictatorial violence that shocked even those Chileans who welcomed military intervention as salvation from national ruin, but who never imagined that the military would wantonly murder political prisoners. Even some senior officers were outraged. “The people gave us arms to defend them,” one officer protested, “not to kill them.” That officer later gave damning testimony against Augusto Pinochet.
But Pinochet, the army commander-in-chief who became president on the day of the coup, had adopted an unmerciful doctrine of national security that motivated a dirty war of state terrorism.
The Pinochet regime had its civilian collaborators: Ultra-facists who enlisted in the DINA, Pinochet’s secret state police; entrepreneurs who bankrolled the regime; journalists who blithely spread the regime’s implausible denials of human rights crimes; judges, including Supreme Court justices, who abdicated their judicial duty to defend Chileans’ most basic human rights. A murderous animus toward Communism, desire for corporate profit, moral turpitude — these were some of the motives for collaboration.
The overwhelming majority of Chileans never collaborated in the repression, but their acquiescence permitted the repression, once in motion, to remain in motion. A naïve denial of evidence of the regime’s criminality, worries about social isolation for daring to admit the truth in polite company, a valid fear of the personal consequences of denouncing the repression — there was an array of motives for Chilean civilian acquiescence.
But there were those whose courageous resistance to the repression was the external force that counteracted it: grieving family members who demanded the truth about the fate of their loved-ones; attorneys, dismayed by the collapse of the rule of law, who meticulously filed habeas corpus petitions before contemptuous courts; religious leaders, outraged by the regime’s distain for human dignity, who openly challenged the regime with the moral authority of the Church.
Their efforts to counteract the repression during the dictatorship translated into a struggle to defeat impunity after Chile’s thorny transition to democracy. Judge Juan Guzmán’s relentless prosecution of General Pinochet is something of a parable of this struggle.
Few anticipated that Guzmán — a conservative judge who openly confesses that his support for the coup was his “original sin” — would conduct a serious prosecution in the foreboding political climate in Chile. But when the Santiago Court of Appeals vested him with the authority to prosecute Pinochet, Guzmán’s commitment to the rule of law, his sense of common human decency and his empathy for those who had suffered under “Pinochetismo,” drove him on.
This is the meaning of the parable. An abiding belief in the rule of law as the safeguard of human dignity is an inestimable force that can slow even the fiercest repression.
Mark Ensalaco, the Rev. Raymond A. Roesch Chair in the social sciences and the director of the human rights program at the University of Dayton, is the author of Chile Under Pinochet: Recovering the Truth. He is nearing completion of its sequel, The Mark of Cain: The Prosecution of Pinochet and the Search for the Disappeared.