Ballots and Bones

In the new Chile, few in power will speak an ex-dictator’s name, or look squarely at the horrors of the past.

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On a balmy December evening, I stand among nearly 250,000 people jammed into La Alameda — the narrow concrete canyon that is the main thoroughfare of Santiago, Chile — enveloped in the mammoth, pulsing, closing event of Socialist Ricardo Lagos’ presidential campaign. For me, the night crackles with the power of memory. The stage from which the candidate of Chile’s ruling coalition will soon speak is just a few steps away from my old apartment in the San Borja complex. The flapping flags, the pounding music, the heat of the chanting, dancing, cheering crowd all seem lifted from those days in the early 1970s when, from my 17th-floor window, I could watch Chileans in similar numbers rally in these same streets around then-President Salvador Allende — the first freely elected Marxist head of state anywhere in the world, on whose staff I served as a translator.

Allende’s vow to carry out a peaceful Socialist revolution fired the imagination of millions. But his attempt to marry a Cuban-style wealth redistribution program with European-style parliamentary democracy came to a fiery dead end in September 1973 when the armed forces — which had been supported by the CIA — staged a coup, overthrew the president, and installed a dictatorship that would endure for 17 years. During the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, more than 3,000 Chileans and others were victims of state-sponsored assassination, including some 1,100 who were “disappeared.” Thousands of others passed through torture chambers set up by the regime in its jails, military bases, and secret detention centers.

For those crimes, the 84-year-old former dictator was arrested in October 1998 by Scotland Yard agents while recovering from surgery in London, to face the prospect of extradition to a Spanish court that had drawn up an international warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide, terrorism, and torture. When the British government announced in January its inclination to return Pinochet to Chile on “humanitarian” grounds, the move was strongly protested by human rights groups and others unconvinced he would meet with justice in his home country.

As remarkable as the swirl of events around Pinochet has been, what seemed even more striking as I surveyed the political climate here prior to the presidential balloting was his absence — not just physically, but politically. For reasons that some might call strategic — others, less politely, cynical — both the Socialists under Lagos and the conservatives under his rival Joaqu’n Lav’n rarely mentioned Pinochet by name, or referred to his legacy of brutality. As I traveled around the capital in the days before and after the December 12 election, the reasons for this conspiracy of silence became clear.

After leaving Chile as a U.N. refugee in the days after Pinochet’s coup, I had returned a handful of times — both as a reporter and as someone who had married into a Chilean family, and always to a country still cringing under Pinochet’s suffocating shadow. In 1988 there was a brief moment of optimism. Pinochet gambled with a plebiscite that would have extended military rule for another eight years — and lost. Free elections would soon be called, and democratic, civilian rule restored. That night, as the plebiscite vote was announced, I celebrated in the streets, dancing till dawn, embracing friends and strangers alike — all of us hopeful that the Pinochet era was finally crumbling.

Much of our hope soon dissipated, however. Pinochet’s radical capitalism, the engine of an economy regarded among the most inequitable in the world — one in which social security and most health and education services have long since been privatized — was virtually untouched by his successors. The elected civilian government that took over in 1990 never seriously challenged the constitution of 1980, which was largely written by the military. Unelected senators, appointed by military leaders, blocked democratic reform. Pinochet himself remained head of the army, scornful of a timid Christian Democrat-led government that refused even to call for his resignation. Under the terms of an amnesty law decreed by Pinochet in 1978, no serious political crime committed between September 1973 and March 1978 could be punished. That law is still on the books, effectively shielding murderers and torturers from prosecution — though some judges have recently found ways to do an end run around it.

And so, throughout the 1990s, with an elected government in power, the former dictator remained unrepentant and unscathed. And then, in 1998, the ultimate insult to the survivors of Pinochet’s repression: Under the terms of the constitution he had earlier imposed, the general became “senator for life” when his military command expired.

The symbolism was inescapable. Pinochet sitting smugly in the Senate was confirmation that Chile’s transition to democracy had definitively stalled out. His smirk on the television screen, his gruff and profane voice on the radio, the swooshing by of his coterie of guards and escorts on the street — all were gut-wrenching reminders of the impunity that still reigned in Chile. A kind of collective amnesia was settling in, rendering it impossible for this country of 15 million to squarely face and resolve its recent bloody past.

Which is why the news of Pinochet’s arrest abroad struck Chile like a political earthquake — one whose aftershocks still reverberated when I visited in December.

“A great many of us felt with that arrest that justice could at least be achieved somewhere — if not in Chile itself,” said human rights attorney Fabiola Letelier, whose brother Orlando, a former Allende cabinet minister, was killed by Pinochet’s secret police in a 1976 car bombing in Washington, D.C. “In the year or so since then, this country has not been the same.”

The changes are indeed dramatic. Some of those who fearlessly strutted the boulevards only a few months ago are now being brought to justice, thanks to clever legal strategies that circumvent the protection of the amnesty law. As the Chilean legal system begins to recover some of its independence, a number of generals — intimates and close allies of Pinochet — and dozens of other former military officers are being indicted. More than 50 cases have been lodged against Pinochet himself in Chilean courts. A group called La Funa, led by former torture victims, is “outing” unpunished torturers. The military draft and the army’s secret budget are being publicly challenged. Endemic police brutality is being reported and scrutinized.

“This past year has been fantastic,” Hector Salazar told me. The veteran human rights lawyer has recently been successful in getting some former top army generals arrested and into court. “Everyone is finally starting to recognize that human rights is the issue that now has to be resolved.” But, he continued, “What is absolutely incredible is that the election campaign has barely mentioned this issue. The political structure of Chile now pretends General Pinochet never existed.”

Why the political right — which just a year ago was staging noisy street marches protesting the dictator’s arrest and demanding his return — would downplay Pinochet is not hard to understand. Who wants to go into a national presidential election trumpeting the legacy of a leader now under indictment for horrific crimes? Though they would never admit it, the more enlightened among Chile’s right-wing politicians were secretly delighted to be able to finally jettison their disgraced general and take a tentative step toward political modernity.

But how to explain the center-left government — a coalition of centrist Christian Democrats and moderate Socialists — likewise softening on Pinochet? No sooner had he been arrested than the coalition (known as La Concertaci—n) began demanding he be freed. Nor, even before the British government announced its intention to send Pinochet home, did the coalition waver in its call to short-circuit any foreign trial for him — perhaps figuring that it is more politically advantageous to please Chile’s right-wing economic elite than to follow through on promises of social justice made to the electorate.

Worse, it’s an open secret in Chile that a nonaggression pact of sorts was negotiated between the Lagos and Lav’n campaigns. Though Lav’n, the mayor of Chile’s richest municipality, Las Condes, is a former Pinochet adviser and propagandist, Lagos refused to link the two men. In return, Lav’n declined to hammer Lagos for having once been appointed to a diplomatic post (ambassador to the Soviet Union, no less) by Allende. The past, though unresolved and still deeply dividing Chile, would simply be ignored.

“The government has squandered a historic opportunity,” said policy activist Tim Frasca, an American who has lived in Chile for 16 years. “Once Pinochet was finally down, the government could have rallied the country to once and for all get beyond the current paralysis and move toward all the reforms it once promised. Instead, it just rolled over.”

Ricardo Lagos emerged in the 1980s as a leader of the political opposition to Pinochet. He skyrocketed to prominence in 1988 when he appeared on Chilean television in a political debate and wagged a recriminating finger at the then all-powerful dictator.

But Lagos’ radical fires — and those of his Socialist Party, my party when I worked for Allende — have long since been extinguished. His campaign slogan, “Growth With Equity,” told the whole somnolent story. For the past decade of civilian rule, the Socialists have been the junior partner in two successive and lackluster Christian Democratic administrations. This time the Christian Democrats pledged to support Lagos.

Human rights lawyer Salazar, after telling me he would vote for Lagos as the lesser of two evils, expressed deep bitterness over his candidate. As a member of Lagos’ campaign advisory team, Salazar said, his suggestions on how to turn Pinochet’s arrest into a catalyst for resolving many of Chile’s human rights problems were ignored by the candidate. He theorized that there are only two explanations for the government’s refusal to directly tackle Pinochet. It could be “a private agreement to protect Pinochet and his family in return for his leaving power 10 years ago.” Or, more likely, the governing elite has thoroughly entwined itself with Chile’s ultraconservative military and business establishments and doesn’t want to rock the boat. “How else to explain such softness?” he asked rhetorically.

The government’s most popular figure, Minister of Justice Soledad Alvear, makes no excuses for her administration’s record on human rights. I met with her the morning after Lagos’ street rally, just three days before she would resign her post to take command of the candidate’s turbulent presidential campaign.

“We have had our problems,” the minister told me. “But overall I think the Chilean transition has been exemplary.” As we talked of human rights, she downplayed the significance of Pinochet’s arrest, suggesting that Chile had already been well on its way to prosecuting numerous human rights abuses — a plain distortion of reality. As to Pinochet’s future, she repeated the now-familiar government line: “All I can say is that it is we Chileans who should be the only ones to judge whatever happened here in Chile.”

The movement to involve non-Chileans in such a judgment has been energized by the indefatigable Carmen Soria, an activist with a familial interest in redressing the wrongs of the Pinochet era. It was in July 1976 that her father, Carmelo, a leftist Spanish refugee and a functionary at a U.N. office in Santiago, was kidnapped by Pinochet’s feared secret police and murdered.

His daughter scoffed when I repeated Justice Minister Alvear’s words. “Look,” she said, “the government position on Pinochet is the same as that of the Pinochetistas. It’s just radically more hypocritical.”

In 1990, Carmen Soria and other surviving relatives brought her father’s case to the Chilean courts. But as expected, she said, it was eventually thrown out because of the amnesty law. “The government then tried to make a deal with me,” she continued, “offering me a statue to my father and a million-dollar foundation in a settlement.” In a public letter in 1997, Soria refused the offer. “I looked them in the eye and told them, ‘I don’t forget treason. You might feel comfortable paying the salaries of this government with the blood of those who died. But don’t make me complicit with you.’ ”

Instead, Soria regards as hopeful the decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Chilean government has denied her justice. The case of Carmelo Soria had created international reverberations before that decision, however. Spaniard Juan GarcZs, a former Allende legal adviser who was determined to bring Pinochet to justice, started shaping a unique legal strategy in the mid-1990s. If the general couldn’t be hauled before Chilean courts, he reasoned, could he not be held to account for the murder of Spanish citizens — like Carmelo Soria — before a Spanish court? Two daring magistrates probing the deaths of Spaniards in several Latin American countries agreed with GarcZs that he might. So on October 16, 1998, when Augusto Pinochet was served in London with a warrant issued by Spanish Magistrate Baltasar Garz—n, the murder of Carmelo Soria was among the charges. The carefully erected stone wall of Chilean impunity was finally being breached.

But Pinochet’s indictment isn’t the only fissure. After two decades of quiet obeisance to the dictatorship, the Chilean judicial system has started to recover at least a modicum of its surrendered integrity. Magistrate Juan Guzm‡n Tapia has opened more than 50 murder cases against Pinochet — many of them since the general’s arrest — and is currently seeking to interrogate the former dictator.

Guzm‡n Tapia and another Chilean judge have also found a novel way to pierce the shield of the amnesty law. Because the bodies of the disappeared have never been found, the two judges have ruled that these cases are “perpetual kidnappings.” These crimes may have commenced before the 1978 cutoff date for amnesty, but they are still ongoing because the fate of the missing is not known. Other high-profile acts of state terrorism committed after 1978 are now under active prosecution — so that, in sum, five generals, including two former chiefs of the secret police, as well as four dozen other former high-ranking officers have found themselves indicted in recent months.

“We’ve been going into the courts since 1973, and [since 1978 have been] banging our heads against the amnesty law,” Fabiola Letelier told me as we sat in the cramped offices of CODEPU, her human rights organization. A portrait of her murdered brother Orlando peered over her shoulder as we talked. “So there’s a warehouse of information on record that is now coming into play. I’m optimistic finally that more and more cases will now go ahead and that proper sentences will be imposed. But let’s be clear: This is a result of international justice and international pressure. That’s what has created this opening.”

Letelier and other human rights activists are encouraged, confident that as more military officers fall, more will talk to save their skins. The current flurry of open cases could easily snowball.

Defenders of the dictatorship have reacted with horror to the sudden outbreak of justice. The Chilean government has also shown some nervousness over the potential unleashing of two decades of pent-up desire for retribution. In August, the civilian minister of defense proposed talks between military leaders and human rights groups. The military, while acknowledging no human rights problem under the dictatorship, clearly wants to cut its potential losses in the courts, and so agreed to participate. For their part, Chilean human rights groups — like the Group of Families of the Disappeared — were pleased to see the military on the defensive, but refused to formally enter the talks, arguing that the military was looking to bargain its way out of assuming its historic guilt.

A number of individual human rights lawyers — including Hector Salazar — have nevertheless agreed to participate in the talks with the armed forces. About a dozen inconclusive meetings have taken place. “The military has a lot to lose and nothing to win,” Salazar insisted. “Sooner or later they have to accept responsibility for what they did.” In a sarcastic reference to an offer by the military to “find” and hand over bodies of the disappeared in exchange for further grants of immunity, Salazar said, “Essentially, they want to trade bones for certain impunity. We are not going to accept that.”

Fabiola Letelier’s CODEPU group is among those opposing the talks. “We rejected the proposal right away,” she said. “It’s part of a government strategy aimed at showing that Chile can settle at a table what it refuses to settle in the courts. They are going to try and shut us up by offering up some missing bones. But bones are only the archaeological truth. There’s much more at play than just bones — there’s our whole denied history.”

On election night, December 12, Chileans everywhere were stunned by the results: a virtual tie. Lav’n’s campaign headquarters at the posh Crowne Plaza hotel brimmed with euphoria as Chile’s elite, its best and brightest, gathered to throatily celebrate his unexpectedly strong showing.

Many theories were offered as to why, with Pinochet’s legacy in ruins, his political heirs and allies found themselves on the verge of winning the presidency. Perhaps the most logical explanation is that it was the inevitable result of seeing the anti-Pinochet forces become the managers and defenders of the system the dictator designed, while the pro-Pinochet forces cast themselves as its populist critics.

I left the hotel at midnight, thinking of the price Chile is paying for not passing through a sort of de-Nazification process. For when there has never been an apology or even any recognition from the armed forces of any crimes, when the succeeding elected government — including the Socialists — demands no such gesture, when the same government opposes the extradition and trial abroad of the dictator who was at the center of the killing — it would then seem that no one is, in fact, guilty.

Neither candidate having scored a majority, a runoff was held a month later. On January 16, Lagos won the presidency, defeating Lav’n by a margin of 51 to 49 percent. In a supremely ironic twist, he may have been nudged over the top by none other than Pinochet himself.

Just a few days before the balloting, British Home Secretary Jack Straw announced he was “minded” to send Pinochet back to Chile on “humanitarian” grounds, based on a report from three medical doctors and a neuropsychologist that declared the old general unfit to stand trial. (Straw declined to reveal the details, on the grounds of medical confidentiality.) Though protests from those hoping for Pinochet’s extradition to Spain were immediate and vociferous, the indications, as Mother Jones went to press, were that Pinochet would be returned to Chile sooner rather than later, and without the inconvenience of a trial on foreign soil.

In Chile, the news exploded in the headlines. What Lagos had refused to do throughout the campaign was now being accomplished by the reaction to events half a world away, as the electorate was reminded of Lav’n’s ties to the old regime.

The good news for Lagos was that he had won. The bad news was that, for all his efforts to bury the Pinochet controversy — efforts in which Lav’n had readily colluded — it was erupting front and center.

As Lav’n conceded defeat on election night, Lagos appeared before a roiling crowd of 60,000 to deliver his victory speech. Amid the standard sentiments expected of a victor — Let us work with our adversaries; Let us overcome inequality — the cry arose from the crowd: “Trial for Pinochet!” Lagos’ response: “In my government…we shall enforce the rulings of the courts of justice.”

Human rights lawyers announced that they were strategizing ways in which Pinochet might be stripped of his parliamentary immunity as soon as he landed in Santiago. Judge Guzm‡n Tapia, overseeing 56 cases against Pinochet, said that he would order his own medical tests for the general — and that in any event, under Chilean law illness is not cause for dismissal of criminal charges.

Some in Chile, it is clear, are demanding that the nation’s past be resolved before its future is decided.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

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