Chile's Latest Victim

September 25, 2007

A cartoon in the Santiago weekly Análisis shows a man holding a newspaper. “The Rettig Report is incomplete,” he says to the woman at his side, referring to the work of Chile’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on rights abuse under Pinochet. “There’s another case, a recent one: he was detained, didn’t get a fair trial, was eliminated and buried without anyone noticing...”

“What was his name?” the woman asks.

“Rettig Report.”

I landed in Santiago in April, six weeks after the Report shocked the nation, and two weeks after the assassination of Senator Jaime Guzmán buried it forever. The Report is filled with grisly details of kidnapping, torture, disappearance, assassination; every case has names, dates, places. “Taken from his home blindfolded by four armed youths who forced him into a dark blue car. His body was found the following night, with knife wounds, on a road near the hydroelectric plant....According to the autopsies both bodies had multiple contusions and signs of electric shock....The causes of death were suffocation by submersion in water and neck wounds inflicted by blunt instruments...” Most of the stories end with a variation of this conclusion: “The Commission is convinced that the person was executed by agents of the state.”

During the month of March, the Report was serialized in the daily papers. Sales skyrocketed. Politicians could talk of nothing else. The Report was to be published as a book. The government planned to hold public meetings across the country. The mood was somber, almost bitter, Five days after the final installment appeared in the press, Senator Guzmán was gunned down, allegedly by an ultra-left commando. The public meetings were canceled, the book publication postponed. Fear, always under the surface, suddenly flowered.

The government lept at the opportunity. Like neighboring regimes before it, the Aylwin administration had been walking a fine line on human rights, trying to calm an outraged public while not provoking the military; Pinochet, after all, got 43% of the vote last year. Guzmán’s assassination, worrying though it was, offered a way out of the bind, an excuse to bury the issue, “without trial” as it were.

One day the country grieved for its thousands of dead and disappeared, and seemed prepared to castigate the state terrorists responsible. The next day terrorism was considered the monopoly of the Left, the Report was ancient history, and crime the only issue worth debating. (At a rally I attended, Vice President Enrique Krauss sounded like just one more law-and-order politician.)

The police insist Guzmán was killed by one of the small groups of teenagers armed and encouraged by certain established left parties, then abandoned to fate and the agents who infiltrated them. However, more than a few suspect hard-liners like Gen. Manuel Contreras, ex-chief of the secret police, whose undying enmity (and death threats) Guzmán earned when he implicated Contreras in the murder of former foreign minister Orlando Letelier.

Jaime Guzmán was more than a senator. In many ways, he was the architect of the transition, the skillful Pinochet adviser who over the course of a decade convinced the general that a controlled democracy would best preserve the post-coup system of privilege. Following the protests that nearly toppled Pinochet in 1984, Guzmán engineered a pact between the military high command and politicians of the Right and the Center-Left, the opposition most removed from the struggle in the street.

The pact seems to have worked with precision. Most politicians are congratulating themselves on the success of the transition, on the maturity with which compromise was reached, on the dynamism of the economy. The leaders of the mass movement of the early 1980s are now comfortably ensconced in Congress, or have been sent into elegant exile as ambassadors to distant countries. The streets are quiet.

Today’s politicians live off old legacies. Análisis editor Juan Pablo Cárdenas estimates that of six million voters only 200,000 belong to parties. Traditional party rhetoric appeals to few; there is rank discrimination against women and youth. The political class, Cárdenas adds, is hardly democratic: Its members move in a hierarchical white male world, attend the same exclusive schools, belong to the same clubs, many each other. (Guzmán was known to protect persecuted members of the elite, including several Communists.) Even the Socialist Party, the only one to undergo serious renovation, re-elected its old unrenewed leadership. The outsiders are the Communists and the MIR, which were always different animals and were so beaten down by repression and desertion that they can hardly muster a dissonant voice.

By favoring the parties, the transition punished the non-party entities which, played a much more important role in the multi-faceted struggle to overthrow the dictatorship. Besides co-opting movement leaders, democracy robbed non-governmental agencies of their best people (who left to join the government), while drastically cutting into their capacity to attract funding. The incorporation of the human rights commission into the ranks of the government, for example, cost it the trust of those ready to denounce continuing abuse.

The transition also strengthened the erroneous notion that the struggle for socialism can be condensed into the activities of a political party. The task is to build a Left that is not stifled by traditional party organization and dogma, a Left that pursues the struggle for change at many levels throughout society. (The problem, of course, is not only Chile’s. Hobnobbing with the politicians in April was a delegation of Soviet parliamentarians and economists who had come to congratulate Pinochet and to ask his advice!)

The detention and disappearance of the Rettig Report was a tragedy not only for the victims of Pinochet’s thugs. Individual court cases may yet indict some of those directly responsible, and Congress is debating compensation. But buried along with the Report was an opportunity to redefine the nature of Chile’s transition. The hegemony of elite politicians at the helm of worn-out parties is certainly better than dictatorship, but it is hardly the great success they claim.

With this issue NACLA begins its twenty-fifth year of publication. Since 1966, your support has made this unique project possible. Thank you!


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