Don't Cry for Pinochet

Rescuing the general

The arrest in London last October of Chile’s aging former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, has, if nothing else, revealed some disturbing political fault lines that reach around the globe and even criss-cross the Vatican.
The eighty-three-year-old senator-for-life endures house arrest in a posh English country home awaiting the outcome of extradition hearings that may land him in a courtroom in Spain. Meanwhile, lawyers, activists, politicians, cardinals, and even the pope are arguing over his fate as well as related issues of national sovereignty and impunity for human-rights abusers.

In mid-January, I returned to one of the epicenters of this quake: Santiago, Chile. Under a gritty, gray sky, in the heart of the downtown shopping district, only blocks away from the site of Pinochet’s bloody 1973 coup d’état, I walked alongside a demonstration organized by the Families of the Detained-Disappeared. Faces were familiar to me from the years I had served in Chile as a Maryknoll missioner. The protesters, mostly women, carried pictures of loved ones on placards with the words, "Where are they?" Even under civilian rule their question has not been answered satisfactorily. As they marched, they shouted their support for the Spanish judge who is trying to bring Pinochet to justice. They also demanded an end to impunity.

I have long considered the Families of the Detained-Disappeared the conscience of Chile. Having seen their loved ones arrested by authorities of the state, they have endured official denials, threats, and persecution in their quest for the truth. They have marched, fasted, prayed, and gone to jail. Thanks to their efforts the remains of some of the disappeared have, in recent years, been dug up from common graves. Whereas Pinochet defends his actions saying he was at war with armed Communists, bodies are found with hands tied behind their backs and bullet holes in the back of their heads.

The survivors of Pinochet’s reign of terror know, sadly, that justice will never be achieved in Chile, at least not under the present constitution, written by the general himself. After torturing, killing, and exiling his enemies (more than 3,000 died under his command), Pinochet granted himself immunity from prosecution, named himself senator-for-life, and stacked Chile’s congress with designated senators to ensure that the constitution is never changed. That’s why his victims now look to England and Spain.

There is merit to the Chilean government’s argument that Pinochet be allowed to return home out of respect for its national sovereignty and its ongoing process of return to full democracy. As with any dictator, Pinochet would never have agreed to relinquish power without some guarantee of immunity. That left Chilean society, as the saying goes in Spanish, "between a wall and a sword." But Chile’s deal with the devil not only ignores understandable international concerns about what to do about dictators, but also leaves unanswered the legitimate claims of torture victims and relatives of the disappeared who have seen justice delayed for more than a quarter-century. The average men and women on Chile’s street corners, however, remain divided on what to do. While 64 percent think Pinochet is guilty, according to a December opinion poll, only 44 percent think it’s a good thing he was arrested; 45 percent say it’s a bad thing, and 11 percent express no opinion.

In February, The Tablet of London carried a story that five cardinals were alleged to be seeking the pope’s mediation on behalf of Pinochet’s release. One of them is Cardinal Jorge Medina Estéves, formerly bishop of Rancangua, Chile, and now prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship. Medina is an old friend of Pinochet, and even received a pectoral cross from the general. The others are Cardinals Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state and former nuncio in Chile (1978-88), Joseph Ratzinger, Alfonso López Trujillo, and Eduardo Martínez Somalo.

"This situation shows us the other side of the church," said Dr. Fanny Pollarolo, a psychiatrist and member of Chile’s Socialist party. While noting the heroism of church leaders like Santiago’s now retired Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez, she said, "Angelo Sodano, who did nothing to save lives [during the dictatorship], now wants to save the dictator."

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, spokesman for the Vatican Information Office, acknowledged that the Holy See did appeal to the British government on Pinochet’s behalf. The letter, according to The Tablet, was signed by Sodano with the approval of John Paul II. Navarro-Valls said, however, it was motivated by a request from the Chilean government, "consisting of a Christian Democratic and Socialist coalition, which has made its claim for sovereignty...."

The Vatican’s apparent decision to allow concern for the principle of national sovereignty to override justice for the victims of gross human rights abuses is most troubling. It seems to contradict John Paul II’s eloquent defense of the dignity and rights of the human person-especially the poor, marginalized, and politically powerless. Rome might at least have remained silent until Pinochet was brought to trial and his victims were given an opportunity to tell their stories.

Looming over the case of Pinochet is the troubling question of what to do about other dictators and human-rights abusers whose crimes against humanity transcend the boundaries of the countries in which they were committed. Or what about those who, like Pinochet, will never be brought to justice in their own homelands? Meanwhile, abusers have been put on notice. When Congo’s Laurent Kabila was planning a recent trip to Belgium, he sent an advance party to find out if anyone was looking to arrest him. One can’t help but wonder if Henry Kissinger, who was part of the CIA strategy that destabilized Chilean society prior to 1973 and helped pave the way for Pinochet, isn’t also doing some extra pretravel investigations.

Meanwhile, in Florida, comfortably retired Salvadoran generals Eugenio Vides Casanova and José Guillermo Garcia, both cited in the case of the rape and murder of two Maryknoll sisters, an Ursuline sister, and a lay missioner in 1980, must also be anxiously watching the news on Pinochet. In contrast to Kabila, both are graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas and at least have the reassurance that the U.S. State Department would be understandably reluctant about any trial that might bring to light even more embarrassing connections to human-rights abuses in Latin America.

Pinochet, then, is not the only one biting his nails. The governments of Britain, Spain, Chile, Congo, the United States, and the Vatican are no doubt all wishing this case would go away. Perhaps, the U.K. will suddenly allow the convalescing octogenarian to go home for "humanitarian reasons." But as evidence piles up about the unspeakable things Pinochet did to his enemies, that option grows less acceptable.

Given England’s extradition process, one of the longest and most arduous in the world, Pinochet may die before it ends. What refuses to die, however, is the disconcerting question of the role of international law regarding notorious human rights abusers and those who commit crimes against humanity. If Pinochet, whose agents tortured and killed citizens of many nationalities and carried out assassinations well beyond Chile’s borders, including in Washington, D.C., is immune from international prosecution, then who is not immune? If victims cannot achieve some measure of justice in this case and under these circumstances, then, we must ask ourselves, in what other case and under what other circumstances? These questions will remain with us long after Pinochet is gone.

Published in the 1999-03-26 issue: 
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Stephen De Mott, MM, is past publisher and executive editor of Maryknoll magazine. He currently lives in Chile.

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