On Sunday the Chilean electorate, although going to the polls to elect a new president, is also voting to put the past behind it -- and the past in Chile is General Augusto Pinochet, the author of the coup that overthrew an elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende in 1973 and instigated 17 years of repression, killings, torture and disappearances.
Only four or five months ago I'd have written that the Socialist candidate Ricardo Lagos had to win if Chile was going to have the leader that would enable the Chilean people to close the door on Pinochet. Now I believe Chile has in effect already done this and not even the election of a right wing candidate Joaquin Lavin will undo the rapid progress that has been made nor, for that matter, will Pinochet's probable release from arrest in England. Chile, in a matter of less than half a year, has matured at such an unforeseen pace that it no longer seems quite so important to human rights activists which candidate wins and, indeed, that perception has helped transform the underdog candidate Lavin into a plausible victor.
In the early hours of Oct. 17, 1998 Scotland Yard sealed off a private clinic in London and arrested Pinochet, acting on a request from Spain for his extradition to stand trial on charges of murder and torture. For the best part of a year -- while Pinochet's case went through a cumbersome legal process in Britain -- Chilean majority opinion appeared to rally behind the old dictator. The Christian Democratic government of President Eduardo Frei led the charge, arguing, cajoling and attempting to hatch complex deals with both the British and Spanish governments that would have enabled Pinochet's immediate repatriation.
But as the months slipped by and it appeared more and more likely (wrongly, as it turned out) that the British government was not going to stand in the way of his extradition and prosecution in Spain, both public and governmental opinion in Chile underwent a significant sea-change. By the autumn of last year, one year after his arrest, the Chilean government was conceding that he should be tried, but in Chile. A senior Chilean judge even sent him a list of questions about his involvement in various crimes.
The long absence of Pinochet from Chile combined with the embarrassing and detailed public attention being cast on the past had put the Chilean officer corps -- the bulwark of his power and continuing influence -- on the defensive. Besides, a new generation of officers has been promoted to senior positions and many of them, it appears, are prepared publicly for the first time to admit that human rights abuses did occur.
The new army commander General Ricardo Izurieta has been prepared to open negotiations with human rights lawyers to establish the fate of those who disappeared and to identify those officers who were responsible.
Defense Minister Edmundo Perez Yomo has observed that a new attitude towards past abuses was emerging among the military high command: "You deal with it, or it will never go away. You have to confront it -- that's the changed attitude."
One important evidence of the change afoot was the decision of the Chilean Supreme Court to uphold the indictment of retired General Humberto Gordon and Brigadier General Roberto Schmiedt after their arrest in September for the killing of a labour union leader in 1982. General Gordon had been a member of the original four man junta and chief of Pinochet's secret police.
This followed a critical ruling by the Supreme Court last July when it upheld a decision by a lower court that the amnesty declared by the former Pinochet regime to protect military officers involved in political crimes was no longer applicable to cases in which people disappeared.
Reports about the torture era have now begun to appear regularly in the Chilean press. Newly invigorated human rights groups have tracked down victims, first seeking testimony that they could use in the courts in London and Madrid, but also urging victims to be more open about their past experiences. Many of them, like the society around them, had refused to talk about it, even to their families. Psychologists now report that it is if a dam has been broken: thousands of victims have begun to see therapists or organize group therapy and to share their long-hidden horrors with spouses and children.
Irrespective of what is now, belatedly, decided in London, in Chile itself, it looks as if the country has finally turned its back on General Pinochet. Chile's ambassador to Britain has warned that if Pinochet returns home he may well stand trial in Chile. Chileans can truly vote on the merits of the candidates without having to look over their shoulder into their terrible past. On Sunday when they vote the Chileans, starting a new era, will be finally ending an old one.
Jonathan Power is a freelance columnist based in London.
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