Latin America's new concerns over 'colonial' interference

Last week a Spanish judge filed arrest warrants for 98 participants inArgentina's 1976-83 dictatorship.

Aside from a few die-hard upper-class matrons in Santiago, no one in Latin America wears T-shirts emblazoned with the likeness of Augusto Pinochet. No one sings the praises of onetime Argentine military dictators Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera.

Yet while there may be little love lost in Latin America for the region's former dictators, there also is no hero status for Baltasar Garzn, the Spanish judge who fancies himself the man to bring Pinochet, Videla, & Co. to justice.

Judge Garzn last week filed arrest warrants for 98 former military and police officers from Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship on charges of torture, terrorism, and genocide. It was Garzn, who wants to try General Pinochet in Spain on similar charges, who last year filed an extradition demand with England where Pinochet was undergoing medical treatment.

Unlike in Europe, where Garzn is widely hailed as the incarnation of a new era of universal rights in a borderless judicial system, most Latin Americans see Garzn's actions with ambivalence - or anger. Some see him as the champion of "judicial imperialism," just one more example of a strong nation imposing its will on the weak.

Garzn's efforts to bring to justice another region's criminals are one indication of the accelerated march that the principle of universal human rights has made in the post-cold-war years. Just in the decade of the '90s, especially since the war in Bosnia, the concepts of international justice and an international "right to intervene" have made deep inroads into national sovereignty.

And Latin countries have signed on to this advance of international rights to varying degrees. Mexico, never forgetting its historical experience with an imperialist northern neighbor, remains wary of international interventions to the point of arguing for nations' right to "self determination," even in cases where dictatorial power means the people have no such right. Argentina has enthusiastically joined United Nations and NATO peace-keeping or "humanitarian" interventions since the Gulf War, saying it wants to be part of building a new international order.

But for many Argentines, Chileans, Mexicans, and others, the Garzn cases are not an advance toward more perfect justice, but a throwback to a distant past when European powers ruled their colonies with tightly held reins.

"Colonial powers like Spain and England were accustomed to justice systems that judged cases from the colonies at home," says Jorge Raventos, spokesman for the Argentine Foreign Ministry in Buenos Aires.

Garzn's Argentine critics are especially sharp as they note that unlike Pinochet, Argentina's dictators have already been judged and condemned for their connection to government-sanctioned kidnapping.

But Garzn and European rights groups counter that Argentina's dictators were never tried for genocide.

Argentina's President Menem last week criticized Garzn as a "prima donna" and said his government would swiftly reject any Spanish extradition request, although legal experts say an extradition agreement between Spain and Argentina makes such a blanket refusal problematic.

Even some of Latin America's harshest critics of the region's former dictators say what is needed is an international human rights court, like the one the United Nations seeks to establish in Rome.

Both Chile and Argentina have ratified the creation of the Rome court (opposed by the US and China, among others) and say that will be the proper international venue for hearing cases involving universal rights.

"The world is in the process of expanding the concept and reach of universal justice, and that is a positive step," says Ren Abeliuk Manasevich, a Pinochet opponent and former minister in Chile's first democratic government after the dictatorship ended in 1990. "But the time it takes to establish something new cannot be an excuse for the strong and big to rule over the small and weak."

"Why would Fidel Castro ever step down now," says Mr. Abeliuk, "if he knows former dictators can be tried by any country's judges?"

Garzn's Latin critics especially bristle at this lesson in justice coming from a country with its own history of horrendous human-rights abuses in this century.

"What did Spain ever do to its Franquistas or to render a sense of justice to Franco's victims?" asks Abeliuk. No outsiders troubled Spain over its decision not to stir up the past while developing its democracy after that dictatorship, he says.

Yet what some in Latin America see as Spain's hypocrisy is viewed by others as the reflection of a changing world.

"The right cites Spain or a list of the world's former dictators who are sleeping soundly and says Pinochet is being singled out because he brought down a Marxist government, and there is truth to that," says Ral Sohr, an international affairs analyst with Chilean National Television.

Mr. Sohr says Chile "arrogantly" believed it could enter the global economy, as it began doing under the Pinochet regime, without also opening to other global trends. But Alejandro Salinas, director of the Chilean Foreign Ministry's Human Rights Office says that Chile has embraced various international human rights initiatives, in an effort to improve its image. The Rome court, he adds, is the most recent example of such a move.

Where Mr. Salinas differs with Garzn is in the Chilean's conviction that Pinochet indeed must be tried for violations of universal human rights, but he must be tried at home. "International law is a support to small countries; the big powers don't need it," he says.

"But we have to be able to demonstrate this to the people in small countries or it will never take hold."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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