Chile Still Grapples With 1970s 'Dirty Little War'

TWENTY-TWO years after Chile's repressive military regime started torturing and "disappearing" Chileans, the country is still dealing with the fallout.

Funerals for the disappeared whose bodies finally have been identified still occur. Former government agents brag about their skills as torturers on national television. And the fragile five-year-old Chilean democracy is under siege as the military demands an end to all human rights trials of those involved in the atrocities.

Chile's "dirty little war" started in 1973 against left-wing supporters of leftist President Salvadore Allende Gossens and spread to anyone critical of the military.

More than 1,000 people disappeared and about 200,000 were tortured during the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, president from 1974 to 1990. In all, the government estimates that 1.4 million Chileans, of a total population of 12 million, suffered abused or lost family members. Convictions of those responsible is virtually impossible because of a 1978 Amnesty Law decreed by General Pinochet.

The social traumas that remain are potent and divisive. The situation has grown steadily worse since May 31, when the Supreme Court convicted Gen. Manuel Contreras, former head of the military government's secret police, and Brig. Pedro Espinoza, his No. 2, of the 1976 murder of government official Orlando Letelier and his aide Ronni Moffit, in Washington.

The court sentenced them to respective jail terms of seven and six years.

Most Chileans thought the officers should go to jail, but General Contreras disagreed. He has managed to persuade enough of the Army's top echelon, including Pinochet, to produce a serious conflict with the civilian government.

In June, the Army moved Contreras to a naval hospital in southern Chile. Tension slackened in July when the Army retired Brigadier Espinoza and packed him off to jail. But Contreras remains in the naval hospital, fighting transfer to prison through appeals, which were scheduled to reach the Supreme Court last week.

While the Army pressures behind the scenes and publicly, even demonstrating outside the jail where Espinoza is the sole inmate, its supporters in Congress have battled to force the government to either beef up the Amnesty Law or create a special law to end the trials forever.

Under the current law, some judges simply close cases that involve military officers. Others insist on investigatiing and trying to locate victims' remains, but then grant amnesty to the guilty.

Much of the public disagrees with these policies. A recent poll shows that 3 out of 4 Chileans oppose the Amnesty Law. A similar number say the country should do more to compensate victims.

Camilo Escalona, president of the Socialist Party (SP), which firmly opposes ending the human rights trials, says, "We're not going to change our position, even with a pistol held to our chests."

When a proposal to amend the law hit the floor of Congress last week, Jorge Schaulsohn, president of the Party for Democracy, part of the governing coalition, said, "There will never be an agreement for a law to end human rights trials."

He added, "The right can cackle on all it wants and organize a major political offensive to drag the country into one, but their efforts will fail."

Andres Allamand, president of the National Renovation Party, which wants the trials stopped, accused Mr. Schaulsohn of "frivolity."

The Christian Democrats, Chile's largest political party, have expressed some willingness to negotiate with the Army on human rights issues in exchange for measures that would make the electoral system more representative.

Those who are concerned about the future of democracy in Chile say the intransigence of the military is underscored by a comment by Pinochet on Aug. 3.

"Human rights, what's that?" the general said.

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