By releasing previously classified documents Wednesday on its dealings with Chile, the United States government appears to have done more than just flesh out some historical footnotes.
For former Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet, the papers could provide ammunition in the legal case against him. General Pinochet was arrested in October and is now in London facing extradition to Spain, where charges are pending of human rights abuses by his regime against Spanish citizens.
For Americans, the documents may illuminate the long and often dark passages of US intervention in Latin America. The documents show the Nixon administration's support of the military coup and of the Pinochet military dictatorship that followed.
And for Latin Americans beyond Chile, the move could spur calls for a look into their own US entanglements. Estela de Carlotto, head of the Argentine human rights group Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, said Wednesday she hoped the United States would release documents on Argentina's dictatorship.
The US released 25,000 pages of previously classified documents on Chile from 1973 to 1978, bolstering the hopes of human rights groups and families of the victims of Pinochet's military government that it would aid their cause.
There has not been sufficient time to properly gauge the true significance of all the documents, but preliminary readings reveal new details about the nature of the relationship between the US and Chile during the rise of the Chilean dictatorship.
The documents also divulge new information about the human rights atrocities committed by the dictatorship.
The immediate reaction in Chile was one of subdued happiness. Hortensia Bussi, the widow of Salvador Allende, the president who was toppled by the Pinochet-led military coup on Sept. 11, 1973, said the US bears a large responsibility for what happened to Chile.
"I am very happy the United States has released the documents so that we can all know the truth. The fall of our government was because of the intervention of Kissinger and Nixon. They have the largest responsibility," said a solemn Ms. Bussi in the hallways of Chile's National Library.
Just moments before, the US ambassador to Chile, John O'Leary, had handed over a set of the documents to the library in a public ceremony, calling it an "open window into history.
"With these documents people can make up their own minds about what happened," said Mr. O'Leary.
For Chileans, the documents will be another reminder of the horrors of their past. For example, a Feb. 5, 1974, Defense Department report describes the interrogation methods of the DINA, the former Chilean secret police agency, as "straight out of the Spanish Inquisition."
The same report also points to Pinochet's direct involvement in the workings of the DINA: "The DINA, contrary to original plans, is directly subordinate to ... Pinochet."
A Sept. 21 report by the Central Intelligence Agency says, in part: "The prevailing mood among the Chilean military is to use the current opportunity to stamp out all vestiges of communism in Chile for good. Severe repression is planned.
"The military ... has ordered an end to all sniper activities and other violence, and it is considering killing 50 leftists for every sniper who is still operating after about 15 days."
Government figures now indicate the Pinochet military government from 1973 to 1990 killed or "disappeared" 3,197 persons and exiled more than 50,000.
'Help us with detention'
American involvement is made clear. One example is a Sept. 27, 1973, letter from Nathaniel Davis, then US ambassador to Chile, to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, asking for US assistance in creating a "detention center."
"The Chilean minister of defense, Patricio Carvajal, requests assistance of a person qualified in establishing a detention center for the detainees who are expected to be confined for a relatively long period of time," Davis wrote. "Department may wish to consider feasibility of material assistance in forms of tents, blankets, etc., which need not be publicly ... earmarked for prisoners."
More than 5,800 documents have been released, some 5,000 from the State Department, 475 from the CIA, 200 from the National Archives, 100 from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 60 from the Defense Department.
Later this year, the government will release additional documents. But many of the documents released so far have been heavily censored to protect people's privacy, intelligence-gathering sources and methods, law-enforcement information, or US diplomatic activities.
Some records kept sealed
Other records are not being released at all, in particular, documents pertaining to the 1976 car bombing in Washington that killed former Allende Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his American secretary, Ronni Moffitt.
Documents related to this incident were not released to the public because the Justice Department is still investigating the case. In January of this year, Attorney General Janet Reno said the department is considering whether to ask that Pinochet be brought to Washington to stand trial.
Chilean congressman Juan Pablo Letelier, the son of Orlando Letelier, said he hopes the Justice Department will take "strong action" in the case.
"I have the utmost conviction that Pinochet was aware of DINA's act, and helped to cover it up. In my view, he is responsible before the American people [for the Moffitt killing]," said Letelier, who holds dual US-Chilean citizenship. "If the Justice Department has the evidence they should try Pinochet, or turn it over to those who can."