Where Chile stands a year after dictator's arrest

When four Chilean Army officers were arrested last month at a protest marking a full year of former military dictator Augusto Pinochet's detention in London, the event was a reminder to many Chileans of how much their country has not changed over the decade of a return to democracy.

What many Chileans considered the government's timid response to the Army's refusal to discipline the four officers - whose involvement in civilian affairs is illegal - only fortified the conviction of many that the military continues to hold too much sway over the country.

But at the same time the ensuing debate over the protesting officers exemplifies how the Pinochet controversy has permeated Chile's daily life. Some of the impact of the year of living without General Pinochet has been salutary and some less positive, observers here say. But what it has clearly demonstrated is the fallacy of thinking that time alone would heal all wounds.

"Chile has undergone a big change with Pinochet in London. Chile has been obliged to look at its past," says Marta Lagos, a public-opinion analyst in Santiago. "That would have never happened with him here."

Chile's fresh attention to what happened in the 1973 coup against Socialist president Salvador Allende and the subsequent dictatorship - when more than 3,000 Chileans "disappeared" or were killed - is the refutation of a national myth.

Since the dictatorship ended in 1990, Chile has held to the notion that the region's highest economic growth, falling poverty levels, and expanding opportunities would be enough to wipe away the past. "We thought we could solve things by letting time pass," says Alejandro Salinas, director of the Chilean Foreign Ministry's human rights office.

In a sense, the Pinochet case has set Chile back 10 years, demonstrating how polarized the country remains between supporters and detractors of Pinochet's 17-year rule. Above all, the revived polarization has reminded Chileans that their country has unsettled accounts.

"We have shown our inability to resolve some very fundamental problems, and that is what is being punished," says Ral Sohr, a political analyst with Chilean National Television. "If there had been any real will to address the issues" like justice for the dictatorship's disappeared" or controversial elements of the Pinochet imposed Constitution, "it would have been done sometime over the last 10 years."

Yet the year-long absence of Pinochet, a former president and lifelong senator according to the Constitution he wrote, has also spawned change.

Human rights issues, past and present, are now on the national agenda as they never were before. A wave of nationalism has also washed over Chile, battering the fall presidential-election campaign. A visceral rejection of a Spanish judge seeking to try Pinochet - whether seen as a national hero or villain - has boosted the principal right-wing candidate, Joaqun Lavn, and thrown into doubt an election that six months ago looked like a skate for the governing center-left coalition's Ricardo Lagos.

Mr. Lavn and other leaders from the right have found the space in Pinochet's absence to speak openly about the need to address the demands of the families of the dictatorship's "disappeared" - something the right never concerned itself with before, Mr. Sohr says. And Lavn was also just as quick as Mr. Lagos, a Socialist, to condemn the four demonstrating military officers, and to call for their punishment.

The related debate over whether Pinochet - who has 49 cases filed against him in Chile by relatives of the dictatorship's victims - could ever be tried at home has opened more avenues for addressing the past. A continuing "dialogue table" involving the military, human rights activists, and lawyers for the families of the "disappeared," was recently set up by the Defense Ministry and has at least started discussions towards answering the dictatorship's unanswered questions, such as who died, where, and why.

Yet even though most Chileans seem to believe now that this reopening of the past is something that had to happen, there are also those who lament how the Pinochet debate has reduced the space for discussing the country's future.

"A year ago we thought this presidential election would be the opportunity to debate Chile's resource-exporting development model and the kind of country we want for the 21st century," says Miguel Baquedano, a Santiago environmentalist. "Now all of that has been overtaken by the Pinochet case."

Mr. Baquedano says the frustration over this lack of focus on the future is especially strong in his home, since his wife, Sarah Larrain, is the Green candidate for president. "She's finding much less interest in debating economic and environmental alternatives than a year ago," he says.

Despite Chile's year of tumult, most observers see little likelihood that the country can really change in the short term - in large part because of the nearly insurmountable hurdles in the Pinochet-bequeathed constitution to institutional change. A reform of the Senate, for example, where Pinochet sits for life, can be stopped by the "institutional" senators who represent the principal governing institutions - including the various branches of the armed forces.

Any move to place the military fully under civilian control would confront the same high wall. "This is still a country where five or six generals get together over dinner in Santiago, maybe just for a birthday party, who knows, and still everybody trembles," says Ms. Lagos.

For their part, representatives of the military say Chile's healing process can only succeed if all points of view are taken into account - and not just those on the anti-Pinochet side. "There would have to be a fair hearing on the context in which the military acted" in 1973, "when General Pinochet acted at the public's demand and only to save the country from a civil war," says Jorge Ballerino, a retired general and former secretary of the presidency under Pinochet.

All sides should remember that Pinochet freely gave up his rule when the country voted - with 43 percent opposed - to end his regime and return to a democratically elected president, General Ballerino says.

As for the problem of establishing the truth about the disappeared, he says it can be quickly accomplished if family members demonstrate that what they want is the truth and not revenge, he says. "There are people who know the answers to this," says Ballerino.

"But they would have to have guarantees to be free of facing any legal condemnations for their revelations," he adds, "or else why would they trouble their tranquil lives?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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