Human Rights Developments
On March 11, 1990, Chile returned to democracy with the inauguration of elected President Patricio Aylwin. The celebration of that event ended nearly 17 years of military rule and completed a transitional process that began in October 1988, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet lost a plebiscite on whether he should continue as President. Human rights had been a major issue in the platform of the multiparty coalition headed by Aylwin in the 1988 plebiscite and in the December 1989 Presidential and parliamentary elections. The new government pledged to address the abuses of the past, to achieve truth and justice concerning those abuses, and to create the foundations for ongoing respect for human rights.
However, the government's ability to pursue legal and political reforms was hindered by the military-designed Constitution. Gen. Pinochet retained the right to continue as commander-in-chief of the army. In Congress, the government faced a right-wing opposition bloc that, due to Pinochet's constitutional right to appoint nine senators as well as the unique electoral system devised by the military, enjoyed far greater representation than its percentage of the vote in the 1989 elections. As a result, the parliamentary opposition succeeded in distorting, then delaying, and finally diluting the legislative proposal to pass to civilian courts the pending cases of more than 200 security-related and political prisoners detained or prosecuted under Pinochet. The opposition also negotiated to dilute other legal reforms in return for minimal cooperation.
The new government's good intentions were also frustrated by other hold-over problems from the military regime, such as a Supreme Court historically sympathetic to the military, continuing military prosecutions of journalists for crimes of opinion and expression, lack of access to security-personnel records in the hands of the military, and Pinochet's reluctance to accept civilian authority. The need to establish civilian authority, in particular over the army, was seen in some government quarters as conflicting with the policy of speaking out on human rights abuses of the past.
The government made numerous important gestures toward victims of the military regime. An office to assist returning exiles was established within the Justice Ministry, and a special commission, described below, was appointed to expose past abuses. In addition, victims and their relatives had access to high-level officials to discuss their concerns; a monument to the disappeared was planned; President Aylwin spoke at the belated funeral of former President Salvador Allende -- on the 17th anniversary of his death -- whose remains were finally transferred to a family mausoleum in September; and members of the Cabinet attended funerals for those victims whose remains were discovered in clandestine or unmarked graves. State television aired special programs on exiles and on the discoveries of unmarked mass graves. President Aylwin himself stressed human rights in many speeches.
Not all customs changed so quickly, however. The occasionally brutal force used by the police (carabineros) against peaceful demonstrators was a matter of concern and suggested the continuation of abusive attitudes among some members of the security forces, despite the apparent good intentions of the police leadership. There were also a dozen denunciations of torture at the hands of the police and the detective force (Investigaciones); these are now before the criminal courts. Such abuse did not appear to represent government policy, but drew attention to the abusive legacy of the previous regime. Some denunciations of torture related to police investigations into terrorist actions by armed, extreme left-wing groups. The new government took a firm position against such terrorism while publicly advocating respect for the rights of detainees.
In addition to resolving the prisoner issue and the scope of military jurisdiction, and seeking to reform the practices of the security forces, the Aylwin government, in the first of its four years, faced the challenge of exposing past abuses, which include summary executions, disappearances, torture, exile and internal exile, violation of labor rights, arbitrary individual and mass arrests, violation of the right to free expression, and other abuses of civil and political rights. The discoveries of several clandestine mass graves, starting in March, underscored the need for a full accounting of human rights violations and prosecutions of those responsible. Victims, human rights groups, and members of the governing coalition pressed for such an accounting, and the issue of past abuses was regularly covered by newspapers and television.
In April, President Aylwin created a nine-member Commission on Truth and Reconciliation to document killings and disappearances by the military regime and fatal actions by armed leftist groups opposed to the regime. The commission gathered testimony on more than 3,000 cases from victims and witnesses throughout Chile, and received extensive documentation from Chile's human rights organizations. Its report, due to be published in early 1991, was expected to provide a detailed portrait of the apparatus of repression and its methods in various periods of the dictatorship, to list and briefly describe cases, and to recommend preventive measures and forms of reparation. Because it may not infringe on the authority of the courts, the commission was not expected to name the individual military or secret-police officials responsible for specific cases of murder, torture resulting in death, or disappearance.
At the same time, the Supreme Court consistently reaffirmed military jurisdiction in cases in which military personnel were implicated, including the major new cases launched with the discovery of clandestine graves, such that no effective prosecutions were expected. Similarly, in a landmark case, the Supreme Court once again upheld a 1978 amnesty decreed by the military regime; thus, domestic legal remedies for disappearances that occurred between 1973 and 1978 were exhausted. Prospects for justice in cases of past abuse were therefore remote.
The government's watchword in regard to past abuses was "reconciliation," a concept which took shape over the year to mean a process of truth-telling and vindication of the victims, followed by some form of forgiveness. As noted above, however, justice was not generally expected. By the end of 1990, it was not clear what form the forgiveness would take, although there was speculation about the prospect of a partial amnesty covering the post-1978 period. In the meantime, the President was expected to pardon some security-related prisoners while others would face trial after years of confinement.
One case which defied categorization was that of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, the former Chilean Defense Minister and his colleague from the United States who were assassinated in Washington in September 1976 on orders from the Chilean secret police DINA, which in turn received its orders from Gen. Pinochet. Although the murders took place during the period covered by the 1978 amnesty, they were specifically excepted from the amnesty. And although military personnel at high levels were implicated, the case or part of it may pass to civilian court. An essential reason for the case's special status is that the US Congress has long required progress in its prosecution as a condition for the renewal of economic and military aid to Chile. Indeed, during the early Reagan years, the Letelier-case conditions were the most important obstacle to renewal of US aid to Pinochet.
In 1990, the US relationship with Chile remained complicated by the Letelier-Moffitt case. The Aylwin government, arguing that its hands were tied and that democracy requires support, resented US insistence on legal progress on the case as a prelude to aid, although it was attempting to achieve the necessary legal reform. Americas Watch supports the Aylwin government's efforts to develop democratic institutions; at the same time, we believe that progress on the Letelier-Moffitt case has not been sufficient to warrant renewal of aid. Thus, when as a prelude to President Bush's visit to Chile on December 7 the US restrictions related to the Letelier-Moffitt case were lifted on November 30, and Chile's military once again became eligible to receive US aid, Americas Watch requested clarification from the Bush administration and members of Congress as to the exact basis on which they considered this change justified. It had received no response by the end of the year.
The United States also renewed certain corollary forms of economic cooperation with Chile, as a signal of support for democracy. On November 28, US Trade Representative Carla Hills recommended that President Bush restore trade benefits for Chile under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), in recognition of progress on respect for labor rights. As an adjunct to that change, the US also granted Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) insurance to Chile.
The Work of Americas Watch
Americas Watch continued its close monitoring of human rights conditions in Chile during 1990, through the work of a representative based in Santiago. Given the dramatic improvement, the organization did not have occasion to launch campaigns of public protest against government policies. But in Santiago, Washington and New York, consultations were held with Chilean officials in regard to both internal and external human rights policy; work continued with the US Congress on conditions for the renewal of aid and on cases of military-court harassment of journalists; and information was gathered for publication, in 1991, of an assessment of the Aylwin government's record.
Americas Watch is concerned in particular with the legal obstacles to prosecutions, which impede a full accounting of past abuses, and with speculations in Chile about a possible new amnesty. The Supreme Court's continuing acquiesence in the legal manipulations of the military regime has deprived victims of redress and society of information on the individual perpetrators of gross abuses -- despite the incorporation of international human rights norms into Chile's Constitution by a constitutional-reform plebiscite held in 1989. While Americas Watch does not hold the new government responsible for the actions of a Supreme Court that it did not appoint, the organization would hold the government responsible for any new measure that would close off future possibilities of prosecution.
Consistent with its position on similar transitions from dictatorial to civilian rule, Americas Watch believes that victims of abuse have a right to seek redress before courts of law for the crimes committed against them; that governments have an obligation to facilitate that redress and to promote it through vigorous and impartial investigations; and that those found guilty of crimes against humanity must be punished. The Chilean experience on these issues is being watched closely around the world by those who followed the tragedy of the abuses committed by the military regime. This experience will probably be completed in 1991. While Americas Watch awaits the final outcome of this process, it is encouraged by the firm commitment demonstrated in 1990 by President Aylwin, by democratic sectors in Chilean society, and by Chile's human rights movement, to investigate thoroughly and tell the truth about past abuses.