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In September 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected government of President Salvador Allende, allegedly in order to prevent a Marxist-provoked internal war. For the next 16 years Chile was subjected to its first sustained military dictatorship, whose abuses included summary executions; disappearances; forced exile and internal banishment; the violation of labor rights; illegal operations in foreign countries, and countless acts of direct and indirect censorship, intimidation and violation of the home. The most indiscriminate repression took place during the mid-1970s, when the country was ruled under a state of siege, and a secret police subordinate only to the president specialized in disappearances and torture. In the dictatorship's later years state violence became more selective, but certain killings committed by the armed and security forces drew so much attention to human rights abuses that even some figures on the Chilean right became disenchanted with the regime.

Following massive protests from 1983 onwards, Pinochet submitted himself as sole candidate for president in a yes or no plebiscite in October 1988. His defeat led to open elections in 1989, and an overwhelming victory for the opposition alliance: in March 1990 Patricio Aylwin became president of the "authoritarian democracy" created by Pinochet in constitutional reforms preceding the elections. Although democratically elected, Aylwin's government has limited control of the military, limited legislative freedom, and coexists with Pinochet as commander-in-chief of the army. The government is unable to repeal laws such as those imposing the death penalty for more than three dozen crimes, or the "tying up laws" which transferred out of the control of the incoming civilian administration security and police personnel, security-force records and numerous state properties including those used for torture. An amnesty law, decreed in 1978 and covering offenses committed up to that time, is defended by the right and by the armed forces as a prerequisite for their cooperation.

Despite these limitations, Aylwin's government has made important steps towards establishing the truth of what occurred under Pinochet's government. In April 1990 he announced the creation of a special commission "to contribute to the global clarification of the truth about the most grave violations of rights committed in recent years," since "only on the basis of the truth will it be possible to satisfy the basic demands of justice and create indispensable conditions for achieving true national reconciliation." Headed by a respected lawyer and former senator, Raúl Rettig, the Commission included human rights figures as well as former officials of Pinochet's government. It was instructed to complete its work within six to nine months. The Commission received archival material and lists of victims both from Chile's extensive and sophisticated human rights community (particularly important in the light of the time limit for the Commission's work) and from the military; it solicited information from exiles and international organizations, and gathered testimony in Santiago and the provinces.

In February 1991, the report of the Rettig Commission was presented to President Aylwin: 2,000 pages long, its two volumes contained essays and analysis, as well as an alphabetical list of the victims, and detailed some 2,000 cases in which people had died as a result of human rights abuse by government agents.8 Although the Commission was limited to gathering information, rather than investigation and attribution of individual responsibility for abuses, it presented a clear picture of institutional responsibility, and was especially critical of the Dirección de Intelligencia Nacional (dina), the secret police operating from 1974 to 1977, and of the judiciary for failing to act to restrain abuse. In March 1991, Aylwin gave a televised address in which, as the representative of Chilean society and government, he asked pardon of the victims and requested all who participated in the excesses committed to "make gestures of recognition of the pain caused and cooperate in diminishing it." Few public figures did so, and those who did were generally those who least needed to, the exceptions among the judiciary and armed forces command.

Although the report of the Rettig Commission was generally well received, its impact was substantially diminished by the April 1991 assassination, apparently by an extreme left-wing group, of a prominent right-wing senator. Rightist opposition leaders cited the assassination as proof of the terrorist activities alleged to justify the overthrow of Allende, and claimed that it demonstrated the need to gloss over the abuses the Rettig Commission exposed. Consequently, the report has not received wide circulation; moreover, findings by a human rights group that its figures on the dead and disappeared may be substantially understated have not been investigated. Most importantly, there have been no systematic legal proceedings against military officials on human rights charges; although in a handful of cases not covered by the 1978 amnesty individual judges have shown determination to act.

On the other hand, the Chilean government has, following the recommendation of the Commission, established a "Corporation on Reparation and Reconciliation," headed by a prominent human rights advocate: the first such institution in Latin America. The Corporation has a two year mandate to promote reparation to victims,9 assist in the search for remains of the disappeared, and formulate proposals for the consolidation of a culture respectful of human rights. In addition, in April 1992, eight senators placed before Congress a legislative proposal to annul the effects of the 1978 amnesty law: the various organizations of victims' relatives have launched a campaign to collect one million signatures in support of the legislation, though its chances of success are slim.

The Chilean government has been forced by its continuing relationship with the leaders of the dictatorship to adopt a search for consensus and compromise known as the "politics of agreements," preventing - amongst other things - decisive action on accountability for human rights abuses. It has thus promoted a policy of "reconciliation," implying forgiveness for past abuses in return for repentance by those responsible; and though senior officials have stated that reconciliation is not possible without truth and justice, Aylwin has stated that he expects justice only "so far as possible," while the civilian right - still less the army - does not appear repentant. Although the Rettig Commission went some way to establishing an "official" truth of what occurred, the Commission's findings have not been validated in the courts of law. Victims and their relatives are not satisfied, and demonstrations have resulted in angry confrontations with the police. The concept of reconciliation, broadly supported in theory, has proved profoundly controversial in practice.

7 Human Rights and the "Politics of Agreements": Chile during President Aylwin's first year, New York: Americas Watch, July 1991; The Struggle for Truth and Justice for Past Human Rights Violations, New York: News from Americas Watch, July 1992.

8 Human rights organizations remained convinced that the total number of deaths was substantially higher than the Rettig Commission was able, in its short tenure, to establish.

9 The reparations specified by law include a fixed pension for spouses, parents and children under 25 of the disappeared and executed; medical care without charge and scholarships for children until they are 35 years of age; and exemption from military service for relatives if desired.

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October 23, 1992