Article: "Amnesty Hour"

[Updated: May 15,1999]

(From The New Republic—December 17, 1990)


By Tina Rosenberg

The news in post-Pinochet Chile over the past few months has revolved around two kinds of amnesties. The first is the Amnesty Law of 1978, in which the military Junta pardoned itself for all crimes committed up to that year, thus legally erasing the vast majority of the human rights violations of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Three months ago the Supreme Court, whose justices were appointed during the Pinochet government, reaffirmed the law, adding that it also prohibited judicial investigations of pre-1978 crimes even if the guilty were later pardoned.

The Amnesty Law lies at the center of the national debate in Chile: What to do about Pinochet and his men, who killed 2,000 Chileans, "disappeared" between 800 and 1,000 others, and tortured perhaps another 50,000. The opposing slogans in the debate are "Truth and Justice" (read: trials) and "Peace and Reconciliation" (read: forgetting). Working in favor of Truth and Justice is the fact that Chile has a lawyer’s soul. Chileans believe that society has some basic rules that folks should live by. This view has both reinforced and been reinforced by Chile’s 150-year history of democracy before Pinochet. On the other hand, there is the abiding power of Pinochet—the glaring exception to Chile's respect for law—who now commands the army and has threatened God-knows-what if the Amnesty Law is overturned. And Chile’s lawyer’s soul, paradoxically, can work against justice as well. The Amnesty Law is a travesty of justice, but it is written down, and once a law is on the books, Chileans tend to follow it.

The other amnesty is Amnesty International, in the news for the first time since the founding of Amnesty’s Chilean Section in 1978, but principally on the entertainment pages. Amnesty had invited Sting, Peter Gabriel, New Kids on the Block, Sinead O’Connor, Ruben Blades, Wynton Marsalis, and Jackson Browne to play, along with Spanish and Chilean groups, in a two-day concert to celebrate human rights worldwide called "From Chile ... An Embrace of Hope." The concert was held on October 12 and 13 in Santiago’s National Stadium, Pinochet’s principal concentration camp in the weeks after the coup. More than 12,000 were detained in the stadium, most were tortured, and hundreds did not leave alive.

A few hours before the concert started I walked through the cold, concrete passageways in the bowels of the stadium to Amnesty’s office with Marcelo Montecino, Amnesty's photographer. He paused in front of the adjoining door. "I’ve been here before," he said. Montecino had been held in that room following his arrest seventeen years and two weeks before, three weeks after Pinochet’s coup, after taking pictures of the relatives of prisoners and the soldiers outside the stadium. "I spent my detention figuring out what kind of revenge I would take on my captors," he said. "I have to admit, I never thought of this."

The concert had been two years in the planning. Amnesty’s 1988 "Human Rights Now!" world tour could not come to Chile, for obvious reasons, so Amnesty scheduled a concert in Mendoza, Argentina, and 15,000 Chileans crossed the border. Pinochet had lost his plebiscite just ten days before, paving the way to free elections, and we celebrated noisily, especially cheering Sting’s performance of "They Dance Alone," which he wrote about the relatives of the Chilean disappeared who do a traditional folk dance without their missing partner. At the next Amnesty general meeting in Dublin, Santiago Larrain, the head of the Chile Section, pulled aside Jack Healey, head of the U.S. Section and world tour organizer. "Let's think about Chile," Larrain said.

The Chile Section had grown to be the largest in the Third World, with 2,000 members, despite the tribulations of life under Pinochet. I had been a member of the section for a few years and had just moved back to the United States when Larrain called me, in May 1990, to work on the concert for the Chile Section. Working with a poor, small section alongside the rich and powerful U.S. Section gave me a new perspective on First World/Third World relations. The U.S. Section kept announcing more artists, imported lights, imported sound, imported TV equipment. It was the biggest and best concert in the history of Latin America. And the most expensive.

With the arrival of democracy and, more to the point, Sting, everyone was talking about Amnesty. Beginning in September, more than 500 letters a week poured into our shabby offices from Chileans who wanted to join. Larrain preached Amnesty’s gospel with countless formerly pro-Pinochet TV talk-show hosts. The Amnesty staff, never comfortable with seeing uniformed men in the doorway, got used to the fact that police were now visiting in search of free tickets. "The only group we haven’t heard from is the Retired Torturers Association," said my assistant, after turning away two Investigations detectives.

It was part of the Chileans’ shameless attempt to erase all previous connections to Pinochet. The champion, I was told, was Juan Guillermo Vivado, the anchorman for the state-run television channel, TVN. On March 11, the day Pinochet turned over power to Patricio Aylwin, Vivado began his broadcast by intoning his thanks to Pinochet for saving Chile from communism. Then the station cut to the inauguration ceremony. An hour later Vivado was back on the now-democratic TVN, announcing an upcoming broadcast of a ceremony in the stadium, "where thousands were tortured after the 1973 coup."

Still, the sudden conversions were better than the alternative. Leading the unrepentant is Pinochet, who has been stating that history will vindicate him and, even more strangely, hints that he might run for president in 1993. The police too continue to demonstrate that they learned their manners under Pinochet. Investigations detectives are still torturing prisoners. One of Amnesty’s volunteers, arrested for no particular reason other than scruffiness, spent a day in jail watching police beat up several friends. "We're still smarting from what happened on March 11," police told him.

During one set Jackson Browne dedicated a song to two journalists in military jail for "slandering the armed forces," a crime passed under military law that the government, lacking the votes for constitutional reform in congress, had not yet annulled. Neighboring Argentina, after thirteen military coups since 1930, got into the habit of simply annulling laws new governments find inconvenient; Argentina’s legal casualness was one reason there had been thirteen military coups. Chile is too serious to annul its laws. But that is also why Chilean journalists were in jail and Argentine journalists were not.

The same was true of the Amnesty Law. To open the legal doors to Argentina’s trials, President Raul Alfonsin annulled a self-amnesty passed by the generals. Aylwin will do no such thing, but in May he did set up a Chilean version of the Argentine Commission on Disappeared Persons, which had produced the report "Nunca Mas"—Never Again. In the wrenching Truth/Justice vs. Peace/Reconciliation dispute, the commission tries to meet everyone halfway. It is called the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission." The eight commissioners range from Gonzalo Vial, a Cabinet minister under Pinochet, to Jose Zalequett, who became president of Amnesty International after Pinochet kicked him out of Chile. The commissioners and their sixty staff members are still interviewing witnesses and relatives of victims and will produce a report in February addressing each case of death or disappearance. But because it is not a judicial body, the commission has no subpoena power and will not name the guilty. It will not deal with cases of torture. Its report will satisfy neither Pinochet’s side, many of whom believe the killings were justified, nor his opponents, who want to see the guilty punished.

So the relatives of the disappeared will have to be content with symbols. Sting closed the show at 3 a.m. on the second night with "They Dance Alone." The rest of the artists and the Mothers of the Disappeared, wearing white and bearing photographs of their loved ones, joined him on stage. Then one of the mothers played a cueca folk dance on a single guitar as another woman danced. The 80,000 people in the crowd—some of whom had been there twelve hours were hushed. They held up matches or torches of rolled newspaper. Then the last strains of the guitar died away, and the artists and mothers filed off the stage, the exorcism complete, the ghosts of the National Stadium able to rest in peace, if not in Truth and Justice.

COPYRIGHT The New Republic Inc. 1990

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