Chile’s Re-opened Human Rights Investigations and Piñera’s Balancing Act



Earthquake jars Santiago, preceding a turnover in government and anticipating a paradigm shift in the nation’s values

Will Piñera fool us all or is Chile about to be peppered by intensified neo-liberalism?

On March 11, less than two weeks following a devastating earthquake that rocked Chile’s south-central region and even reached its capital 200 miles away, rightwing President-elect Sebastián Piñera is set to take office. This earthquake and the devastation it has caused will create an immensely difficult time for even Chile’s billion-dollar man to take on the leadership of a country immersed in such devastation. Barring the earthquake, Piñera was already facing controversy prior to taking office. On February 8, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that her Concertación government would restart truth commissions to continue investigating human rights abuses compiled during the reign of Dictator Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990.

The reopened commissions could make for an interesting dynamic in Chilean politics due to the fact that re-established bodies could call for prosecutions of some of Piñera’s most ardent supporters. The left-leaning Concertación government, which has won all four previous presidential elections since 1989, will be handing over La Moneda, the presidential palace, to the rightwing Renovación Nacional (RN) government and the first elected president coming from the ranks of the right in more than a half-century. Piñera is now faced by the contradictory pulls of those who helped him achieve office and those who are still seeking recognition and compensation for the human rights violations that afflicted the nation several decades ago, not to mention the task of leading a country facing the aftermath of one of the largest and most profound recorded earthquakes in history.

The Era of Allende and Pinochet’s Coup D’Etat

Head of the Popular Unity coalition, President Salvador Allende came to power following the 1970 presidential election. The government, under the openly Marxist Allende, implemented a series of basic reforms, such as expropriation of privately owned extensive land holdings, as well as the nationalization of banks, large industrial conglomerates and copper mines. The main goal behind the economic redistribution of national wealth was to benefit the nation’s poor and members of the working class. While the reforms were extremely beneficial for these sectors, widespread resentment from the middle classes became menacingly obvious. This resentment led to strikes, protests and wrenching political unrest—particularly in the military.

Even prior to Allende’s inauguration, U.S. President Richard Nixon expressed fears of Chile becoming “another Cuba” if Allende were to become president. Reacting with remarkable similarity to former president Kennedy’s tactics used against Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Nixon responded to the election results by cutting off most of the U.S.’s foreign aid and new economic investment in Chile. Furthermore, the U.S. government supplied substantial covert support to Allende’s opponents with the intent to undermine the regime and bring on his removal from power. Much like the Cuban embargo, these efforts proved to be mainly ineffective throughout the Allende presidency. When disruptive national strikes took place in Chile as a consequence of Allende’s reforms and CIA efforts to further destabilize the government, opposition to the Popular Unity coalition grew—resulting in the alienation of the country’s armed forces and the contempt from the middle and upper class. On September 11, 1973 General Augusto Pinochet lead a coup d’état with support from all four branches of the military. The coup ended with not only the alleged suicide of President Allende and the end to Chile’s long tradition of constitutional government, but heralded in what would be 17 years of oppressive and terrifying military autocracy. Though not made fully public until 1999, it had been widely suspected at the time that President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger provided financial and military support to Pinochet’s forces. Chile’s fragile constitutional government had become yet another victim of U.S. foreign policy that was primarily driven by apprehension over the misperceived continued spread of communism throughout Latin America.

Pinochet’s Reign of Terror

Pinochet’s military junta rapidly constructed a nationwide atmosphere of terror by carrying out countless raids, “disappearances,” executions and arrests as well as the systematic torture of thousands of innocent citizens, repeated beatings, sexual acts of aggression, Russian roulette, sleep deprivation, asphyxia and electric shocks. These were only a few of the many inhumane acts employed by the hard-line regime. By use of fear and intimidation, the political opposition was all but stifled. In1973, the year of the Allende overthrow, more people were killed than in any other period of Pinochet’s reign of terror. Between September and December of 1973, up to as many as 250,000 Chileans were arrested and detained, most of them being entirely innocent of any crime.

The Pinochet regime enacted a series of reactionary decrees and harsh anti-democratic measures, such as the prorogation of National Congress and Constitutional Tribunal, in order to tighten its hold on the state. From such strong policies emerged the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), a brutal secret police force that conducted tortures and interrogations in the regime’s name. Furthermore, distribution of expropriated land was halted and reversed, while at the same time all leftist political parties were disassembled. Public protest was forbidden, stringent censorship regulations were established, and trade unions had their authority crushed. Moreover, the cutting of government expenditures on social programs, ridding the country of price controls and promoting free trade were several of the government-driven economic reforms that helped bring on the Chilean “economic miracle,” whose price was mainly paid by Chile’s impoverished classes. These reforms also included the privatization of many state-controlled industries and the elimination of many state welfare institutions.

With violence beginning to subside by the late 1970s, the persecution abated somewhat. However, the 1980s was a decade of tension and fear due to the constitution that had been drafted in the beginning of that decade. This allowed Pinochet to rule until 1989 or possibly 1997, although it did mandate a gradual return to democratic constitutionalism. However, in 1989, Pinochet relinquished power and agreed to staging elections, convinced that his political diet of terror and repression would ensure his election to the presidency in an upcoming popular vote. Ironically, following a narrow race against a Christian Democrat opponent, Patricio Aylwin, he was deposed from the presidency by a fair vote. However, Pinochet continued to attract a significant amount of backing from the Chilean public and remained as Commander-in-Chief of the army until 1997. Additionally he maintained significant ties to large numbers of officials, many of whom he had previously appointed, as well as a seat in the Senate, in which he had a working majority, made up of loyal military followers and civilian supporters.

Addressing Human Rights Violations and the United States’ Role in the Pinochet Regime

Almost immediately after entering office, on April 25, 1990 President Aylwin addressed the human rights violations of the Pinochet regime by creating the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a result of Supreme Decree No. 355. The Commission was to be comprised of eight members and headed by Raul Rettig. Its mission was “to clarify the whole truth on the most serious violations of human rights.” The end product, released in February 1991, was a three-volume, 2,000-page document that became known as the Rettig Report. According to this document, the commission investigated 3,428 cases of serious human rights violations. The Washington Post explained that the investigation had found that due to the actions of state agents, 3,197 people died or “disappeared” between September 1973 and March 1990, with 1,102 classified as “disappearances.” The report also accused DINA of being responsible for most of the human rights violations.

The Rettig Report also contained recommendations, including the establishment of a system of symbolic compensations for victims’ families. Enacted by Law No. 19.123 on January of 1992, President Aylwin created the “National Corporation for Reparation and Reconciliation” to provide reparations—including largely symbolic measures and various forms of financial, medical and legal assistance. Thus far, this body has distributed reparations in the form of financial compensation—totaling almost $16 million USD each year. Furthermore, the then Chilean president publicly apologized to the victims and their families on behalf of the Chilean government. Such reforms as eradicating the national holiday that celebrated the coup and a slow transfer of power back to the executive branch followed the report’s findings. The shortcomings of the report resided in the fact that the Rettig Commission, due to the mandate’s restrictions, was unable to respond to the victims that suffered at the hands of Pinochet’s orders, and who had not lost their lives.

In 1999, U.S. President Clinton finalized his special Chile Declassification Project by releasing 16,000 secret U.S. documents concerning the Pinochet era and the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Allende government. In a U.S. Department of State White House Press Statement on November 13, 2000, it was announced that the government’s primary goal behind releasing these records was “to put original documents before the public so that it may judge for itself the extent to which U.S. actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile.” Included in these documents were 700 CIA documents that its Director of Operations had previously refused to release—including records of U.S. covert operations between 1968 and 1975 specifically aimed at weakening the constitutional government of Salvador Allende and, after the coup, aiding the military regime of Augusto Pinochet. Many of these documents shed light on the fact that the U.S. government clearly knew about the planned September 11, 1973 coup that was about to be staged. Furthermore, the U.S. avoided pressuring the Pinochet regime on human rights atrocities, which it was routinely performing.

On August 12, 2003, then Chilean President Ricardo Lagos appointed a follow-up initiative to the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture—more commonly known as the Valech Commission. In a two-part release (November 2004 and June 2005) that panel reported on details of human rights abuses committed during Pinochet’s regime. However, the testimony that was heard was classified for the next 50 years, making it unusable in court proceedings, thus avoiding any lengthy trial of officials who were still holding public office and giving them de facto exoneration.

Recent Continuation of Investigations of Human Rights Violations

Outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet bears many personal connections to the human rights abuses of the Pinochet era, seeing as she was imprisoned, tortured and even lost her father to the Pinochet regime. She recently has been making attempts to establish the importance and commitment of continued human rights investigations into the Pinochet dictatorship. In November 2009, she created Chile’s National Human Rights Institute, which is dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights. She also played a large part in the recent formation and opening of the $24 million Memory and Human Rights Museum in Santiago. As reported in the Santiago Times on January 6, 2010, Bachelet made her boldest move yet by reopening the government’s torture files.

On February 8, 2010 María Luisa Sepúlveda, the special presidential human rights envoy, announced that the outgoing Concertación government would be reopening the Valech Commission documents from the year 2003 and the Commision Rettig which filed its report in 1991. Each commission will be given a six month mandate to possibly prepare prosecutions resulting from their revelations and address some of the 1,135 cases of human rights abuses to which Chilean Supreme Court judge Sergio Muños recently referred. Muñoz also asked local police “to create folders of evidence” to be used in future investigations. Muñoz and President Bachelet’s obvious commitment to the continuing human rights investigations has alleviated much apprehension being entertained by human rights organizations concerning the election of conservative Sebastián Piñera to the presidency.

James Fowler, of the Santiago Times, reported in 2006 that Muñoz ordered a re-identification of victims buried in Patio 29, a mass grave in Santiago’s General Cemetery. This came after a medical specialist misidentified the remains interred there. Then in 2005, he brought corruption and embezzlement charges against several members of the Pinochet family. Muñoz’s actions have unabated support, and the continuing human rights investigations may make it difficult for Piñera to come up with any diversionary moves concerning the investigations during the six-month mandate.

Piñera’s Rise to Power

Before becoming Chile’s current president-elect, billionaire Sebastián Piñera was known for amassing his fortune by creating Chile’s first credit card system, salvaging a struggling state-owned airline which is now known as the highly successful LAN airlines, and possessing the leading privately owned television channel— Chilevisión. However, Piñera’s next big investment would be his own race for Chile’s presidency, where his personal spending totaled at least $13.6 million USD. Ending up as a solid investment, Piñera won the runoff on January 17, 2010, edging past former President Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat, by 52 to 48 percent respectively.

Piñera’s election marks a time of transition for Chile. The president-elect is replacing the center-left Concertación coalition that has been in power since 1990. The later ruling coalition had won all four presidential elections on a platform of righting the wrongs of the Pinochet era. While Piñera is widely considered a moderate conservative, his party, La Alianza (The Alliance) coalition includes the ultra conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party. The UDI party has constantly worked to end all ongoing human rights investigations. However, will Piñera continue Bachelet’s efforts to further investigate human rights issues or will he follow the UDI’s preference to halt them altogether? Furthermore, how exactly will Piñera’s past ties to Pinochet shape his presidency?

While Piñera opposed the dictatorship, he still had many connections to Pinochet. In 1989, the president-elect’s campaign manager was Pinochet’s former Finance Minister, Hernán Buchi. During Piñera’s campaign he was widely supported by the two parties founded by Pinochet—the Renovación Nacional party (RN) and the UDI. Moreover, two of Piñera’s senior campaign aides held positions in the dictatorship, while another was a former Pinochet minister. While the Santiago Times reported 73 percent of Chileans “remain disdainful of Pinochet’s violent regime,” they were able to overlook Piñera’s connections to Pinochet and elect him president. Patricio Navia, a Chilean Political Scientist at New York University, explains that “The fact that the candidate who represents the parties that supported Pinochet has won shows how much Chile has changed.”

Historically, Piñera has wavered on his stance regarding the issue of continued human rights investigations. While he voted against the continuation of Pinochet’s rule in 1988, he also supported legislation that would have, if passed, granted amnesty and prevented investigations into human rights violations committed during the years of the dictator’s reign. On November 10, 2009 Piñera stated that, if elected, his government would eliminate the human rights cases that “never end.” On that occasion he was then applauded by almost 1,000 retired military and police personnel, many of whom had played a part in the Pinochet era. Chile’s Supreme Court President Milton Juica responded to this remark by explaining that cases relating to the human rights violations of the 1973-1990 period are moving through courts faster than ever. The Families of the Detained and Disappeared (AFDD) spokesperson Mireya García stated “(Piñera) has no commitment to human rights in terms of punishing the violations that occurred during the dictatorship…” Conversely, the pro-Pinochet Organization of Military Political Prisoner in Democracy (OSPPED) praised Piñera’s comments concerning putting the human rights investigations to an end, saying that “military and police are persecuted, prosecuted and condemned to prison for having confronted the actions of Marxist terrorists,” referring to Allende’s presidency.

Piñera, who is a Harvard University-trained economist and former Citigroup executive, stated that he embraces Pinochet’s economic policies of lowering corporate taxes and investing in the country, but loathes Pinochet’s use of terror. “I have condemned human rights violations all my life, with no hesitation. Human rights are sacred,” said Piñera. The president-elect has even stated he will continue on with some of the outgoing Concertación social programs relating to health care and jobs programs for the middle class and poor, along with aiding small businesses—labeling this the “New Right” program. Whether Piñera follows through, remains to be seen considering he has comprehensive ties to the nation’s economy with its aggressive-private sector tilt.

Piñera’s Cabinet

During Piñera’s campaign, the opposition claimed that he would pad his cabinet with former Pinochet officials. Rodrigo Hinzpeter, Piñera’s campaign coordinator, stated that, “Sebastián Piñera isn’t going to make a government with people who participated, were minister, subsecretary or had positions in the military government.” However, this comment led to dissension among the rank of Piñera supporters. Congressman Patricio Melero, for example, of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party questioned why Piñera’s campaign “wants to give a type of moral superiority to some.” Thus, Piñera has to balance his actions in order to maintain his conservative base, while also seeming to collaborate with the left.

On February 9, President-elect Piñera announced the 22 new members of his cabinet during an elaborate event at the National History Museum in Santiago. Those who were chosen included mostly conservative businessmen, academics, lawyers and technocrats from the entire political spectrum. While some developed their professional skills as supporters of Pinochet, all have cut their ties with the deceased dictator. The cabinet contains 6 women, 13 members with post-graduate degrees earned abroad (many from the U.S.), 4 members from Piñera’s RN party, 4 members from right-leaning RDI party, and an astounding 14 independents.

As promised, Piñera did not offer positions to higher-profile, rightist leaders such as Senators Jovino Novoa and Pablo Longueira, both being leaders of the ultra-conservative UDI party. Nor did Piñera extend an invitation to Senator Andrés Allamand from the RN party. However, Joaquín Lavin (UDI) was appointed Education Minister. Lavin is a former hard-right, religiously conservative presidential candidate who only narrowly missed out being elected to Ricardo Lagos in 2000. Moreover, Cristián Larroulet, who served directly under the dictatorship, but denounced his loyalty to the dictator in favor of his new allegiance to Piñera in 2005, was appointed to be the incoming leader’s chief of staff.

An obvious and expected choice was the naming of Finance Minister Felipe Larraín, who attended Harvard University with Piñera, and who was also his chief advisor on economic policy during his campaign. This is expected to be a “signal of macroeconomic continuity.” Larraín vowed to aid Piñera in creating 1 million jobs and 6 percent annual growth. It has been estimated by Chile’s Central Bank that the economy shrank 1.9 percent in 2009; however, it has predicted a 4.5 to 5.5 percent GDP-growth for this year. Of course, the position of Economy Minister went to University of Chicago-educated and current chair of Chile’s electronic stock exchange, Juan Andrés Fontaine.

The “Dark Horse” of Piñera’s appointments was the new defense minister, Jaime Ravinet of the Christian Democratic Party (DC), which is a part of the center-left Concertación coalition. Before the announcement of the appointments the Concertación stated that any party members that were willing to join Piñera’s cabinet would be asked to leave the party. When Ravinet was appointed he responded by officially resigning. Ravinet previously served under former President Ricardo Lagos of the Concertación party. While he has been labeled the “black sheep” of his party, Ravinet’s appointment is said by some to demonstrate at least a degree of “national unity” in the cabinet.

Lawyer Rodrigo Hinzpeter was appointed as interior minister and Alfredo Moreno, director of Chile’s largest retailer, Falabella, as foreign minister. Other important appointments are Ena Von Baer as Secretary General to the Government, Jaime Mañalich as Health Minister, and Cristian Larroulet as Secretary General to the President. Felipe Kast (UDI) was appointed the new Minister of Planning with Ricardo Rainieri as Energy Minister and Laurance Golborne as Mining Minister. The Environmental Minister will be María Ignacia Benítez, with Felipe Morandé as Transport Minister. The Agriculture Ministry will be led by José Antonio Galilea (RN), while the Labor Ministry will be headed by Camila Merino. Magdalena Matte will be the new Housing Minister, with Hernán de Solminihac as the Public Works Minister. Felipe Bulnes (RN) will head up the Justice Ministry, with the new National Properties Minister being Catalina Parot. Additionally, Luciano Cruz-Coke was appointed the new Culture Minister.

Chile’s current Concertación coalition cabinet was staffed by a particular kind of quota system where certain ministries included individuals from certain political parties—all being based on a cultivated and accepted political spoils system. However, under Piñera, 14 out of 22 new ministers are independents. Nevertheless, in a COHA interview with NYU’s Patricio Navia, he pointed out the fact that while these newly announced ministers were politically diverse due to their varied parties, not because they truly are diverse. Building a “government of national unity” was one of Piñera’s main campaign promises. However, it seems as if he has simply appointed a cabinet of individuals that share the same type of educational, social and economic background. Navia explained that Piñera is producing the same strengths in his appointments, but also the same weaknesses.

Impact of Recent Earthquake on Piñera

On Saturday, February 27, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake occurred 70 miles northeast of Concepción, Chile’s second largest city, and 200 miles southwest of Santiago, Chile’s capital and largest city. The quake resulted in a death toll of almost 800, with many still missing, damaged 1.5 million homes, and total losses exceeding $15 billion. Piñera is set to take office during the aftermath of one of the greatest natural disasters Chile has seen since the 1960 9.5 magnitude earthquake. The reconstruction could mean many different things for Piñera and his newly elected cabinet. It is widely accepted as an economic fact of life that reconstruction after such an earthquake will boost the creation of jobs throughout the country. This will be a positive factor dealing with the 2009 10% unemployment rate that went up from 7.75% in 2008, according to the CIA World Factbook.

However, it is likely that Chile will see a lowered GDP. Damages to infrastructure such as roads, office buildings and residences, massive damage to public transportation in some of the largest cities in the country, and an overall slowing of day-to-day activities will cause the GDP to slow down. While Piñera has made obvious efforts to base his cabinet on the idea of efficiency rather than political experience, it is apparent that this quake and the devastation it has caused will present a substantial barricade for Piñera’s well-oiled machine. Perhaps Piñera is hoping that he had some political experience in such a time of need.

The Future of Chilean Politics

While President-elect Piñera’s appointments did not reflect much influence from the Pinochet era, many other concerns have or should have, been voiced. Primarily, Piñera still has yet to fill hundreds of other high and low positions in the national and regional governments. It is apparent that there will be room for such appointments as the presidents of the two rightwing parties, Carlos Larrain (RN) and Juan Antonio Colomo (UDI). There is also ample room to reward other ranking members. In fact, the majority of his newly appointed deputy ministers come from the UDI and RN party. This may demonstrates well the path that the Piñera administration is likely to take with the rest of his appointments—creating for itself a significant possibility of controversy.

One example of such an outcome is the possible appointment of the current head of the army Óscar Izurieta, who is set to retire two days prior to Piñera taking office, as deputy Defense Minister. Considering the predominating role of the military under Pinochet, having Izurieta in the government would undoubtedly create significant controversy in the country’s human rights community. Jaime Ravinet, the newly appointed Defense Minister, said that he recently gave Piñera a list of five names to consider for the position. He also hinted that Izurieta and possibly Juan Emilio Chevre, Izurieta’s predecessor, were on the list. There also have been discussions concerning General Cristián Le Dantec, the new head of the armed forces, who is also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, due to the fact that the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (AFDD) has accused him of human rights abuses under Pinochet. While Le Dantec has claimed that he was investigated and found innocent, the AFDD has stated that the cases remain open.

While few can argue that Piñera has failed to cross party lines or develop a cabinet relatively free of Pinochet-era officials, there are drastic negatives regarding in his appointments. It is evident that the cabinet is composed of many more businessmen and women than actual politicians. This demonstrates both Piñera’s desire to boost Chile’s economy and perhaps a lack of focus on issues, such as the continued human rights investigations and social welfare programs. While this can be positive in some aspects, economic merits seem to have overtaken political ones in many appointments. While these newly appointed ministers obviously demonstrate an incredibly strong academic résumé, they lack desired and necessary political experience, explained Professor Navia. Furthermore, Piñera has pledged to carry out his “New Right” program by continuing on with the outgoing Concertación’s health care and jobs programs for the middle class and poor, while also helping small businesses. With the president-elect’s personal ties and obvious commitment to boosting the economy, one must question where the importance of social welfare programs in his overall vision. It seems that matters like health care will be put on the back burner along with the ever-important human rights investigations.

Patricio Navia explains that many of Piñera’s appointments were an “obvious mistake.” The fact that many reside on the technocratic side of politics demonstrates that Piñera is focused on the “efficiency” of his government. He proposed that Piñera has ignored the fact that his cabinet was more than an administrative cabinet, but also had to be a political one. While there is little doubt that the Piñera government will be efficient, a good political environment is necessary for implementing public policies. This, Navia explained, may mark the downfall of the Piñera cabinet due to its overwhelming lack of political experience.

With only a six-month mandate, it remains to be seen what will come of the re-opened truth commission. There have been talks of possibly preparing prosecutions; however, this seems to be an unlikely outcome. Nevertheless, further reparations may be ordered with an increased number of cases being investigated. With Piñera’s previous comments regarding his government halting the human rights cases that “never end,” it looks as if after the six-month mandate, the truth commissions may permanently cease to exist, leaving many reported cases uninvestigated and victims and their families without reparations or closure. The impact of Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror is still left lingering with many Chileans; that is why Piñera’s likely travail is so predictable.