Chile's Tortured Past

Chilean demonstrators holding pictures of relatives tortured and killed

Demonstrators holding pictures of relatives tortured and killed during Chile's dictatorship (1973-1990), wait outside the Presidential Palace La Moneda, in Santiago on November 10, 2004. (Photo: Martin Bernetti/AFP-Getty Images)

The long-awaited report by the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture was published last week in Chile, and officially concludes what Chileans have long known: that torture was an institutional policy of the state during the military dictatorship from 1973 through 1990, and used as an instrument to repress and terrorize the population.

The commission, appointed by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, based its findings on the testimony of some 35,000 victims who were subjected to physical and psychological torture, including beatings, electrical shocks, rape, and mock executions at nearly 1,200 sites throughout the country. The report specifies the military, police, and intelligence units that inflicted the torture, but does not reveal the names of individual officers involved.

Many victims had never previously acknowledged the horrors they endured years ago before testifying before the commission. Indeed, there is widespread speculation that the actual number of torture victims is much higher, even as high as several hundred thousand. It is believed many victims did not come forward for fear of reliving their experiences or due to lack of confidence in the commission's work.

Whether or not it fully accounts for the number of torture victims, the report is still considered by most to be a necessary and positive, if painful, step in acknowledging Chile's past. In 1991, a truth commission established just after the transition to democracy reported on the abduction and deaths of dissidents, concluding that more than 3000 people died for political reasons during the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. But until now, no report has systematically examined incidents of torture by military and police forces. "After years of denial, Chile has finally acknowledged its legacy of torture," says José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "This presidential commission has upheld the right of thousands of victims to reparation and moral recognition."

The question of reparations was addressed this past week by President Lagos, who proposed that 28,000 victims be given lifetime pensions of just over 112,000 pesos (US $190) a month, about half the average income. He will send a bill to Congress seeking free education and healthcare and subsidized housing for the victims and their families. The pension scheme, which Lagos admits is "austere," will cost the state around US $70 million a year. Still, there are fears that the cost will be a drain on the budget. A current government minister who was tortured in the mid-1970s passed on his pension entitlement, while calling on others who are financially secure to do the same. However, as The Economist noted (December 2), many of the victims are over 50, and the overall cost of lifetime pensions will soon drop.

Grumblings by government officials about a budget under pressure have angered many victims, as they see the proposed compensation to be a paltry amount per victim. They also consider statements implying burden to be an affront to human rights principles. "Pain cannot be measured in monetary terms," writes Tito Tricot, Director for the Center for Intercultural Studies — ILWEN in Santiago. "However, the meager figure offends rather than compensates for thirty years of suffering. It is even more offensive for the minister of finance to point out that these pensions...will imply ‘painful budget readjustments.'" According to a recent survey by the Fundación Futuro published in La Tercera, a daily newspaper in Santiago, about 40% of those polled believe the reparation amount to be too low, with a quarter reporting the amount too high and another quarter stating that no financial compensation should be awarded. Those seeking higher compensation have cited Chile's expanding military budget, noting Chile is currently purchasing ten new F-16 fighter jets, each at a cost of about US $70 million.

Arguments about reparation aside, early reactions indicate that many victims will not be assuaged by the "moral recognition" accompanying the publication of the report. Jorge Saez told the Associated Press (November 29) that he feels "tremendous frustration...because we heard nothing about justice, about punishing the torturers, about making sure this will never happen in Chile again." Tito Tricot writes, "The only true and acceptable compensation for torture victims is justice." But a vast majority of the cases documented by the commission — more than 86 percent — occurred between 1973 and 1978, a period covered by an amnesty law introduced by the dictatorship and currently still in place. The law exempts those accused of human rights violations from punishment.

Even if the government revokes this provision, there will remain obstacles impeding the effective prosecution of a case against an alleged torture perpetrator inasmuch as testimony in the report has been left anonymous and the identities of perpetrators have not been revealed. All personal information is to remain confidential for fifty years. Though a victim may still bring a case to court individually, the lack of access to corroborating testimony will certainly hamper prosecution.

The courts will be under particular scrutiny if individual cases proceed. The report had harsh words for the judicial branch for failing to uphold the Constitution during the dictatorship, and found that the Supreme Court "washed its hands of omissions and abuses committed by military courts."

The report has led to much soul-searching in the current and retired military leadership. In early November, Army commander Juan Emilio Cheyre publicly admitted the army's responsibility for "punishable and morally unacceptable acts in the past." The Navy also publicly admitted that a training ship had been used as a torture center. If former officials are successfully prosecuted, the process will do little to mend the military's reputation, and this stigma remains a source of frustration for a new generation in active service.

During the same week the report was published, a Chilean appeals court stripped former dictator Pinochet of immunity from prosecution for murder. His lawyers will likely appeal to the Supreme Court and cite Pinochet's failing health and diminished mental faculties to avoid having him stand trial.

A recent editorial in La Tercera expressed concern that "the commission's document, conceived as a way to end an era, will end up prolonging the debate it was meant to conclude." While the report addresses the questions of what happened during the years of military dictatorship, the question of why will continue to be raised. As President Lagos succinctly stated in a recent nationally televised address, "How can we explain such horror? I do not have an answer."