Carmen Hertz wants Chileans to think these days of her late husband and the 71 others who were executed in a military sweep through four northern Chilean towns in October, 1973, a month after Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s coup.
Hertz says that Wednesday’s presidential plebiscite, in which Pinochet seeks eight more years in power, ought to be in part a referendum on the human rights abuses she says began with the coup itself and continued, if on a lesser scale, throughout the general’s 15-year rule.
Now 42, Hertz has ceaselessly hunted for the remains of her husband, Carlos Berger. She has brought court cases, fruitlessly, in an effort to find out what happened and under whose orders. She does know from testimony and witnesses that a military patrol, led by a senior army general, pulled political prisoners from their cells and shot and stabbed them to death in mass executions over four days in the four towns. Few of the bodies were ever found.
For the traumatized relatives, “it was if they were suspended in time,” said Hertz, now a human rights lawyer here. “Without the corpses, they couldn’t even mourn properly. We have sought a moral judgment, so there will not be moral impunity. Knowing the truth is most important. If the society knows what happened, it would be a form of reparation for all of us.”
After an initial reluctance to address such painful memories, the opposition seeking to defeat Pinochet in the plebiscite began to focus on human rights violations by the military government since 1973. As the campaigning winds down before the yes-or-no vote this week on whether Pinochet should rule for another eight years, the No forces have brought the issues of torture, forced exile and assassinations closer to center stage.
Earlier in the campaign, the coalition of 16 opposition parties in the No Command had skirted the issue. Opinion polls revealed scant public interest, and even Pinochet’s foes recognized that the scale of abuses had subsided in recent years. Opposition leaders chose to emphasize the joys of restoring democracy rather than the wrenching images of repression.
Moreover, No campaign leaders know that if they do defeat the general, they will still have to negotiate with the powerful armed forces on a transition to full democracy and that antagonizing the military could prove counterproductive.
Pinochet’s campaign, meanwhile, has pounded away at the memories of the strikes, street violence and shortages during the turbulent years of 1970-73 under Marxist President Salvador Allende. In offering a choice between “Yes or Chaos,” the Yes campaign has portrayed Chile under Pinochet as stable, prosperous and harmonious, rescued from communism in a heroic and necessarily nasty conflict.
Pablo Longueira, a senior official of the Union of Democratic Independence, a right-wing political party, said the voters are mainly concerned with pocketbook issues.
“People have far more fear of communism and terrorist violence than of violations of human rights,” he said.
Pinochet also lifted two state-of-emergency measures in late August and issued orders allowing more than 500 people in forced exile to come home. With much fanfare, he recently signed two international conventions prohibiting torture.
Ultimately, the No movement felt compelled to convey its version of Chilean reality under Pinochet from the time of the coup to events in recent weeks, while stressing that the goal is not vengeance but understanding of the past to prevent it from recurring.
Estimates vary wildly on the number of people who were killed in the coup and its aftermath, from the Organization of American States’ calculation of 1,500 to Amnesty International’s figure of 15,000. The Roman Catholic Church’s Vicariate of Solidarity, perhaps the most reliable source on the subject, accepts the OAS figure and estimates that another 500 people have been “killed by state repression” since 1974.
600 Cases Documented
The vicariate also has documented more than 600 cases of people who were arrested and then disappeared and are presumed dead, including five last year.
The vicariate estimates the number of political arrests since 1973 at 79,415, including 1,880 in the first half of 1988, more than two-thirds of them at opposition demonstrations. In addition, more than 1,000 opposition protesters have been arrested and three people shot dead since Pinochet was formally nominated as the sole candidate in the plebiscite. The No campaign cites these recent incidents as evidence that only the government’s rhetoric has changed, not its intolerance of opposition.
The Chilean Commission on Human Rights gives a far higher estimate of the disappearances--more than 2,200--than the vicariate. The commission estimates that 155,000 people were jailed for varying lengths of time between 1973 and 1981 and says that 164,000 people spent at least some time in foreign exile. After 1981, 1,180 people were subjected to internal exile in remote towns and 141,000 were arrested, the commission says.
Andres Dominguez, a senior official of the commission, said the No campaign has effectively emphasized specific human rights abuses. He added, however, that Chileans need to understand that the problem goes far deeper: The military’s 1980 constitution, under which the plebiscite is being held, imposes a system in which “human rights are a concession from the government, not a fundamental right,” Dominguez said.
Totalitarian--meaning Marxist--parties may be banned under the constitution, and two parties, the Communists and a faction of the Socialist Party, have been outlawed. It is a crime to insult the president or the armed forces, and about 30 journalists face charges for allegedly doing so. Trade union leaders may not run for public office, nor may anyone else without a high school diploma. Even if the No vote wins, the constitution is almost impossible to amend, and a revived congress, to be elected next year, would be circumscribed by the powers of a military-dominated National Security Council.
Still, the No campaign, with its symbolic references to the spouses and children of the victims, has had a powerful emotional impact on the population, according to Hector Contreras, a senior member of the vicariate’s legal team.
In a country where the government dominates the media, “this is the first time that the people are facing up to the suffering,” Contreras said. “And our experience is that nothing protects the people more than public knowledge of these abuses.”
Most opposition leaders have ducked the question of whether human rights offenders will be tried if a civilian government comes to power--an issue that has haunted other Latin American countries. There is general agreement that any judicial action should come before regular courts, not special tribunals or military judges. But few believe such trials are likely, given the Chilean military’s far-reaching authority.
Human rights lawyer Hertz would like to see a 1978 amnesty law that covers the post-coup years repealed, but she would be content to know the truth about her husband’s death and to find his remains. In 1987, the discovery of bones in a field raised the families’ hopes, but the site turned out to be an ancient burial ground.
She and Berger, her journalist husband, moved with their year-old son to the small town of Calama in August, 1973, so that Berger could work as director of a local radio station run by the government-owned copper company. Berger, 30, was arrested the day of the coup for refusing orders to shut down the station. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail by a military court.
26 People Killed. While he and other political prisoners served their sentences, a military patrol headed by army Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark came to the region. The unit killed 26 people in Calama and others in Antofagasta, La Serena and Copiapo--72 in all--over four days, according to numerous studies. Arellano, one of the leaders in plotting the coup, later fell out with Pinochet and was forced to retire. He has denied any wrongdoing, reportedly suggesting that a subordinate, Col. Sergio Arredondo, acted without orders. Another general has testified that Pinochet himself issued orders to Arellano to “review and accelerate the processes” in the north.
The victims included the director of La Serena’s symphony orchestra, a prominent physician and union leaders. Most had government functions or links to Allende’s government.
Hertz now says that there was a cold logic to the executions, that they were “designed to impose a collective terror. The survivors realized that anything could happen to them, too. And it worked--in all of northern Chile, the leftist parties withered.”
A year ago, Hertz brought a $10-million civil suit against Arredondo while he was in Indianapolis as a member of the Chilean equestrian team at the Pan-American Games. The 1978 amnesty law prevented her from taking such action in Chile. But Arredondo left before the papers could be served, returning home. His horse was impounded briefly.
Hertz was in exile for four years until 1977. Then she joined the vicariate’s legal team in Santiago, handling human rights cases.
If the No vote wins Wednesday, “there will be a space in which all this pain, suppressed by the society, can finally express itself,” she said. “There will be a possibility that the society collectively assimilates and understands what happened in Calama and elsewhere in Chile.
“We are now a sick society. Instead of covering it up and denying the past, we need to let it come forth. That would allow reconciliation to take place much more rapidly. It would let us breathe again.”