Chile: Pinochet Ties Up Transition to Democracy

<i> Jacobo Timerman is an Argentine author, editor and publisher</i>

The ghost of Francisco Franco haunts the Chilean military. In Spain, the dictator died convinced that he had tied up all the loose ends, and tied them well. But in the months following his death, Franco’s veil of empty power was unraveled by the Spanish citizenry.

In Chile, dictator Augusto Pinochet and his partisans also believe they have tied up all the loose ends, making the new democratic government a mere appendage of the military. During the final weeks of the military regime, Pinochet and his spokesmen tried to intimidate President-elect Patricio Aylwin with a shower of threats. “I will be watching and listening,” the dictator said in one of his farewell tours across Chile, “because we must not allow any abuse in the name of freedom.”

Chile’s dictatorship is the last to disappear from the Southern Cone of Latin America--after Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay--and it has left behind the most traps in an attempt to maintain a share of power.

Gen. Pinochet continues as commander of the armed forces. Civil and military courts are appointed by commanders of the armed forces. Military doctrine is dictated by each branch’s head, not by the government. The armed forces can buy and sell goods without any economic or political interference from the government or Parliament. The president of Chile does not have the power to order the retirement of a military officer. The National Intelligence Center, which led the repression under Pinochet, destroyed its archives before dissolving itself.


Pinochet’s effort does not lack humor. He ordered the presidential Mercedes Benz fleet transferred to the army command, leaving Aylwin without cars and without budget to buy any. He sold the Quinteros airport to a friend. The Orbe News Agency went to another friend.

In total, Pinochet is responsible for about 40 new laws created to asphyxiate the democratic government of Aylwin.

Yet a democratic transition is still possible. Even if Pinochet enjoys his role as commander of the army for some time, he will slowly fade away as a ridiculous old man. Opinion polls indicate that, while Chileans have a positive image of the military forces, they loathe Pinochet, his aides and his secret servicemen.

Chile, after today’s ceremonies at the Congress in Valaparaiso, will have a civilian president, a civilian minister of defense and civilian secretaries of the armed forces. Chile’s Parliament reflects all political forces in the country, including extreme right and left. The failure of the Communist Party, the largest and best organized in Latin America, to win a single new seat in recent elections is added proof that moderation rules Chile’s political life.


Yet Latin Americans know well that a freely elected government does not assure democracy. There must also be a legal system that creates and upholds minimum guidelines for social equality and justice. Victims of repression--16 years of disappearances, torture, illegal judicial procedures and invented accusations--will demand this of Aylwin.

When Argentine President Raul Alfonsin succeeded the military dictatorship in December, 1983, he sent the top leaders of the repression to jail and abolished the amnesty law dictated by the military for the military before it left power.

In Uruguay, the government respected the military amnesty law but was forced to submit its decision to a plebiscite. Uruguayans, who overwhelmingly voted for democracy in 1985, approved military amnesty in 1989. They did not want to endanger democracy. They opted not to forget or forgive, but to leave behind.

The Chilean government seems inclined to take a third route: There will be no general amnesty for political prisoners jailed by the dictatorship, but how they got there will be reviewed by the courts.

Freedom will come for these prisoners because none of the proceedings against them were legal; convictions violated judicial norms. There were abductions, torture and falsifications of evidence.

The Catholic Church has helped accelerate the process by opening its archives, including files on 700 missing persons. The new government has pledged to investigate these cases. The Aylwin government will also rule on reparations for all victims or their families.

The men Aylwin has brought to government recognize that the relationships among the military, civilian government and anguished victims of human-rights abuses are the principal cause of tension in the early months of democratic transition in Southern Cone countries. They constitute a new generation formed clandestinely, in exile or in the fight for human rights in Chile during the dictatorship. They are a reflection of the spirit of the president himself.

“When I was 20 and my generation was 20,” Aylwin said in 1987, “there were many injustices in this country and much inequality, but there was freedom. We were proud of Chilean democracy. The men of that era proposed--some within the framework of social Christian ideas, others in the framework of socialist ideas, and others more radical--to end the injustices and transform the country, constructing a new Chile that would be just, humane and with solidarity, while conserving freedom. Fifty years later, there is more injustice and we do not have freedom. We are a failed generation.”


Now that his generation is in power, Aylwin works to reverse this verdict--perhaps the best assurance that transition to democracy will be successful.