Democracies Squirm Over Impunity

Jorge G. Castaneda is a political scientist in Mexico

Nearly a quarter of a century after he led a coup d'etat that overthrew elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, Augusto Pinochet has finally, at the age of 82, relinquished command of his country's armed forces. Though he left the presidency in 1989, the general retained his post as commander in chief until this month, when the constitution he enacted in 1980 required him to step down; in exchange, he was appointed senator for life. This appointment, as well as the milestone represented by the resignation itself, has unleashed a passionate and substantive debate in Chile, and indeed throughout Latin America, on how the region's democracies should deal with the ghosts and horrors of their recent past.

In Argentina, there is renewed discussion about the 1987 legislation that closed the books on the military officers responsible for the "dirty war" of the 1970s and about President Carlos Menem's subsequent pardon of convicted generals.

Similar, too, is the Mexican opposition's confusion and discomfiture in grappling with that country's equivalent of governmental flouting of law: What to do about the corruption that has plagued Mexico for decades and has now led public opinion to demand some sort of retribution.

Initially, the debate in South America seemed simple and forthright. The generals, it was believed, would relinquish power if--and only if--they were promised immunity from prosecution for their crimes; the dictatorships would give way to elected civilian rule and an emergent civil society if the generals could be assured of a relatively painless return to the barracks and immunity against rummaging in the past.

In Mexico, intellectuals and opposition leaders from the right and the left wonder what to do about unaddressed crimes by past government officials; whether to investigate and punish departing autocrats of the Institutional Revolutionary Party perceived by the public to have been immensely corrupt and who remain immensely powerful or to let bygones be bygones in the name of a smooth and peaceful transition to democratic rule.

The Latin American political and intellectual elites who negotiated the transitions in the 1980s agreed at the time that the best solution was to accept the military's blackmail. This, it was thought, was not too high a price to pay for their departure. With some exceptions--the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the Chilean Communist Party, the Uruguayan hard left--this quid pro quo appeared to be acceptable to society at large. Apparently, not anymore.

The motives for the second-guessing are not difficult to discern. Beyond the crucial and painful ethical questions raised by the families and friends of victims whose tormentors simply walked away from their crimes, the dire political consequences generated by the blanket pardons are now more clearly palpable.

First, there is the question of impunity in government: If no one is seriously punished, there is no good reason to believe that history will not repeat itself.

Second, there is the continuing pressure exerted by the perpetrators of the former authoritarian rule. The senators for life appointed by Pinochet, a group that now includes the man in the dark glasses himself, have proved a formidable obstacle to attempts by Chilean democrats to repeal the dictatorship's economic and social legislation, even though the current governing coalition has obtained between 50% and 60% of the vote in various elections since 1989.

Finally, there are the underlying, indirect and perhaps unforeseen effects of impunity on society.

In several countries in Latin America--as in South Africa, an example followed closely by many in the region--a crime wave is submerging governments and societies. Security forces are overwhelmed by drug cartels, petty thieves, professional kidnappers and simple citizens who have concluded, perhaps rightly, that crime pays--more, at least, than the prevailing low wages for scant jobs. One factor contributing to this virtual collapse of the rule of law may well be the moral hazard involved in the "forgive and forget" attitudes toward the past. If the torturers, murderers and thieves who act under cover of authority can get away with anything, why not everyone else? If, in South Africa, defenders of apartheid and the police who enforced it with torture can confess their horrendous crimes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and then go largely unpunished, then common criminals of the urban areas may be reaching the right conclusion: Anything goes.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the rule of law in Latin America while at the same time determining that it will not apply to exiled presidents, former dictators or midlevel naval officers like Argentine Alfredo Astiz who openly flaunt their crimes and their immunity. It also will not be easy to go back on the arrangements and commitments made years ago. President Eduardo Frei was forced to acquiesce to Pinochet's Senate appointment; it was supported by the same constitution that, however undemocratic, allowed Frei to take office in 1994.

In Argentina, it is hard to imagine repealing the laws and pardons of the 1980s. Mexican attempts to investigate historic governmental disasters ranging from the 1968 student massacre to insider deals on the recent bank privatizations may all prove futile.

But perhaps the most significant impact of the current introspection on these issues lies elsewhere: It is forcing Latin American elites and public opinion to review their previously held simplistic conclusions, which were just too facile for anybody's good.

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