Posts Tagged ‘Salvador Allende’

Some Late Justice for Victor Jara – posted 7/8/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/20/2016

July 8, 2016 2 comments

Throughout history, accountability for political torture and murder has been exceedingly rare. The world is full of unpunished crimes. Horrible things happen and, more often than not, perpetrators act with impunity.

It is typically impossible to get foreign war criminals into an American courtroom. And we generally do not look too hard at our own war crimes.

So it was a total shock when I saw that on June 27 a Florida jury returned a guilty verdict in a civil trial against the murderer of Victor Jara. No one symbolizes the struggle for human rights in Latin America better than Victor Jara.

Jara was a leading Chilean folksinger, songwriter, theater director, activist and supporter of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. I have heard him described as a Chilean version of a cross between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Jara was executed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 1973 military coup that overthrew the Allende government.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet initiated a very dark chapter in Chilean history. It is estimated that 3,100 victims were either killed or disappeared by Pinochet’s dictatorship. An estimated 29,000 people were tortured by Pinochet’s forces in the years following the coup.

The day of the coup, Jara went to work at the Santiago Technical University where he was a professor and researcher. He had a date to sing at an event with Allende later that day. Jara did not come home.

His wife Joan waited for a week not knowing what had happened to him. A young man came to the Jara home on September 18 and told Joan that Victor’s body had been recognized in the city morgue. Victor had been very well known. He was very popular in Chile.

Joan Jara accompanied the young man to the morgue where she saw hundreds of bodies piled up in a parking area. She was able to identify Victor’s body and save him from disposal in a mass grave.

It took years for Joan Jara to find out what happened to her husband. On the day of the coup, the military arrested him. The military detained him, along with thousands of others, in Chile Stadium. He was beaten badly at the university and then later tortured for three days at the stadium.

While there are many stories about his torture, the amputation of his fingers by the military, and his singing to the other prisoners before his death, a forensic pathologist found he sustained a single bullet wound through the back of his head. When Joan Jara and other family members claimed his corpse, they found he had been shot 44 times, his wrists were broken and his face was disfigured from beatings.

On the 40th anniversary of Jara’s death, Joan Jara filed a civil lawsuit in Florida against a former military officer Pedro Barrientos, a lieutenant under Pinochet who had command responsibility at Chile Stadium. Joan Jara filed her lawsuit under the Torture Victims Protection Act, a federal civil statute that allows American courts to hear about human rights abuses committed outside the United States.

The trial presented a wealth of information about what happened at Chile Stadium. Several witnesses who had been Chilean military conscripts identified Barrientos as Jara’s murderer. Other witnesses testified that Barrientos had repeatedly bragged that he was the one who shot and killed Victor Jara.

The jury found Barrientos liable for Jara’s torture and murder and awarded his wife and daughters $28 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

Barrientos had fled Chile in 1989 and he became a U.S.citizen through marriage. According to Peter Kornbluh, a reporter for the Nation Magazine, Barrientos misrepresented his involvement in the 1973 coup when he filed his naturalization application. Barrientos has lived in Deltona, Florida.

In 2012, he was one of eight retired officers indicted for Jara’s murder in Chile. In 2013, the Chilean government formally requested Barrientos’ extradition back to Chile. For whatever reason, the U.S. Department of Justice has not yet responded to Chile’s request.

Complicating the pursuit of justice is a blanket amnesty passed in Chile in 1980, when Pinochet was still in power, which absolves all government officials of any wrongdoing. Pinochet died in 2006 but the remnants of his old regime have tried and are still trying to throw a veil over their human rights atrocities.

Why should Americans care about Victor Jara and these sad events that happened more than 40 years ago?

I would say that Jara’s murder is fundamentally a matter of justice that transcends national boundaries. As a symbol of the struggle for human rights in Latin America, his example and accountability for his torture and murder matter. If torturers and murderers can act with impunity, the likelihood of future torture atrocities increases everywhere in the world. Making torturers pay for their crimes has some disincentive value.

We also need to recognize the American role in these events. While it is disputed, there is substantial evidence that our government bears a degree of responsibility both for the 1973 Chilean military coup and for the gross violations of human rights that occurred in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the 1970’s. We trained the Latin American military dictatorships in how to torture.

There are many layers to this story. The writer, Isabel Allende,a relative of Salvador Allende, explained it this way:

“On September 11, 1973, a military coup ended a century of democratic tradition in Chile and started the long reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Similar coups followed in other countries, and soon half the continent’s population was living in terror. This was a strategy designed in Washington and imposed upon the Latin American people by the economic and political forces of the right. In every instance the military acted as mercenaries to the privileged groups in power. Repression was organized on a large scale; torture, concentration camps, censorship, imprisonment without trial, and summary execution became common practices. Thousands of people “disappeared”, masses of exiles and refugees left their countries running for their lives.”

I personally cared about these events because the Chilean revolution was a thunderbolt that rocked my political world. Conventional wisdom had previously dictated that no socialist government could ever be democratically elected. The 1970 election of the Popular Unity government led by Allende and his 1973 reelection showed that was not true.

Chile symbolized the electoral viability of democratic socialism. The coup, on the other hand, was a devastating rejoinder.

I recall Henry Kissinger’s oft-quoted, reprehensible quote from the time: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

The Jara trial revealed a tremendous need to fill in gaps in the public record about what happened in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the years from 1973-1980. Much effort has gone into concealing the history.

The best American political tradition is committed to transparency and intellectual honesty. The public deserves to know the truth. There is a seamy underside to the American role in supporting Pinochet and the other torturing Latin American regimes that included Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The full extent of the American role in the Chilean coup has not been revealed. Nor do we know the American role in Operation Condor, Pinochet’s plan, in conjunction with other Latin American militaries, to eliminate his perceived enemies all over the world.

The verdict in Jara’s trial is a long-overdue victory for his family and brings a measure of accountability for the egregious human rights violations of the Pinochet regime . Life can be so surprising. I never expected to see justice for Victor Jara, and finally, it has come.

The Importance of the Bachelet Victory in Chile – posted 12/ 29/2013

December 29, 2013 2 comments

When Michelle Bachelet won her December run-off election for the presidency of Chile, I was surprised how little attention the story received in the United States. Maybe it is because Americans generally pay little attention to any foreign news.

Bachelet, leader of the center-left coalition and the first female ever elected president of Chile (from 2006 to 2010) won an overwhelming victory over Evelyn Matthei, the right-wing candidate. Bachelet garnered over 62% of the vote. I think it was the first Latin American election where both major candidates were women.

This was not any old election. The story is deeply rooted in the history of Chile from the era of Allende and Pinochet and it has the flair of an epic novel. The candidates, Bachelet and Matthei, grew up living across the street from each other. They played together as little girls, riding bikes.

The girls’ fathers were best friends. Albert Bachelet and Fernando Matthei both had Air Force jobs. They shared a love of classical music and loved to talk sports, politics and philosophy. Bachelet gave Matthei two olive trees and a flowering cherry. Those trees are still in front of the Matthei house.

When President Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military in 1973, very tragic events were set into motion. Shortly before the coup, another Chilean general, Gen. Gustavo Leigh, who was a coup supporter, forced Gen. Bachelet to step down from his high ranking position in the Air Force. Apparently this happened because Gen. Bachelet was an obstacle to coup planning. Bachelet was loyal to President Allende and the democratically elected government.

After the coup on September 11, 1973, the military detained Bachelet and he was subjected to months of daily torture. Bachelet died in custody in March 1974 due to a heart attack almost certainly related to his torture. He wrote his son Alberto:

“I was detained incommunicado for 26 days. I was subjected to torture for 30 hours and finally sent to the Air Force Hospital. They destroyed me inside; they were exhausting me mentally.”

In early January 1975, the military also detained and tortured both Michelle Bachelet and her mother. They were taken blindfolded to Villa Grimaldi, a notorious detention center in Santiago. Because of sympathetic connections in the military, unlike thousands of others, Bachelet and her mother were exiled instead of being murdered. They first moved to Australia and then East Germany. Bachelet started study to become a doctor when she lived in East Germany. She moved back to Chile in 1979 and continued her medical studies, ultimately becoming a pediatrician.

Fernando Matthei rose to a higher position three months after the coup. He became head of the Air Force War Academy. Four years after that Matthei became the head of the Air Force.

Matthei’s office was not at all far from the place his former friend was being interrogated and tortured. Matthei did nothing to save his friend. He says he raised his friend’s treatment with Gen. Leigh. In 2009, Matthei wrote:

“He told me not to get involved in issues which were none of my business. I confess that I never went to see him in the basement of the academy nor in prison, something which I am ashamed of. Perhaps on that occasion prudence superceded courage.”

As for Evelyn Matthei, she moved into the private sector before launching her political career. She was a Pinochet defender late in the day. In 1999, when Gen. Pinochet was arrested in England for crimes against humanity, she and a small faction of right wing Chileans flew to London to publicly support the dictator.

Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer, added a further dimension to this story of which I was not aware. Also part of the recent presidential campaign was Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who was a candidate of the Progressive Party, a smaller party on the left. His father Miguel Enriquez had been a famous militant leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), a group that favored an insurrectionary approach to achieving socialism. Miguel Enriquez had been MIR General Secretary from 1967 to 1974 and he was a critical supporter of the Allende government. The military found Enriquez’s safe house in Santiago, surrounded it and shot him dead in October 1974. Miguel Enriquez had been organizing opposition to the coup from underground.

The 2013 Chilean election brought all this history center stage again. It also offered up continuing differences and visions about Chile and how to address its problems.

For someone who observed from the United States the devastating tragedy that was Pinochet’s coup, the victory of the Chilean Left is both deeply satisfying and inspirational. I wanted to say a bit about the lessons I see coming out of the election.

For leftists and progressives of my generation, the election of Salvador Allende in 1970 was electrifying. At that time, it was popular wisdom that no socialist could ever win a democratic election. Allende won in 1970 and then again in 1973. Allende proved the pundit class wrong.

I remember Henry Kissinger’s quote from 1970:

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

The background role of the U.S. in the Pinochet coup remains a shameful episode in our history.

Allende provided the positive example of democracy and socialism that inspired Bachelet. Allende showed it was possible to win. I do not minimize any of the questions provoked by the coup about Allende’s strategy and whether the end result was inevitable. Those debates are important but I do think democracy remains the essential precondition for social change in both advanced capitalist countries and in countries like Chile which have a profound democratic tradition.

I think Americans can learn from the Chilean example. Instead of pursuing armed struggle, which likely would have guaranteed their extermination, Chile’s progressives redoubled their democratic efforts. Now on their agenda is addressing economic inequality, creating greater access to higher education and raising corporate taxes.

All these items could easily be on an American agenda. We face the same issue of extreme economic inequality. Nobody defends the economic interests of working people these days. Higher education has become ridiculously expensive. How about an agenda that stood for addressing unemployment, free higher education, health care as a human right, reasonable gun control, support for womens’ rights including abortion rights, opposition to racism and support for immigrants’ rights, support for LGBT rights, and an anti-imperialist foreign policy? Enough with the stupid wars that maim new generations.

I think American progressives and leftists need to learn how to engage electoral politics far more effectively. We give up too easily. I think we could learn from the Right on this score. I do give the Right credit for persistence. Their efforts to influence the Republican Party have been far more successful than the Left’s efforts to influence the Democrats. In saying this, I can hear the litany of complaints on the Left about the impossibility of electoral politics, Citizens United, and the power of money to buy elections.

Although it is about a decade old, the perspective I would advocate was outlined in James Weinstein’s book The Long Detour. To quote Weinstein:

“Building a national movement requires commitment to continuous electoral activity, year-in and year-out…In organizing such a new movement the left will have to think nationally – especially in terms of its program and critique of current government policies – but act locally and start modestly.”

I will write more about this but I did not want to get too far away from Chile. For those who would like to learn more about Chile and its history over the last 40 years I would suggest reading Ariel Dorfman. I am indebted to Dorfman for his articles in the Guardian and the Nation. He has a fine new memoir Feeding On Dreams which I would recommend. I also would recommend the wonderful Costa-Gavras movie Missing which starred Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. It tells an important story well and conveys a feel for the time.

It will be interesting to see how Bachelet and her progressive agenda fare.