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In Santiago on September 11, 1973 I watched as Chilean air force jets flew overhead. Moments later I heard explosions and saw fireballs of smoke fill the sky as the presidential palace went up in flames. Salvador Allende, the elected Socialist president of Chile died in the palace.
As an American the death of General Augusto Pinochet brings back many memories of the military coup and the role played by my government in the violent overthrow of Allende. From the moment of his election in September, 1970 the Nixon administration mounted a covert campaign against him. Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s National Security adviser, declared: “I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” Weeks later the pro-constitutionalist head of the army, General Rene Schneider, was assassinated in a failed attempt to stop the inauguration of Allende.
For the next three years CIA-backed terrorist groups bombed and destroyed state railroads, power plants and key highway arteries to create chaos and stop the country from functioning. The goal was to “make the economy scream” as Nixon ordered. US corporations such as IT&T also participated in the efforts to destabilize the country.
In the midst of this struggle for control of Chile, Allende insisted, almost stubbornly, on maintaining the country’s democratic institutions. He enjoyed immense popular support from below, even in the waning days of his government when the economy was in shambles and virtually everyone believed a confrontation was imminent. I’ll never forget the last major demonstration on September 4, 1973, when the Alameda, the major avenue of downtown Santiago, was packed with tens of thousands of marchers, all intent on passing by the presidential palace where Allende stood on a balcony waving to the crowd. This was no government-orchestrated demonstration in which people were trucked in from the barrios and countryside. These people came out of a deep sense of commitment, a belief that this was their government and that they would defend it to the end.
In the aftermath of the coup over three thousand people perished, including two American friends of mine, Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi. The United States knowing of these atrocities, rushed to support the military regime, reopening the spigot of economic aid that had been closed under Allende. When the relatives of Horman and Terrugi made determined inquires about their disappearances and deaths, the US embassy and the State Department stonewalled along with the new military junta. Four weeks after the coup, I fled across the Andes, returning to the United States to do what I could to denounce the crimes of Pinochet and my government.
I returned to Chile for the 1988 plebiscite that finally forced Pinochet out of office after seventeen long and brutal years. But for eight more years his dark hand hung over Chile as he continued in his role as the commander in chief of the army. Finally as a result of years of hard work by the international human rights movement, Pinochet was detained in London in October 1998 for crimes against humanity. Five hundred days later he was sent back to Chile, allegedly for health reasons. There the Chilean courts lead by Judge Juan Guzman squared off with the general’s right wing supporters and the military, stripping him of his immunity from prosecution as “Senator-for-Life,” a position he bestowed on himself when he retired from the army.
As the proceedings against Pinochet advanced, new reports of US complicity in the coup and the repression began to surface, particularly about the role of Kissinger. The Chilean courts tried to compel Kissinger to testify, but they received no cooperation from the US Justice Department. French courts also issued orders for the interrogation of Kissinger, making him realize that he like Pinochet did not enjoy international impunity from prosecution. Small wonder that Kissinger wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, decrying the use of the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’ by courts to bring human rights violators to justice.
In Chile President Michele Bachelet whose father died in prison under Pinochet has refused to grant the ex-dictator a state funeral. Only military bands will play at his interment. Eduardo Contreras, a Chilean human rights lawyer, declared, “Pinochet should be buried as a common criminal,” adding, “The dictator died on December 10, the International Day of Human Rights. It is as if humanity chose this special moment to weigh in with its final judgment, declaring ‘enough’ for the dictator.”
The burial of Pinochet comes at a moment when the current Bush administration is being scrutinized for its atrocities and crimes against humanity that are even more appalling than those of the former Chilean dictator. It is another irony of history that Pinochet died on Donald Rumsfeld’s last full day as Secretary of Defense. Like Pinochet and Kissinger, Rumsfeld may very well spend the rest of his life trying to escape the grasp of domestic and international courts. Eleven Iraqi prisoners held in Abu Ghraib and a Saudi detained in Guantanamo are filing criminal charges in German courts against Rumsfeld and other US civilian and military officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. And on last Friday as Rumsfeld was making a farewell speech to his cohorts at the Pentagon, attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union argued in a Washington D.C. federal court that Rumsfeld and three senior military officials should be held responsible for the torture of Iraqi and Afghani detainees.
The Pinochet affair has shaped a whole new generation of human rights activists and lawyers. They are determined to end the impunity of public officials, including that of the civilian and military leaders in the United States who engage in state terrorism and human rights abuses while violating international treaties like the Geneva Conventions.
ROGER BURBACH is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is co-author with Jim Tarbell of “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire,” His latest book is: “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.”