Chilean Bishops Offer Voice Of Calm in Pinochet Fracas

Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet will be released from his imprisonment in London. For many in Chile, however, the legal and political battle that sparked his arrest has reopened the wounds of the past — wounds the Catholic Church in the country has been painstakingly trying to heal.

Pinochet led the military coup that ousted Socialist president Salvador Allende Sept. 11, 1973. He ruled Chile until 1990, when a referendum deposed him, opening the way to democracy. Pinochet's 17-year legacy is checkered; while he led Chile to a level of economic development far surpassing that of any other Latin American nation, he also left a dark history of human rights abuses, including the killings or disappearances of 1,198 men, women, and even some children.

Pinochet was appointed senator for life early this year, in time to see the Senate eliminate the national holiday commemorating the anniversary of his 1973 coup, and institute a new “Day of Reconciliation,” to be celebrated the first Monday of September. Hated by many as a murderer, defended by others as Chile's savior, Pinochet was a bone of contention stuck in the throat of Chilean society.

Yet a slow path to reconciliation was being built, thanks to a gradual and multilateral pastoral campaign initiated by the now retired archbishop of Santiago, Juan Francisco Fresno, and continued by his successors, Carlos Cardinal Oviedo and Francisco Javier Errazuriz, the current archbishop of Santiago, who was installed this May.

The 82-year-old Pinochet, in failing health and wishing to make a last trip to Europe, scheduled a minor surgical procedure in England — a land he once described as “his favorite country in the world.” He also had planned to visit France. But France denied Pinochet a visa, and the Chilean Foreign Office warned him that he could face “unpleasant circumstances” in London. The general, however, trusted in his diplomatic immunity — even more, he trusted in the friends and contacts he had made in England, Chile's largest trading partner and beneficiaries of Pinochet's help during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982.

Yet none of those friends and contacts were able to stop Pinochet's arrest on the order of a British court. The action was taken at the request of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who wished to prosecute Pinochet in Spain for the murder of several Spanish citizens, including a Catholic priest.

Pinochet's arrest met with the approval of much of the international community. Yet the action deeply divided Chile, where the former dictator still enjoys the support of 31% of the population, and threatened the consolidation of the country's 9-year-old democracy. Immediately, the streets of Santiago and other key cities filled with demonstrators both for and against the general. Some confrontations turned violent; over the course of a week, 215 protesters were arrested, and 37 persons were injured, including several policemen.

The street demonstrations, however, were only the external sign of a more dangerous tension within the system. The current government, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists, was deeply divided on the issue. Chile's Chancellor Jose Miguel Insulza, a socialist exiled during Pinochet's rule, found himself trapped between a rock and a hard place; the military pressed him to uphold Pinochet's diplomatic immunity in England, while his own party demanded that he allow British justice to proceed. Meanwhile, members of the conservative, pro-Pinochet majority in Congress refused to conduct government business until the situation was resolved, thus paralyzing the legislature.

Amid the fierce mutual accusations of the political leadership, the press turned to Archbishop Errazuriz, who has proposed several initiatives to foster reconciliation since he took charge of the archdiocese a few months ago, for an official statement on behalf of the Church.

The archbishop was acutely aware that the slightest perception of partisan-ship on his part — and therefore on the part of the Church — could severely injure the Church's efforts for reconciliation in the country. In his statement, the archbishop deeply regretted the manner in which Pinochet, “an ailing 82-year-old man,” was arrested. “When a man of that age goes to a clinic looking to recover from a health problem, it is not correct to arrest him at midnight, isolating him from his wife, his doctors, and his ambassador,” the archbishop said. On the other hand, he suggested that “had a proper judicial process (concerning the dictator's alleged crimes) been held in Chile, delivering the proper justice and punishment which so many people expected, we would not be going through this dramatic situation.”

The archbishop also insisted that “this is now a judicial process that Chileans should follow peaceably, avoiding violence.” Yet many Chileans did not listen. Demonstrations in front of the Judiciary Building, the Congress, and the embassies of Spain and of England multiplied, while verbal and physical assaults drove the country back to the first confrontational years that followed the fall of military rule.

Bishop Sergio Contreras of Temuco appealed to all factions to stop their confrontations and wait for the final decision of the British court. Bishop Contreras, president of the Chilean Bishops' Conference during Pinochet's rule and a strong critic of the dictator's human rights record, said that the British intervention was “imprudent,” since “it never took in account the consequences it could have in the country.”

“The [arrest of Pinochet] interrupts and injures the slow but solid process toward reconciliation on which Chilean society has embarked,” the bishop said. “[T]he acts of violence we Chileans have seen in these days demonstrate the level of emotion which exists regarding the past,” he added.

On Oct. 25, the Chilean Bishops' Conference called for an emergency meeting to issue an official statement. After a day-long meeting, the bishops issued a document in which they called on Chileans to “recover peace and common sense,” in the face of this situation. “The path to national reconciliation has been blocked. We call all Chileans to peace and responsibility, and ask all concerned not to foster animosity, but rather to show a noble spirit of peace and forgiveness,” the bishops added.

The document also recognized that there are still “painful open wounds” as a consequence of the human rights violations which took place during military rule, but asked that Chileans “contribute to the creation of a climate, in which it is possible to continue the process of consolidating democracy and a respect for human rights.”

The document also offered a first attempt at a diplomatic solution to the crisis. “Given the legal ambiguities surrounding the case, as well as the precarious health and advanced age of Senator Augusto Pinochet, we believe that humanitarian considerations should prevail.” Reliable sources state that, from that moment, the Chilean government, while continuing its public demands for respect of Pinochet's diplomatic immunity, shifted the focus of its private lobbying to humanitarian considerations.

On Oct. 28, the British High Court ruled that Pinochet had the right to diplomatic immunity, but left an appeal by the Spanish judiciary up to the House of Lords, which is expected to decide the matter in two to four weeks. According to analysts, the House of Lords has no great desire to damage British relations with a national army which continues to purchase $800 million worth of British arms per year, thanks to Pinochet. With that in mind, Pinochet can probably expect to be home for Christmas.

While Pinochet's supporters claim that the British court decision “puts an end to the machinations of the European socialists,” his detractors hope that the episode will open up the possibility of trying the general in Chile. The return of Pinochet then will have done nothing to heal the wounds in Chilean society opened by his arrest. As Bishop Javier Prado, secretary general of the Chilean Episcopate, put it, “Perhaps the judge [Baltasar Garzon] was motivated by good intentions, but he failed to take into account the problems he would create in this country. … Nothing [regarding the status of Pinochet] has changed after this ordeal, except that a whole nation is left divided, trapped in a nowin situation.”

Alejandro Bermudez is the Register's Latin America correspondent.