Human Rights in Chile: Remembrance and Reckoning

By Ruth E. Dominguez
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 3/4 |

The Legalities of the Pinochet case

The arrest of Pinochet in October 1998, in London under the authority of a Spanish warrant, was what Human Rights Watch has described as a “‘wake-up call’ to tyrants everywhere” ( The arrest was possible under international law, and was specifically a criminal complaint filed by the lawyers of human rights victims in Spain. A similar request to arrest Pinochet in London was made by the countries of Belgium, France, and Switzerland.

Although Pinochet ultimately was not extradited to Spain to stand trial as a human rights abuser, due to what was determined to be the poor state of his mental health, the extradition trial took place and the claim given by Pinochet lawyers that he was entitled to immunity as a former head of state was rejected. Equally significant was that as part of Chile’s transition into democracy, the former dictator had restructured the constitution in part to create what Human Rights Watch calls “a legal structure of absolute impunity” for himself and “most of his accomplices.”

Human Rights Watch has issued a pamphlet of the legalities of the Pinochet case called “The Pinochet Precedent” that specifically addresses how the arrest was possible and “how victims can pursue human rights criminals abroad.” ( The pamphlet reviews the principles of “universal jurisdiction” as was pertinent in this case.

The rule of “universal jurisdiction,” according to HRW, is “the principle that every state has an interest in bringing to justice the perpetrators of particular crimes of international concern, no matter where the crime was committed, and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or their victims.” Both piracy and slave-trading were the original “universal” crimes in international law. Universal crimes after World Was II included: genocide, torture, and other “‘crimes against humanity’.” (HRW) Human rights crimes that are subject to universal jurisdiction are the following: torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

General Pinochet lost his political immunity and was “ruled subject to extradition” under the 1984 U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. According to HRW, “as of February 2000, 118 states had ratified the Torture Convention.” As HRW also points out, “Because of the Convention’s clear and unambiguous command, torture charges may be the most fruitful in extraterritorial cases brought in the countries, as illustrated by the Pinochet [case].”

The Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathered information on over 2,000 killings and “disappearances.” According to other sources, the statistics are higher. Says one article:

"From the very start of his rule, General Pinochet moved to suppress all opposition. He banned all other political parties, suspended labor unions, and cracked down on all dissidents to his regime. During his 16 years in power, his repressive apparatus executed at least 1,500 activists, exiled 15,000 others, and imprisoned, tortured, assassinated, or caused the “disappearance” of countless thousands more.[1] According to one human rights group, the Pinochet regime was responsible for 11,536 human rights violations between 1984 and 1988 alone.[2]" (“Chile: the laboratory test”)

The arrest of Pinochet is significant not only in and of itself, but has resulted in a broader understanding of the history of the Chilean dictatorship, the full extent of human rights abuses, and international involvement in the situation. During the Clinton administration, partially as a result of the case against Pinochet and also due to efforts of families who had lost members during the Pinochet years, many previously classified documents were released for public scrutiny. These documents have provided important evidence indicating that the U.S. government knew of many cases of human rights abuses and had chosen to ignore human rights interests under the excuse of Cold War security issues.

Equally significant in the Pinochet case is a new promise for international human rights and adherence to international human rights law:

"In [the Pinochet] case, the international law on human rights has been upheld as superior to the principles of state immunity and restriction of crimes treatment within the boundaries of national sovereignty, thus invalidating self-amnesties, pardons and institutional arrangements of impunity that preclude the exercise of justice. In a world in which globalization seems to be affecting not only markets, the mass media and management, the new projection of international norms of accountability promises to re-centralize the demand of justice by the victims of repression, and to keep the legacy of human-rights violations at the center of the public spheres of the Southern Cone for years to come." (Roniger and Sznajder, ix)

Surfacing in the Pinochet case have been documents related to international agencies and secretive operations that have existed for years. Included among these are operation Condor and the actions of the DINA, a form of international police. These organizations both operated in a number of countries. One source states:

"Officially, Condor arose as a defense against Communist-inspired terrorism, but its victims included government officials ousted in United States-supported military coups, trade unionists, rights Advocates, and suspected socialists. By 1978 investigators were tying Condor to the killing of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean foreign minister, and Ronni Moffitt, and American colleague, in 1976 when the car in which they were riding exploded in Washington." (

As individual cases are being pursued and tried in Chile and in other countries, the power of international agencies and those individuals who work for them are becoming increasingly called into question. This is a huge step within human rights of the post-Cold War era, and will undoubtedly force the public to review the history of the Cold War.

Ideology, Economics, and the Cold War

With particular concern for prevention of future human rights abuses, it is useful to look at the causes leading up to the sociopolitical conflict in Chile that led to the eventual coup in 1973. The ousted government of the Popular Unity, under the leadership of Salvador Allende, was on the left of the Chilean political spectrum. Allende was the Western Hemisphere’s first democratically-elected Marxist president.

The political orientation of Allende’s government and supporters has become incredibly significant in human rights cases related to the Chilean dictatorship. During the case against Pinochet in London, one accusation of the Spanish government was of genocide whose definition under Spanish law includes the elimination of political groups. Britain “did not retain this accusation.” (“The Pinochet Precedent”)[3] The tension of Cold War politics— fears and political passions on both sides— has been widely identified as a primary cause of the conflict leading to military take-over in 1973. Although Cold War policy is often ultimately explained by economic realities and systems, in the Chilean case this is perhaps difficult to decipher among many conflicting facts, statistics, personal accounts, and economic reports.

For example, widely cited recently on the internet, as well as in recent publications, is what many have concluded to be the fallacy of the “Chilean economic miracle.” This was a term frequently heard in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and according to one source, promoted by Pinochet organizations itself. (O’Shaunghnessy) Under the military dictatorship, Pinochet was known internationally to have promoted a free market economy.

This essentially reversed reforms that had been occurring under the democratic government in Chile during the nine years previous to the coup. Economic reforms under Allende (1970-73) included such measures as nationalizing foreign-owned businesses and redistribution of land under land reform. It was such measures that caused the IMF and World Bank to withdraw support for Chile during the Allende government, in addition to causing an international stir that led to CIA action in support of the right wing. (“Chile: the laborartory test”) These destabilizing measures created the atmosphere leading to the military coup.

Soon after the overthrow of the Allende government, Chile confronted a situation of high inflation. The crisis was dealt with by a group of the economists that have been come to be known as “the Chicago boys”:

"The Chicago boys were a group of 30 Chileans who had studied economics at the University of Chicago between 1955 and 1963. During the course of their postgraduate studies they had become disciples of Milton Friedman, and had returned to Chile completely indoctrinated in free market theory. By the end of 1974, they had risen to positions of power in the Pinochet regime, controlling most of its offices for economic planning." (“Chile: the laboratory test”)

One reason Chile’s unregulated economy came to be known as an economic miracle was a period of increased economic growth— 6.6% a year during 1978-81. (“Chile: the laboratory test”) These accounts have been recently balanced out, however, with other statistics, such as a fall in GNP per capita of 6.4% between 1972 and 1987. In summary of the results of Pinochet’s economic policies and anti-labor economy, one article states:

"Although Chiles’s economy is growing at a healthy pace today, it still lags behind most of Latin America. Much of the development is environmentally unsustainable. Inequality and poverty remain extreme. Furthermore, much of the country’s industry is now foreign-owned— meaning that profits do not stay in Chile, but are shipped to other countries." (“Chile: the laboratory test”)

Other complaints about the Chilean economy include high pollution in Santiago. These reports are reflective of continued debate about the necessity of past political measures and actions. It should be added that recent comments on Chilean society attribute the stable and prosperous business community with helping to maintain democracy during recent reforms and unrest. (Sonderriis,

Although Allende’s reforms were all legally binding to the Chilean system of democracy many feared the changes would lead to class warfare and extra-governmental measures:

"In the days and years after the coup, middle- and upper-class citizens said that they felt their very lives were threatened—that a class war was brewing; indeed it was reported that arms for the left were arriving from Cuba hidden in sugar sacks." (O’Shaunessy, 50)

On September 11, 1973, members of the military junta who had pre-coordinated their plans, including General Augusto Pinochet-Ugarte, gave orders for the air-force to attack President Allende in the presidential palace of La Moneda. Allende had immediately gone to La Moneda upon learning of unusual troop movements and being alerted of the impending military take-over. At 9:30 AM, several hours before the attack, Allende gave a final speech to Chilean citizens, addressed as “compatriots,” identifying the escalation of the conflict between the left and the right, and calling upon the traditional support from the left:

"Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty you have always shown, for the trust you have always placed in a man who has been no more than the interpreter of your great desire for justice, a man who undertook publicly to respect the constitution and the law and who did not betray that undertaking. This is the last chance I shall have to speak to you, to explain to you what has happened. Foreign capital and imperialism have allied with the forces of reaction to produce a climate in which the armed forces have broken with tradition. General Schneider and Commander Araya, who upheld and reasserted that tradition, have fallen victim to those people, to that class which now hopes, through its intermediaries— the armed forces— to regain the interests and privileges it had lost." (O’Shaughnessy, 57)

The conflict was clearly viewed both by the right and left not only in terms of the national society and economic structure, but in an international context.

International reaction to events in Chile also had much to do with the Cold War. At the time of the coup, the Nixon administration was in power in the U.S. and Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State. During a meeting with a Chilean foreign minister in 1979, Kissinger is quoted as reacting to the government of dictatorship in the following manner, “what do we get out of removing military governments to turn them over to communists.

Elections have to be held when stability can be obtained and not when governments are delivered to communists.” (O’Shaughnessy,105) Whatever the context of U.S. foreign policy with regard to perceived threats of communism, in this statement, as in other attitudes and actions toward the military regime, there is little real notice given to human rights abuses.

Additionally, destabilization policies and CIA intervention indicate that there was little respect for Chilean democracy, as the Allende government was, after all, in power in a legally binding situation. It should also be noted that the U.S. engaged in similar activities elsewhere in the Americas during the 20th century, such as in Guatemala. However, Kissinger somehow manages to make the following conclusions about Chile in his autobiography, The White House Years:

“...Allende represented a break with Chile’s long democratic history and would become president not through an authentic expression of majority will but through a fluke in of the Chilean political system.” (Keen, 435)

Such clues prompted many human rights researchers to pressure the U.S. government to release classified documents revealing the full relationship between the U.S. and the Pinochet regime. Indeed, in one recently declassified document, Thomas Karamessines, the CIA deputy director of plans, is quoted as relaying Kissinger’s orders to the CIA station chief in Santiago in the following direct manner: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.” (

With the thawing of the Cold War, many documents relating to U.S. involvement in Chile have been recently declassified. Some documents from 1970-76 have definitively linked CIA activities with the coup, as well as demonstrate the acute concern from the U.S. about the political scene in Chile and its potential effects on national security. Specifically, the actions include covert shipment of arms and propaganda against the Allende government. ( It also provides information on groups that have been accused of human rights abuses, including the DINA (“the national intelligence arm of the Chilean government” under Pinochet) and those involved with Operation Condor (“a network of Chilean, Argentinian, and Paraguayan secret police”), and indicates communication between the CIA, FBI and these groups.

These latest developments are crucial in the context of international human rights. Human rights activists are discovering the need to confront state governments not only about their own laws and direct treatment of citizens, but their involvement with international covert operations and agencies, in addition to their foreign and national security policies. Certainly, in Latin America the issue of human rights has been incredibly influenced by the Cold War. It is situations such as Chile’s that have led theorists such as Michael Ignatieff to the following conclusion:

"Indeed, it could be said that while the Cold War stale-mate was in place, there was not one human rights culture in the world, but two, socialist and capitalist, or Communist and liberal." (111)

It is essential for those in the field of human rights to continue to monitor not only standard legal proceedings within the nation-state, but also their covert operations and foreign policy interests.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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Although he left office in March 1990, dictator Augusto Pinochet effectively held absolute power in Chile from 1973-1988. His September 1973 military coup proved that a charismatic individual could set the goals of the state by using hard power to affect national politics. While Chilean citizens did not want to support Pinochet, the military regime proved that open dissent was a fatal option... MORE»
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