Human Rights 'Miracle'

Detention of former Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet could signal a Latin American Nuremberg

Washington-- The arrest of 82-year-old Chilean despot Augusto Pinochet in London October 16 at the request of Spanish authorities has the human rights community here inspired by the possibility that it could be the precursor to a Latin American/Cold War Nuremberg.

Needless to say, the U.S. right and elements within the intelligence community are not happy about such a scenario. Despite mainstream reports to the contrary, the U.S. government has been less than helpful to Spanish investigators who have been on the trail of Pinochet and other Latin American war criminals. "The U.S. government does in fact have information" pertinent to the Spanish investigation "but has withheld it so far," Representative George Miller said last week.

Marc Raskin, cofounder of the Institute for Policy Studies, is fervently hoping that the information in question will be released. Raskin has deeply personal reasons for his feelings.

Pinochet at the polls in 1980 during his sham constitutional plebiscite
Villalobos / Liaison Agency
Pinochet at the polls in 1980 during his sham constitutional plebiscite

It was raining, Raskin remembers, when he got the call. It was September 1976, and the news wasn't entirely unexpected:

Raskin's friends, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, had been injured in a car bombing. While acts of political terrorism are rare in the District of Columbia, Raskin had been worried that Letelier was in danger. Formerly a cabinet minister in the Chilean socialist government of Salvador Allende, later a fellow at IPS, Letelier was becoming an embarrassment to the military regime because of his denunciations of Pinochet's fascist governance.

Only days before, Raskin recalled, Letelier had wondered whether car trouble he was having might be the result of sabotage.

Raskin hurried to George Washington Medical Center. When he arrived, he discovered that he had been misinformed; Letelier and Moffitt, his young American assistant, were dead.

The staffers at IPS, a progressive think tank, had no doubt who was responsible for their murders. At a press conference the next day, Raskin and his IPS colleagues pointed the finger squarely at the Chilean secret police, and vowed not to rest until everyone involved was brought to justice.

to millions worldwide, Pinochet's arrest was a long-overdue step toward some measure of justice for the coup that toppled Allende's democratically elected government in 1973, and the ensuing 17-year reign of free-market fascism--the so-called Chilean "economic miracle"--that left nearly 4000 dead and helped give rise to the term desaparecidos ("the disappeared").

Yet some in Washington view the arrest as a travesty, a potential embarrassment, or an inconvenience. To conservatives and neoliberals, including those in the Clinton administration, it has the potential to draw attention to the unfortunate reality underlying the Chilean "economic renaissance" (which Clinton touted in pushing for Chile to become the next NAFTA member before fast track fell through).

To the U.S. national security establishment, Pinochet's collar not only opens old wounds, but raises the specter of new disclosures about dubious past activities and philosophies--including the canard that friendly anti-Communist governments can't be perpetrators of international terrorism. Indeed, some on Capitol Hill are speculating that such sensitivities may be impeding U.S. cooperation in the Spanish probe. In an October 21 letter signed by 34 other House members, Miller and Representative John Conyers reminded Clinton that the Justice Department is still restricting classified material essential to the investigation and further noted, "Absent our firm response, terrorists will continue to believe they can act with impunity."

Although no charges were ever filed against Pinochet in the Letelier case, there's never been any doubt in the minds of those who prosecuted the assassins that the hit teams for DINA (Chile's former secret police) that traversed the globe took orders from him. [continued on page 61]

"Unless he believed in the existence of some avenging angel traveling the world assassinating his enemies, it is inconceivable that he didn't know what was going on," says E. Lawrence Barcella, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked the Letelier case and was interviewed by Spanish investigators last year. The FBI agents who spearheaded the Letelier probe came to the same conclusion.

Key to their assessment was Michael Townley, one of the most odious assassins of the last half-century. A U.S. expatriate who grew up in Chile, Townley joined DINA in 1973, and not only participated in the Letelier-Moffitt assassination but also in the murders or attempted murders of a former Chilean army general (killed in Buenos Aires by car bomb), an exiled Chilean Christian Democratic leader (wounded by gunfire in Rome), and a Spanish UN economist (tortured to death in Townley's own house outside of Santiago).

Handed over to the U.S. in 1978 by Pinochet when it became clear that DINA had a role in the Letelier hit, Townley first helped authorities round up his fellow hit men--who were hired by right-wing Cubans--then testified that his orders had come from the head of DINA. Also essential to an understanding of DINA's overseas assassinations was Armando Larios, another hit squad participant. Both are now in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Since Pinochet's arrest, Judge Baltasar Garzón, who issued the warrant and has been examining Latin-based international right-wing terrorism, has dominated press coverage. For the past two years, however, it's been Judge Manuel Garcia Castellon, who has been doing nothing but investigating Pinochet. While conservative organs like The Wall Street Journal have attributed the Pinochet investigation to "a fringe of angry old Communists and starry-eyed leftists sitting in exile in Spain," Castellon (who belongs to the Conservative Judges Association) has been operating on popularly implemented post-Franco legislation that recognizes political genocide as an international crime. Ironically, an agreement made under Franco's rule gives the investigation added legitimacy: the complaints filed on behalf of Chilean survivors are based on a 1958 Spanish-Chilean agreement that gives any Chilean the right to bring suit in a Spanish court with the same rights as a Spanish citizen.

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