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Declarations & Statements


The New York Times, 31.12.00

SCALES OF JUSTICE - In Chile, Democracy Depends on a Delicate Balance. By CLIFFORD KRAUSS

SANTIAGO, Chile -- In theory, at least, the endless succession of legal hearings dogging General Augusto Pinochet's retirement years could provide a golden opportunity for Chile.

It could help a nation, once known for goose-stepping soldiers and torture chambers, to clarify the historical record, consolidate the rule of law and establish the primacy of the judiciary and civilian government.

But this is Chile, a country where open conflict in personal and political affairs is so disliked that the people have a word for avoiding it: "Convivencia,"which translates as "living together" or "coexistence."

Convivencia may explain why General Pinochet's fate will probably not be determined in a court of law. Instead, in the next few weeks he will undergo a neurological and psychological examination in Santiago's military hospital, after which doctors are expected to conclude that the 85-year- old is mentally unfit to stand trial for kidnapping and murder.

"I am convinced the final solution for Pinochet and the country will be the medical exams," said Ricardo Israel, a political scientist at the University of Chile. "In Chile there is a long tradition of compromise."

Of course, the Pinochet case has already produced several surprises, so no one is certain what will happen. One possibility is that the results of the medical examination will be kept secret until after the former dictator is interrogated and charged. An indictment of the general would have great political and historical significance, even if he was never brought to trial. Still, the eagerness with which many Chileans are anticipating a negotiated outcome says a lot about how much Chileans accept - indeed embrace - ambiguity in the respective authority of their governing institutions.

The last time the equilibrium between the civilian and the military broke down was in the early 1970's, after the Socialist Salvador Allende won a close presidential election. Mr. Allende embarked on a policy of land redistribution and nationalization of the country's major industries, creating a vehement reaction by the military on behalf of the upper and middle classes.

In 1973, after the Allende government moved to introduce Socialist ideals into the predominantly Roman Catholic education system, and after the leader of the Socialist party called for a barracks rebellion against senior officers, the military broke its tradition of being apolitical and staged a bloody coup, backed by Washington.

For the next 17 years General Pinochet ruled as the most authoritarian dictator in South America, killing more than 3,000 leftists and torturing tens of thousands of Chileans. Not until 1990, following a plebiscite election in which Chileans called for an end to dictatorship, was he forced to share power with a coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats.

In 1998, General Pinochet retired from his position as head of the army and an uneasy calm prevailed until two years ago, when he was arrested in London on human rights charges detailed in a Spanish warrant.

"It brought the skeleton out of the closet and put it into our faces," recalled José Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean human rights lawyer who works for Human Rights Watch. Still, he added: "The period of the 1970's was so traumatic, Chileans go out of their way to minimize conflict and pretend that conflict does not exist. Unfortunately I think the political establishment wants the medical exam to be the way out. That is their strategy."

President Ricardo Lagos, the military, and judicial officers have all sworn publicly that the courts are functioning without outside interference. But there is abundant evidence of ongoing bargaining intended to preserve the balance of power.

One day the Supreme Court stripped General Pinochet of his Senatorial immunity, then on another it tossed out kidnapping and murder charges filed against him. Two weeks ago it ruled that the general ought to be interrogated without delay, then last week it ordered that he be should undergo medical tests first.

One day President Lagos, the first Socialist to govern Chile since Salvador Allende's downfall, lectured the military to stay out of the affairs of the judiciary. Shortly afterwards, he acceded to the wishes of the top military officers for a meeting of the National Security Council, a creation of Mr. Pinochet, to let them air their grievances.

President Lagos further perplexed many of his Socialist supporters when he recently invited a general accused of being an accomplice to the murder of a labor leader to the presidential palace to personally congratulate him on his retirement.

For its part, several months ago, under the leadership of the army chief, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, the armed forces for the first time accepted responsibility for the disappearances of dissidents and promised to help locate their remains. Next week the military is scheduled to report on its search, but church officials acting as monitors say few of the missing will be accounted for.

President Lagos, meanwhile, has approved new weapons purchases, and his aides are reportedly working on a compromise allowing military personnel to be prosecuted but then qualify for clemency. In return, the military would provide more information on missing people.

"Gen. Izurieta knows that he needs Lagos for a political solution, something that can only come from the left," noted Mr. Israel of the University of Chile. "And Lagos knows only bad things can happen if Izurieta is weakened."

That's convivencia.

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