January 2007
Good (Local) Governance

Death, dictators, and political amnesia

Now that Pinochet is gone, Chileans are probably asking the same questions Filipinos posed after Marcos's death: "Does the death of the dictator mean justice denied? Would it become easier to forget everything that happened now that the face of dictatorship is gone?"

“CORAZON DE PINOCHET.” The tabloid ‘Clinic’ uses a Catholic twist of irony on Pinochet. [image from www.theclinic.cl]

SANTIAGO DE CHILE — There was no other visitor in sight on a quiet, searing-hot December afternoon at the Parque Por La Paz, by the Andes foothills, site of a torture center under the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

It was days after the death of the 91-year-old Pinochet, but Andres Trujillo, who works at the park, said there had been no increase in the number of visitors since. “This is a bit too far for many people,” explained Trujillo.

But at least there is a monument, the Parque Por La Paz (Peace Park), to remind people of the evils, the reality, and the human costs of dictatorship. The Parque, still better known by its old name Villa Grimaldi, was where opponents to the Pinochet regime were detained, tortured, and exterminated between 1973 to 1979. Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, was herself tortured here, along with her mother.

While walking around the park, I couldn’t think of anything similar being put together by the victims of the two decades of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos back in the Philippines. Whether it means Chileans will be less forgetful than Filipinos, however, is still up in the Andean air.

Chile and the Philippines are half a world apart, and many other details differ in the tales of their respective former dictators, Pinochet and Marcos. But watching events here unfold after Pinochet’s death was like watching a rerun of events in Manila after Marcos passed away, in exile, in 1989: An aging dictator dies. His loyalistas, a noisy few, holding up his portrait, are in near hysteria. Those who suffered under or protested his abuses — and his stolen wealth — welcome the death of a tyrant and thief. His family then says he “had to” wield an iron fist for the good of the country.

But there are other things that for me have always brought the Chilean political story a bit closer to the Philippine political saga.

Parallel fortunes

To us “Marcos babies” — those born after Marcos won the 1965 election — September 11 still brings to mind his birthday. Sept. 11 is also the day in 1973 that army chief Pinochet led a coup that ousted democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende, who committed suicide as Pinochet’s forces were moving into La Moneda, the presidential palace.

Pinochet and Marcos were contemporaries in dictatorship — Pinochet took power a year after Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972. Pinochet was in power for 17 years and Marcos, 21 years. (After losing in a plebiscite on his rule in 1990, Pinochet stayed as armed forces chief until 1998 and quit as senator for life, a position he made possible, only in 2002.)

The two leaders also stand side by side in terms of having stolen wealth and regimes known for their human-rights abuses. Other statistics: In a country of about 10 million people in the mid-’70s, more than 3,000 people died in political violence during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Around 28,000 people were tortured. By comparison, it is said that tens of thousands suffered human rights violations under Marcos — in 1986, the year he was ousted, 10,000 Filipinos filed a class suit before the Hawaii District Court. The U.S. military historian Alfred McCoy estimates that there were more than 3,200 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 torture victims and 70,000 people incarcerated during the Marcos years. Others put the number of victims of arbitrary arrest and detention at up to 120,000.

In Pinochet’s case, news reports say some 600 cases involving human-rights violations hounded him to his death. At the time of his passing, Pinochet had been indicted — but not tried and convicted — in two human-rights cases (including one linked to Villa Grimaldi), as well as for tax evasion from his secret bank accounts overseas. No prosecution managed to make it to court.

Chile’s government paper La Nación estimates Pinochet’s ill-gotten wealth to be more than $37 million, including sums at the Riggs Bank in Washington. The bank accounts came to light in U.S. Senate investigations in 2004. Revelations of money Pinochet siphoned off punctured many supporters’ belief that he was a “clean” dictator.

In Marcos’s case, more than 500 civil and criminal charges, many of them relating to graft, were filed against him and his estate. His widow, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, was acquitted of embezzlement by a U.S. court in 1990. But she still faces other charges in local courts. Estimates of the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth range from $10 billion to $30 billion in gold and Swiss bank accounts — and the saga of attempts to recover some of this is far from finished 18 years after Ferdinand Marcos’s death.

Forgetfulness and memories

Ironically, the remaining Marcoses themselves have recovered quite beautifully since 1989.

In the days and weeks after the Marcoses fled Malacañang Palace and wound up in Hawaii, anti-Marcos leaders had vowed that there could be “no reconciliation without justice.” But 21 years after the 1986 ‘People Power’ revolt that ousted Marcos and gave the Philippines a new start, it could be said that not only has there been little justice, a lack of political will has ensured that amnesia would take the place of reconciliation.

A whole generation of Filipinos, born after 1986 and without direct experience of things Marcosian, has reached adulthood. For them Marcos is the odd but elegant woman named Imelda, who has just launched a jewelry and accessories collection, and seems to have a fondness for shoes (which appear in many of her designs). Marcos is also Imee, a member of Congress, and her brother, Ferdinand Jr., the governor of Ilocos Norte. But perhaps the most famous Marcos nowadays — aside from Imelda — is 24-year-old Borgy Marcos Manotoc, Imee’s son and the late strongman’s oldest grandchild, a ramp and commercial model and TV personality.

The Marcoses grace in glossy lifestyle magazines, many of whose articles do not even describe Imelda as the widow of a dictator, or refer to Ferdinand Marcos as an authoritarian ruler (he is just a “late president”). The sosyal publications cite the Marcoses’ “achievements” — such as the Hollywood actors they flew in during the ’70s and early ’80s — without mentioning the other part of this truth, that this extravagance was done at the height of an economic crisis, or praising the Film Center without mention of the fact that scores of workers died there because of the rush to finish it in time for the coming of foreign visitors.

CONSTANT REMINDER. Marker expresses the hope that never again would Chile see torture the park has seen. [photo by Johanna Son]

A saying above the list of the names of those disappeared or killed at Parque Por La Paz comes to mind: El olvidó está lleno de Memoria or “Forgetfulness is full of memories.”

It was at the Parque, which was declared a national monument in 2004, where 4,500 people were tortured and 226 detainees were executed. Apart from the wall where the names of the missing are listed, the memory of some of the desaparecidos — the disappeared — can be seen in their personal effects still kept here, and in tiny plaques with flowers left probably by relatives or friends. “A Los Caídos (To the fallen),” says a plaque from the Socialist Party of Chile, dated 1997. Another tribute to the disappeared says, “Hijos de Chile, hermanos de tragedia. Que sus vidas, su sacrificio, invadan nuestro recuerdo, nuestro amor y la Memoria História de nuestro pais (Sons of Chile, brothers in tragedy. That your lives, your sacrifice invade our memory, our love and the historical memory of our country.)”

Oval markers, done in mosaic, explain the instruments and methods of torture — where the one-meter-by-one-meter cells were, the metal beds where detainees were electrocuted, the tower where many were tortured one by one and then killed, and the area where prisoners’ bodies and hands were run over again and again by the regime’s vehicles.

Celebrations and mourning

An eerie silence reigns in the Parque Por La Paz. But it belies the anger toward Pinochet that was in full show even days before his death. Indeed, while Pinochet was still fighting for his life after he had a heart attack, the tabloid The Clinic put his smiling head on a figure of Jesus Christ in the Sacred Heart pose. “De Todo Corazón,” said the caption, “¡Juicio Final Ya! (From the bottom of our heart… the Final Judgment now!)”

Two days after Pinochet died last December 10 — Human Rights Day — some 5,000 people did go to the Escuela Militar (Military Academy) grounds to see his body (the government allowed him a funeral as a military chief instead of a state funeral). Hundreds also gathered around La Moneda — to celebrate his departure.

¡El tirano murio! ¡Allende vive! (The tyrant died! Allende lives!)” screamed the banners that day, as people gathered near the statue of Allende, on the western side of Plaza de la Constitucion, across the same La Moneda where the late president had shot himself with his own AK-47 rifle rather than be caught by the coup makers. “We don’t want revenge,” one speaker said, “but we want justice.”

The chants in the rally-cum-celebration, organized by leftists and other anti-Pinochet Chileans and victims of the former regime waving red banners and flags, soon became louder (¡Asesino! ¡Asesino!) – and certainly more frank than Philippine protest rallies. “¡Lucia, maraca, devuélvenos la plata!” (Lucia, prostitute, return to us the [stolen] money!) the crowd shouted in rhyme and unison, mocking Pinochet’s widow. Some yelled that Pinochet’s body ought to be dumped into the Mapocho River, where the bodies of people killed by the regime had been disposed of. (Other corpses had been thrown into the Pacific Ocean.) The Argentinian paper Pagina 12 quipped, “¿Que habra hecho el infierno para merecer esto (What did hell do to deserve this [having Pinochet])?”

At the wake, Francisco Cuadrados Prats, grandson of Chile’s ex-military chief, whose assassination Pinochet was accused of having masterminded, spat on the late strongman’s coffin. Gen. Carlos Prats, Pinochet’s predecessor as army commander, was assassinated in neighboring Argentina in 1974.

Yet elsewhere in Santiago that day were Pinochetistas in deep mourning. On television, one tearfully called Pinochet “my savior.” Pinochet’s 33-year-old grandson, Captain Augusto Pinochet Molina, would later cut into the funeral ceremonies to extol his grandfather as “a man who defeated Marxism, which attempted to impose its totalitarian model” and to criticize the judges who took action against Pinochet.

Pinochet Molina was subsequently discharged from military service for making the remarks. But he quickly bounced back into the public spotlight by saying he was thinking of going into politics to carry on the ideals of his grandfather’s “military government.”

Burying justice?

This “script” of family members taking on the political mantle is probably familiar to many Filipinos. But that may not have been the only thing happening in Chile that would have given Filipinos a sense of déjà vu. Many Chileans were also probably pondering over the same questions we asked after Marcos’s death: Does the death of the dictator mean justice denied? Would it make it easier to go after his underlings, his family and relatives, prompt the military to finally come clean about Chile’s dark history — or would it become easier to forget everything that happened now that the face of dictatorship is gone?

JUBILATION. Amid the watchful eye of the police nearby, demonstrators celebrate Pinochet’s death. [photo by Johanna Son]

“Well, many say it’s now time to forget and move on, but tell me, how we can we forget what this man has done?” said a former professor in his nineties, whose career had been wrecked by the witch hunts of the Pinochet regime and who, like more than a million Chileans, went into exile in the years after the 1973 coup.

Yet in the Philippines, time seems to have erased a lot of memories, even if a reminder in the form of an embalmed Ferdinand Marcos still lies inside a refrigerated crypt in his home province of Ilocos Norte. Imelda Marcos has even said she feels vindicated after her acquittal last year in yet one more case in a local anti-graft court. “I have survived 20 years of persecution,” she said in October. “The truth has prevailed.”

Chileans might well pick up some tough pointers on the accountability of dictators and their minions from the Philippine experience, too. While the Hawaii court in 1995 upheld the claim of Filipino victims of human-rights violations under the Marcos regime and awarded them $2 billion in total, not one centavo has been given out. The victims say the Marcoses’ Swiss bank deposits should be used to give them compensation under this verdict, but Philippine law specifies that recovered ill-gotten wealth have to be used for land reform.

About $658 million of the Marcoses’ supposed ill-gotten funds were found in Swiss bank accounts years ago and awarded to the Philippine government. Legal tussles continue over $25 million of those deposits that have since been parked in the Singapore branch of a German bank. The Philippine government argues that the victims should get the money from Marcos’s estate, not recovered ill-gotten wealth. Imelda Marcos, meanwhile, has repeatedly said the Philippine government has stolen her family’s money.

Many Chileans are waiting to see what the Pinochet clan — and their government — will do next. But there will probably be no apology of any kind coming from the Pinochets. Last November 25, on his 91st birthday, Augusto Pinochet’s wife Lucia read a statement he wrote. He said he took “political responsibility” for acts that occurred under his rule, but insisted that these were done in Chile’s best interests. The 1973 coup was necessary, he added. In a letter he had prepared for release after his death and published here last Christmas Eve, Pinochet said of his 1973 golpe de estado: “Quite honestly I tell you, I’m proud of the great effort that was made to prevent Marxism-Leninism from reaching total power.”

Johanna Son, a Filipino journalist based in Bangkok, is the Asia Regional Director of Inter Press Service. She used to work for the defunct Manila Chronicle.