'Truth Without Justice' in Chile

Human rights lawyer Fabiola Letelier argues that Chile has assembled plenty of facts about Pinochet years, needs to move on to punishment of guilty and reparations for victims. She does not entirely share public 'optimism' about President Michelle Bachelet.

It is that easy to assassinate, and the road to truth and justice is so very hard and long.

Among recent electoral victories for left-of-center national candidates in Latin America, the case of Chile and President Michelle Bachelet stands out. Bachelet is a woman, an agnostic, a doctor, and a victim of torture by her own country following the U.S.-supported coup of Sept. 11, 1973. Imprisonment and torture under Augusto Pinochet's rule are things she holds in common with the late Orlando Letelier, a high-ranking official before the coup who, two years after his release from a political prison, was murdered by car bomb in 1976 in Washington, D.C., in an act of international terrorism.

In an April 11, 2006, lecture and discussion in Royce Hall, the Chilean human rights lawyer Fabiola Letelier, sister of Orlando, had very different purposes in mind in discussing first Bachelet and, near the end of the talk, her brother. But she made clear how both cases underscore the difficulty of achieving real justice in Chile. The event was sponsored by Proyecto VOS, Voices of Survivors, the UCLA Latin American Center, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Division of Social Sciences, and the Southern California Consortium of International Studies (SOCCIS).

"The election of Michelle Bachelet pushed our nation into an optimistic mood," Letelier explained, but added that, from an economic point of view, there was little to justify the optimism. Although Bachelet's "personality suggests sensitivity and honesty" and although she has taken the positive step of insisting on gender parity in her cabinet and other appointments, Letelier said, "Bachelet's own description of her government as one of 'continuity and change' should bring optimism back to earth."

The slogan suggests that Bachelet "will follow in the footsteps" of the three governments elected since the end of the military dictatorship by hewing to neoliberal trade policies promoted by the United States and other developed countries, Letelier said. Some observers give these policies credit for Chile's large and growing economy, but Letelier points out that the country has one of the world's most unequal distributions of income.

For Letelier, who has fought legal battles for thousands of victims of state abuses, it is a milestone that Bachelet is "the first direct victim of human rights violations to occupy the president's palace."

But even in the area of human rights, and in spite of strides made since Pinochet's defeat in a 1988 plebiscite, Letelier is concerned that victims of Pinochet's dirty war and their families have pinned too many hopes on Bachelet. In many of her remarks, Letelier displayed her disappointment with developments in Chile since the dictatorship, characterizing the last 16 years as "years of truth without justice." A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 1990, she said, has done well in assembling a picture of the violations committed under Pinochet, but what was required for reconciliation after 17 years of violations was a commission that sought justice and reparations for victims—not just the facts.

The commission documented more than 3,000 serious human rights violations in the Pinochet years and received testimony from 35,000 self-described torture victims, Letelier said.

Road From Perdition

For all of Letelier's undeniable determination, the picture of human rights work that emerged from her talk was bleak, even Sisyphean. It is easy to do harm, especially for the powerful, but terribly difficult to achieve even a modest redress for wrongs done.

Few examples are better than her brother's. Parts for the car bomb that killed Orlando Letelier and an assistant came from Chile. Cuban exiles hired by an agent of the DINA, the Chilean secret police, supplied a detonator. The bombers picked up other parts at Radio Shack and Sears, Letelier said.

"It is that easy to assassinate, and the road to truth and justice is so very hard and long," Letelier said.

In 1995, DINA chief Manuel Contreras and his second-in-command went to prison for Orlando Letelier's killing, ordered almost two decades earlier. They got a "five-star" prison built just for them, Letelier said, but it was a step forward. There have been small steps forward even in Pinochet's case, particularly his 1998 arrest and extended detention in London after a Spanish judge issued an international warrant. But Letelier and other human rights campaigners continue to press for an end to impunity for Pinochet and others living in Chile. She is also seeking the release of classified U.S. documents related to her brother's assassination.

Orlando's widow, Isabel Letelier, attended the talk, along with her son Francisco Letelier and grandson Matias, a middle school student in Venice, Calif.

Published: Wednesday, April 26, 2006