Pinochet’s ‘firm government’

John Perry

Twenty years ago, I spent a week working in one of Santiago’s poorest barrios. It was only three years since Pinochet had left office; people guardedly expressed a mixture of relief, anger and continuing apprehension. At the end of the week I was invited to a middle-class wedding in Valparaíso. Talking to the bride’s aunt, I incautiously referred to the country's having emerged from dictatorship. She took a step backwards. ‘Dictatorship?' she said loudly. Everyone turned to look at us. 'Dictatorship? There has never been a dictatorship in this country, only firm government.'

Today, forty years after the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, the segment of society that denies Pinochet’s brutality is smaller but still powerful. They have so far managed to frustrate the desire for justice of the relatives of the 3000 or more people known to have been killed under the regime. For his 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán joined the women who spend weekends combing the Atacama Desert, looking for the remains of relatives imprisoned and tortured before they were shot. One, Vicky Saavedra, discovered her brother’s intact foot. Most search without success. The army still refuses to help identify graves or investigate crimes, although individual former soldiers have done so.

Last month, however, Chile’s judges apologised for their inaction during and after the dictatorship, when they rejected an estimated 5000 petitions submitted by victims’ relatives. Britain had an inadvertent role in helping to change the judiciary’s attitudes, through Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998. Even though he was eventually released (thanks to what Christopher Hitchens called New Labour's 'gutlessness'), the emboldened judge Juan Guzmán had him indicted soon after his return to Santiago. By the time of Pinochet’s death in 2006 more than 300 charges had been laid against him and actions against other culprits have gradually followed.

The folk singer Víctor Jara was killed in the Estadio Chile prison camp a few days after the coup. Joan Jara, in Víctor: An Unfinished Song, tells the story of her husband’s capture and death: his hands were broken before he was killed in a game of Russian roulette. Eight men were involved, several of them now awaiting trial in Chile. The one alleged to have delivered the shot to his head is Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Núñez, now a US citizen living in Deltona, Florida. Joan filed a lawsuit against him last week for crimes against humanity and torture, eight months after he was indicted by a Chilean court.

Unlike the women in the Atacama Desert, Joan Jara was able to reclaim her husband’s body shortly after his death, when he was recognised by a sympathetic morgue worker. He was reburied, with thousands in attendance, in 2009. 'Víctor is one of the well-known victims,' Joan has said. 'If we can get justice for him our hope is it will open the floodgates for all those others destroyed and disappeared in that terrible time, those whose names are known only to their loved ones.'


  • 11 September 2013 at 2:19pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I wouldn't put too much stress on the state of Victor Jara's hands before he was murdered - it seems to have been a tale that's grown in the telling. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Joan Jara broadcast earlier this week:

    AMY GOODMAN: Because he was so well known, there have been many stories about his death. Some said because he was this famous folk singer, guitarist, his hands were cut off.

    JOAN JARA: No.

    AMY GOODMAN: Others said they were smashed. How did you see—what did you see when you saw his body?

    JOAN JARA: No, I—this is not true. There was this invention of myths that I people, I suppose, thought would help. The truth was bad enough. There was no need to invent more horrors. Víctor’s hands were not cut off. When I saw his body, his hands were hanging at a strange angle. I mean, his whole body was bruised and battered with bullet wounds, but I didn’t touch his hands. It looked as though his wrists were broken.

    On the other hand, it sounds as if the killing itself was a bit more protracted and brutal than "a game of Russian roulette".

    I blogged on this today, with my favourite of all Victor Jara's songs. Another link well worth following, for anyone who hasn't seen it, is Corey Robin's exposé of Hayek's fondness for the Pinochet regime.

    • 12 September 2013 at 8:21pm
      John Perry says: @ Phil Edwards
      Phil - thanks for the comment and I enjoyed your blog. I also saw the interview you quote, where the issue about what exactly happened to Victor Jara was (I thought) a bit unclear. However, I have a friend who knew both him and Joan who quotes her (see link below) as saying his hands were smashed with rifle butts. I guess we can agree that, whatever happened, it was a terrible way to die and any short summary of such an event in a blog is unlikely to do it justice.!

  • 11 September 2013 at 2:25pm
    Stephen says:
    The response to the coup by the British establishment of the time shouldn't be forgotten. The Times leader column following Pinochet's murderous power grab declared "Whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene". The editor at the time was William Rees Mogg.

    Others in the UK; the workforce at Rosyth dockyard and Rolls Royce in East Kilbride, who refused to work repairing Chilean military equipment, and the NUM activists who took Chilean refugees into their homes for example, had a more honourable response.

  • 12 September 2013 at 12:43pm
    Julia Atkins says:
    And so did the Labour Party at its 1973 Conference. Allende's widow was given a huge ovation after she spoke and conference stood in silence to pay tribute to her husband.

  • 14 September 2013 at 8:57pm
    tommy19 says:
    Please let us not forget that the Thatcher government openly supported Pinochet. Mrs. Thatcher stated publicly, " Thank you Mr. Pinochet for bringing democracy to CHile!" SHe loved anything hard right wing; she supported Apartheid and said that Mandela was "not much better than a terrorist". I was glad to read that there were some workers in the UK who, despite Thatcher's policies, refused to work on Chilean military equipment. (Thanks for this Stephen- I used to live in the UK and was not aware of this)

  • 18 September 2013 at 2:44pm
    Stephen says:
    The Rolls Royce workers action in Boycotting the Chilean Air Force work has been noticed in Chile

    There is also a documentary about it with the classically Scottish title of "Nae Pasaran"

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