Latin American Report


Introduction to Pinochet

Regional : Politics : X Military : X
Environment : Rights : X Education :
NZ Links : Aid/Relief : Economics :
Indigenous : Health :

14 March 1999

Carlos Fuentes on a "Victim of Pinochet"

By Carlos Fuentes
[translator's notes in brackets]

I remember a showing back in the late 50s of the great Alain Resnais film Night and Fog, about the Nazi extermination camps. I went with my dear friend filmmaker Luis Buquel. At the end of the movie when the lights came on, we all remained in our seats, silent and rigid. Resnais had shown us the real face of hell, the hell invented by a mad tyrant. Hitler is the only case of a despot whose philosophy openly espoused one aim: Evil. He never deceived anyone. It's all there in his book, Mein Kampf.

Bunuel reacted with an anger directed first at himself. Shaken, moved by the terrible evidence of the Holocaust, he told me that the spectacle of massive death, graves full of naked corpses, skeletal and anonymous, made him shudder. But he feared that the very immensity of the numbers -- six million Jews murdered by the Third Reich -- would, in time, become a mere abstract event, a pain only of numbers. Therefore it was important to know actual history, the personal history of just one victim who would give voice and identity to the untold numbers of those sacrificed.

From there, the symbolic importance of the figure of Anne Frank as a victim of Nazi crimes. From there, the force with which William Styron's imagination brought to life the horror of Auschwitz in the figure of his protagonist, Sophie, the Polish mother forced by a Nazi commandant to choose only one of her children to live if she wanted to keep both of them from being killed [in his novel, Sophie's Choice]. Styron, in so doing, reminded us that among the victims of Nazi horror were not only Jews but Catholics, communists, homosexuals, and gypsies.

I have thought about this inevitable relationship between the number of victims and their incarnation in one individual now that the House of Lords is returning to judge the fate of the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Some 4000 deaths, disappearances, tortures, and arbitrary imprisonments are attributed to him. At least half of all Chileans know the name of a victim close to them.

Pinochet's terror was no abstraction. I want to remember a man of outstanding intellect, political ability, and sensitivity, whose sacrifice not only incarnates the guilt of Pinochet, the tyrant within Chilean borders, but the international guilt of those who brought him to power: President Richard Nixon and his cronies in the US government in 1973. I got to know Orlando Letelier in Washington in 1975, thanks to Radomiro Tomic, my friend and colleague at the Smithsonian Institution. Tomic had been the Christian Democratic candidate against Salvador Allende and Unidad Popular [left-leaning coalition led by Allende] in 1972. Both the Christian Democrat Tomic and the Socialist Letelier represented that pluralistic continuity of Chilean democracy that had been an example for all of Latin America. Both represented the hope that Chile, sooner or later, would recover this democratic tradition.

Orlando Letelier was a cultured, elegant man, of extraordinary attractiveness and a refinement both physical and intellectual. His socialism was part of his active conviction, without any inconsistency with his family background. He had been minister of foreign affairs in the Allende government and, later, minister of defense. As such, he got to know Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the head of the Army named by President Allende for carrying out the duty, among others, of protecting Chile's republican institutions and everything the Chilean public had voted for.

To a Mexican, the Pinochet case calls to mind that of General Victoriano Huerta, military commander of Mexico City in 1913 appointed by president Francisco Madero, whom Huerta double-crossed and ordered assassinated, putting himself in power. The Judas parable is universal and recurrent. Letelier remembers a Pinochet obsequious to the point of being prostrate with servility, always quick to put on Minister Letelier's coat for him, offering to hold his briefcase in the corridor.

  "Pinochet," Letelier told us that night, "reminded me of a hairdresser's assistant, always ready to brush a collar [cepillar: a pun; means both "to brush" and "to butter/suck up"], with his head leaning into and his hand stretched out to a generous client."

The general, insinuating himself [insinuante; also means "crafty"], made friends with every member of the Allende cabinet. He got invited to their dinners, he tousled the little Marxist heads of their children, and together with his wife, wanted to be admitted to the inner circle and treated as a close friend of the same people who he would later order jailed, tortured, and killed. The anticommunism and patriotism which the tyrant brags about today were only camouflage for something more universal and profound: Pinochet came to power driven by resentment, his servile nature, and the sadistic enjoyment of getting revenge on those who were, in every sense, superior to him.

Twenty-four hours before the coup, Letelier told us, he received a message from the Ministry of Defense from his subordinate General Pinochet, who repeated to the point of being tiresome his loyalty to president Allende and his unshakable decision to defend the legitimately elected government of Chile against any right-wing putsch -- which he reviled as a treason to his country, his rank, and his army.

The night of the coup, Orlando Letelier went to his office at the ministry, where a group of soldiers attacked him [lo golpen, pun; golpear also means "to seize control in a coup"] with kicks and blows. From there he was dragged to the basement of the building, attacked again, and finally taken to the headquarters of the Tacna regiment, where he was imprisoned in a lightless cell, but from where he could hear the orders for successive shootings on the patio. For the rest of the day the guards, on several occasioned, knocked on Letelier's door and yelled, "You're next!" Finally they came in, blindfolded him, and flew him to Dawson Island, where the military junta had improvised a concentration camp. Letelier spent a year there.

"They tried to break us," Letelier told us, "but one wound up taking it, taking everything. One makes a mental effort to accept torture. The first time they tell you you're going to be shot at dawn, you feel afraid. Later you figure out that the only want to scare you, and you beat them at their own game. They start to fear you because you do not fear them. They set up simulated executions, like in The House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky [1861-62; based on his four years of hard-labor imprisonment in Siberia]. You end up marching serenely to the tune of these parodies. In a way they invent a new way of torturing you. They force you to help them in the real shootings of your friends and comrades. You watch them fall with an immense love, and with just as great a rage and impotence. You know that they have killed them with impunity because they were anonymous beings. And you know they won't shoot you because you aren't anonymous. But they think they can kill you by making you watch your friends die. They almost succeeded."

But they didn't. After a year in the concentration camps, Letelier was expelled from Chile. Maybe Pinochet thought he had broken the man who he admired and hated equally, having held his briefcase and brushed his lapels. But Pinochet hadn't counted on the strength of Letelier. Or maybe he figured that, if his old boss were dead in prison, the crime would be directly attributable to the dictatorship -- but, assassinated abroad (a technique Pinochet applied to General Carlos Prats, killed in Buenos Aires, and to the Christian Democratic leader Bernardo Leighton, shot in Rome), the opponent could be seen as the victim of someone other than the dictator himself. And Pinochet succeeded in doing exactly that, incredibly, when in September 1976 Orlando Letelier was assassinated right in the middle of Washington DC, and the New York Times had the nerve to say that it was the result of internecine fighting within Unidad Popular (just like the slaughter in Chiapas was attributed to local feuds). According to the sacrosanct Times, the arm of Pinochet was not long enough to reach the heart of the US capital.

On Sept. 21, 1976, Letelier started his car in Sheridan Square. He was accompanied by a young married American couple, Ronni and Michael Moffit, both 25 years old. When the car exploded, Letelier's legs flew far from his body, imprisoned in the car. Ronni Moffit died instantly. Her husband survived.

But if Pinochet thought it was better to kill Letelier in Washington because in Dawson the direct blame would be on the dictatorship whereas in Washington he could blame exiles, he shot himself in the arse. The assassin, Michael V. Townley, confessed his crime and the full, open complicity of the Chilean authorities, the Chilean Intelligence agency and its director, Manuel Contreras -- directly responsible to their boss Augusto Pinochet.

The Chilean dictatorship made the mistake of killing a political opponent in North American territory, with North American victims. Apart from the decision that the House of Lords will soon announce in London, the crimes of Pinochet should open the files and judicial processes of the United States. Approved by Jeane Kirkpatrick, condemned by Madeleine Albright, the US policy toward Chile brings to light sins and complicities that could gravely incriminate President Richard Nixon.

Whatever may be the result of the actions of Judge Baltasar Garzon and the British tribunal, Augusto Pinochet has an account to settle with US justice. The individual case of Orlando Letelier does not only exemplify each and every one of the terrible fates that Pinochet imposed on his victims, but the reality that it will open, with renewed hope, relations between men, nations, and justice in the next century. Human rights are universal. And there is no statute of limitations for crimes against human rights. Against this powerful reality, Latin American governments that have renounced their most important [soberanos, a pun; also means "sovereign"] rights can ill afford to invoke sovereignty.

Carlos Fuentes is a Mexican writer. [Best-known works: The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962; Our Land, 1975; The Hydra Head, 1978; Distant Relations, 1980; The Buried Mirror, 1992.] Unauthorized translation ) Lisa Grayson, 1999