SANTIAGO, Chile – Survivors of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship are hoping Barack Obama's visit next month will lead to the release of more classified U.S. documents that could be critical to prosecuting the Chilean agents responsible for torturing and killing leftists decades ago.
They say the U.S. president's visit should also encourage their own government to make good on its promises to deal more forcefully with the darkest period in Chile's political history.
Of all the Latin American countries that have shaken off dictatorships, none has made greater strides than Chile in convicting those responsible for torturing and killing political opponents. The U.S. has helped by declassifying huge troves of documents revealing what it knew about the Sept. 11, 1973 coup — Chile's own 9/11 — and the bloody crackdown that lasted through the 1980s.
But more documents remain classified, and in the files made public, names were redacted, so hundreds of investigations remain stymied.
Authorities are under particular pressure from the daughters of two presidents whose deaths remain shrouded in mystery — Salvador Allende, who was said to have committed suicide as Pinochet's troops seized the presidential palace in 1973, and his predecessor Eduardo Frei Montalva, allegedly poisoned during routine hernia surgery in 1982, when he was a leading critic of the dictatorship.
"Precisely because there has been such a radical change in the politics of the United States that we believe in the human rights (policies) of President Obama, this is the moment — if he's coming to Chile he can receive the official requests and petitions," Carmen Frei, daughter of Frei Montalva, told Chile's Radio Cooperativa.
Allende's daughter, Sen. Isabel Allende, said the coup "represents an unpaid debt for the justice system, to acknowledge the numerous crimes committed that day, identify those who participated, establishing their criminal responsibilities and knowing the entire truth of that day."
Chile's Supreme Court recently ordered investigative judge Mario Carroza to probe Allende's death along with 725 others whose cases were never prosecuted. Another judge, Alejandro Madrid began probing Frei Montalva's death in 2002, and has charged six people, including doctors and former Pinochet spies, with poisoning him and covering up his death by removing his bodily fluids and organs.
While American experts did some tests on his remains, the U.S. government turned down several other requests for evidence because they lacked formal support from the executive branches of both countries, according to a Dec. 11, 2009 U.S. Embassy review recently made public through WikiLeaks.
Already in 1975, The U.S. Senate's Church Committee concluded that U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger had spent millions interfering with Chilean elections, destabilizing Allende's socialist economy and directing conspiracies with Chilean military figures to drive him from office.
More details of the historical record later came out after a campaign led by Peter Kornbluh, author of "The Pinochet File," which summarized some of the more than 25,000 U.S. documents declassified by the Clinton administration.
"The Obama administration has the opportunity to practice archival diplomacy in these investigations" by sharing uncensored versions of the documents with Chilean judges, Kornbluh told The Associated Press.
Allende's own doctor said he saw the besieged president shoot himself rather than surrender, but details remain in dispute. Judges also hope to identify those who killed Allende's allies at the palace, the first victims of the campaign of terror that followed.
Chile's truth commission determined 3,065 Pinochet opponents were killed. Most deaths were investigated, and some 600 military figures and civilian collaborators have been tried. Pinochet died without standing trial, but about 150 others have been convicted of crimes against humanity, including his feared secret police chief, Manuel Contreras, a paid CIA spy. At 81, he will probably will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Neighboring Argentina has charged more people, but returned fewer verdicts. Amnesties in Brazil and Uruguay have made it difficult to hold human rights trials there, and Paraguay lacks the political will to probe the crimes of its long dictatorship.
The U.S. ambassador to Chile, Alejandro Wolff, told the AP that human rights is on Obama's agenda and "there is every disposition to be helpful."
President Sebastian Pinera was riding high last year after overseeing the remarkable rescue of 33 miners, but his ratings have slid, and many worry he won't fully support investigations that could shake his ruling coalition, which includes factions that were closely involved with the dictatorship.
To counter doubts that Frei Montalva's death would ever be resolved, Pinera ordered his interior minister to formally join the judiciary investigation, saying "Once and for all, the circumstances and those responsible should be made clear and those who have responsibility should assume the consequences." But his Interior Ministry still hasn't joined the probe of Allende and the other 725 murders, activists complained last week.
Pinera's center-right government, the first since Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship ended, also recently transferred or fired veteran police investigators and human rights lawyers, including those gathering evidence in the deaths of Frei Montalva and folk singer Victor Jara. The ministry then declined to pursue arrest warrants for four suspects in the killing of Jara, who was among hundreds tortured and killed in a Santiago stadium during the coup.
Lorena Pizarro, president of the Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared, told the AP that if Pinera is serious about upholding human rights, he should ask Obama for all the CIA files.
Ordered by Congress again to report on its activities in Chile, the CIA said in 2000 that it had no information U.S. agents were involved in Allende's death, but acknowledged that coup plotters had been encouraged by U.S. hostility and previous CIA efforts to oust Allende. The agency also said that despite Kissinger's public warnings to respect human rights, the CIA kept close ties to Chileans they knew were committing abuses, paying some for information even as they committed torture and other crimes.
"There is no doubt that some CIA contacts were actively engaged in committing and covering up serious human rights abuses," the resulting congressional "Hinchey Report" determined.
Many of these Chilean military, police and intelligence figures have never been identified, "but that doesn't mean they couldn't be," Kornbluh said.
The leaked 2009 cable said "The Embassy is not aware of any direct evidence indicating foul play" in Frei Montalva's death but acknowledged that Pinochet's agents were "known to have secretly operated laboratories dedicated to developing chemical and biological agents to be used in targeting political enemies."
Juan Pablo Hermosilla, the Frei family's lawyer, told the AP that Madrid's still-secret case summary has concluded that Chile's secret police obtained a deadly botulism toxin through a circuitous route from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and used it to kill two other political prisoners whose deaths are now part of the Frei Montalva case.
"The help of the U.S. government could be very important," Hermosilla said. "It doesn't seem credible, this argument that there's no evidence in the U.S. that can help this investigation."
Michael Warren reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Chile Declassification Project: http://foia.state.gov/SearchColls/CIA.asp
Hinchey Report: http://foia.state.gov/Reports/HincheyReport.asp
National Security Archive: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/