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A Pinochet trial: first step toward naming the sin

While the United States was busy chasing one elusive dictator in the desert, it was far less interested in pressing the case against another washed-up dictator already in custody.

The Clinton administration has been deafeningly silent on the matter of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, former Chilean strongman who exercised absolute rule for 17 years. Spain is seeking Pinochet’s extradition from England, where he was undergoing medical treatment and is now under house arrest. Authorities in Spain want to try him for murder, torture, hostage taking and related counts in connection with the more than 3,000 people killed or disappeared during the years he ruled Chile.

One might ask why Pinochet, and why now.

Most countries in Latin America that were formerly dictatorships have slowly turned toward democratic rule without taking legal action against former despots and military rulers however awful the bloodshed and torture they authored. The rationale seems to be that an emerging democracy needs to focus all its energy on achieving economic and political stability. Such long-suppressed and abused societies need to move toward the future and allow the past to fall away.

But there is another aspect to our coping with modern warfare and inhumane violence that cannot be ignored. Regardless of what ultimately transpires in the way of political stability and economic success, people will not lightly release themselves from the duty to maintain the historic record and ensure that the stories of official brutality are never allowed to slip below the surface of national memory.

This takes us to Pinochet’s recent misfortunes. While many, presumably the vast majority, of Chileans want to see a cruel tyrant brought to justice, it now seems they are powerless to clean the national slate for all time. The sequence of events since Pinochet’s arrest shows the government that succeeded him in Chile chooses to be complicit in his crimes by doing everything in its power to get the old dictator off the hook. The country still has a long way to go to find national peace of mind.

It is, by contrast, to Spain’s great credit that it grasped this thorny problem. That other countries seem prepared to follow suit in pursuit of Pinochet may hint at a healthy international trend and a warning to former dictators that though they may run with their bags of money they can’t hide.

Bishop Gregorio Rosá Chavez of El Salvador put both problem and ideal in perspective in an interview in 1992 after the civil war had ended in his country and a peace process was underway. The San Salvador archdiocese had initiated a “Year of Grace and Mercy,” but this was not to be cheap grace or cheap mercy. Part of the effort was to open offices where information on past human rights abuses was gathered.

The need for grace and mercy, said Chavez, was tempered by the need for justice. It was an insight owing to Catholic sacramental theology: Sins cannot be forgiven until they are identified and someone is held accountable.

So, with Pinochet, the intriguing prospect is that some manner of international trial could set in motion the machinery that might pry loose the historic record of that era, including presumably voluminous records of U.S. involvement in the region at the time.

This in turn might start a series of actions against former dictators and military bullies that would lay bare the record of those awful times.

The prospect has apparently scared Washington into silence. No one can expect to exact justice for the hundreds of thousands who were tortured and killed throughout Latin America in those decades of unchecked cruelty. But the possibility of filling out that record -- of finally naming the sin and the sinners -- could well be worth a little financial disturbance and political turmoil.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998