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|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
Some members of the local Chilean community are finding unity in their hope that General Augusto Pinochet lives a long life. Long enough, at least, for the 83-year-old former dictator to endure a lengthy trial and finish his days behind bars — as did many who opposed him.
Pinochet has spent nearly five months under house arrest in England as the British House of Lords prepares its final decision — expected this month — on whether he enjoys diplomatic immunity and is free to return to Chile, or whether they will begin a hearing to extradite him to a Spanish court. He faces prosecution there for his role in the deaths of scores of Spaniards among the thousands killed in Chile following the brutal coup Pinochet led in 1973.
But even now, as the fate of the former dictator hangs in the balance, the son of one of the Pinochet regime’s highest-profile victims is finding some satisfaction.
"Every day that goes by that Augusto Pinochet remains in England uncertain of his fate and his future is a good day for Chile and Chileans around the world," says Francisco Letelier, the son of a former Chilean foreign minister and ambassador to Washington who was murdered there in 1976 under orders from the head of Pinochet’s secret police.
Letelier was 17 when he was told his father, Orlando Letelier, had been blown apart by a car bomb about a mile from the White House. Francisco moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s and began work with a group of muralists who focused on cultural and political themes in line with long-standing Chilean tradition.
Regarding members of the Chilean diaspora in Los Angeles, the younger Letelier, now 39, says the community has been brought back together by Pinochet’s arrest. "We were given a little gift," he says. "Even this measure of justice was a very healing thing. It gives us something other than anger to express."
There is, of course, ample reason for that anger. Estimates vary widely on how many were killed under Pinochet. The Chilean military puts the toll at about 3,000, while others estimate more than 10,000 — many of whom were executed in supposed shootouts and "criminal sweeps" by security forces. Disappearances and torture were commonplace.
"It is a crazy thing to compare numbers, because the loss of one human life is enough, [but] it seems people pay attention to numbers," says Letelier. The killing of his father — a renowned critic of the overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende — and his American colleague Ronni Moffitt lies at the heart of arguments that the U.S. should take a leading role in pushing for Pinochet’s prosecution abroad, or even at home.
"The U.S. has a good case because they have the assassination of Letelier here in Washington," says longtime Allende supporter Jose Quiroga, a leader in L.A.’s Chilean-American community. "They have information. They could request to have him judged here if they wanted."
Yet while U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said earlier this year that the government was looking into reopening the case, officials have since emphasized the British court’s autonomy. Quiroga says the government’s reluctance stems from America’s secret backing of Pinochet’s coup.
"If he goes to trial, the defense of Pinochet is going to unveil some of this," says Quiroga, who fled Chile in the late 1970s and has spent more than a decade documenting torture cases among immigrants from all over the world. "The thing that has never been published is the extent of involvement of the U.S. in Chile. We know a lot of things, but not everything."
Recently declassified documents republished in Spain’s El Paisdetail some such links, including a June 8, 1976, meeting between Henry Kissinger and Pinochet in which the former secretary of state expressed support for the coup, ostensibly as part of the battle against communism.
Quiroga argues that there must be consequences for those who commit grave crimes if U.S. government lip service about international human rights is to be taken seriously.
"[Pinochet] needs punishment," says Quiroga. "He didn’t show any remorse, no repentance or anything. The most important thing — this is important for Pinochet, but internationally also — is that people who commit crimes against humanity be judged."