El “No”

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s film about Pinochet’s one-man presidential election..

It won the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and last week Sony Pictures Classics announced it would distribute it in North America. Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “No” stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an advertising executive working on the campaign to defeat General Augusto Pinochet in his one man presidential plebiscite in 1988. The New York Times described it as an “aesthetically daring, intellectually invigorating work.” The Internet Movie Data Base post on the film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2059255/

Some history: On October 5, 1988 Chilean voters were asked to cast ballots marked either “si” or “no” to extend Pinochet’s presidency for another eight years. It was the third time the regime had held a plebiscite, with the first held in 1978 to support Pinochet following a United Nations resolution condemning human rights violations in Chile, and the second in 1980 to approve a new, authoritarian constitution and to extend Pinochet’s rule for another eight years.  These plebiscites, held without voter registries, inevitably showed a majority of “yes” votes.

But this referendum would be different.  In accordance with the regime’s own constitution, an electoral registry was opened and as a small concession, fifteen minutes of television air time was granted to the opposition each night over the thirty-day run up to the vote. The Comando del No, a coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists and other regime opponents, put together one of the cleverest political campaigns ever, with an unrelentingly upbeat message promising a bright future for Chile.  The broadcasts usually opened with the following theme

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moKI_NTqSg0 and also showed an anonymous voter marking the “no” box of a paper ballot. The last broadcast included messages from Chilean and foreign celebrities, including novelist Isabel Allende, Jane Fonda and the late Christopher Reeve.

Foreigners with at least five years’ residency in the country were also allowed to vote in the plebiscite, and this blogger duly registered and cast a ballot at a polling site held at a girls’ school in eastern Santiago.  That night, after covering the celebratory cheers at the Comando del No headquarters, I caught a cab whose driver I strongly suspect was working for the regime’s intelligence service.  He was young, had a military-style haircut and told me he was “one of those who lost tonight.” I asked him if his route had taken him around much of Santiago that evening, and whether the streets were calm.  He conceded they were.




Bolaño unbound

Is Roberto Bolaño, Chile’s acclaimed novelist, really dead?  The online literary magazine The Millions has an essay http://www.themillions.com/2012/05/bolanos-last-great-secret.html on the writer which makes you wonder. Bolaño is said to have passed away in 2003, and since then the New Yorker has published nine of his short stories and his English language publisher, New Directions http://ndbooks.com/author/roberto-bolano, has published fifteen volumes of his fiction, essays and poetry.  His literary executors keep unearthing more of his work, with The Secret of Evil, a collection of stories-which-read-like-essays and essays-which-read-like-fiction, appearing earlier this year.

In the prologue Bolaño’s executor writes that there are “multiple indications that Bolaño was working on this file in the months immediately preceding his death.” There have also been multiple accounts of the cause of the writer’s death: liver failure, heroin use and the stress of finishing his 900-page novel, 2666.  But his widow (or estranged wife) told the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/books/28bola.html?_r=1 that he had never used heroin while several other friends and acquaintances interviewed in the same article said Bolaño had not been in Chile during the 1973 military coup, which would make his account of being arrested, narrowly avoiding torture and escaping thanks to two guards who just happened to be friends from high school an elaborate fiction.

Which should take nothing from the enjoyment of his work and the hallucinatory world beckoning the reader.  Here’s a passage from The Secret of Evil:

They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it. The table is a table that is large enough to seat the above-mentioned individuals and it’s in a café. Or appears to be. Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.


Transparency in Chile

Transparency International ranks Chile as the least corrupt country in Latin America, with a rating of 7.2 out of a possible 10 points on last year’s corruption perception index (http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2011/results/).  While this puts it ahead of the United States, which ranked 7.0, and several European countries, most Chileans feel their country could do much better. The Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente’s transparency project is the subject of an article on the web site Techpresident, which recounts how the nonprofit group has prompted Chilean politicians to reveal their financial interests. Author David Eaves writes that

In theory, Chilean law requires that politicians both disclose their corporate interests and abstain from voting on issues related to those interests (as well as those of their family members, up to three levels of affinity). In practice however, that law has not been taken too seriously. Indeed, not only do many politicians fail to disclose companies in which they or their family have interests, those that do often scribble them on the backs of pieces of paper. Scraps of illegible paper hardly comprise a system that creates confidence. This is where the Inspector de Intereses project comes into play. It documents the corporate interests of Chile’s national politicians with the goal of exposing (or preventing) conflicts of interest when votes related to those corporations, such as legislation on mining or agriculture, take place.”

To read more: http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/22198/culture-hacking-how-one-project-changing-transparency-chile

Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente’s web site: http://ciudadanointeligente.cl/

The never ending Colonia Dignidad horror show

It will probably take months, or even years, but justice may finally catch up with Dr. Hartmutt Hopp, a leader of the secretive sect Colonia Dignidad, who one year ago smuggled himself out of Chile and turned up in Germany (see earlier post:https://notesontheamericas.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/once-more-colonia-dignidad/).

Chilean judicial authorities, who had convicted Hopp of child sex abuse and placed him under house arrest while they carried out another investigation into his and other colony leaders’ activities, filed an extradition request, which Germany did not accept.

But now a group of 120 former residents of the colony, also living in Germany, have brought a law suit against Hopp as well as the German and Chilean governments, which they say failed to protect them despite repeated warnings about what was going on at the settlement.  They are backed by a German human rights group, and as German law requires that crimes against children must be prosecuted within 10 years of victims reaching the age of 18, the charges against Hopp have been pared down to abuses against 25 children at Colonia Dignidad between 1993 and 1997.

During that period Chile had a democratically elected government, but it would be years before authorities were able to muster enough legal and police resources to force its closure. In the meantime, Colonia Dignidad’s leadership seemed to operate with impunity, and witnesses reported small aircraft landing at the property in southern Chile without passing through any customs or immigration controls.

Reuters has this story on the German lawsuit: http://news.yahoo.com/insight-german-sect-victims-seek-escape-chilean-nightmare-120321764.html

Rogues’ Gallery

Outside the Punta Peuco prison, built to hold the Pinochet regime’s human rights abusers.

The Punta Peuco prison lies on the outskirts of Santiago and is not your typical Latin American jail. When it opened its doors in 1995 it held just one inmate: former army colonel Pedro Espinoza, one of three Pinochet regime officials the United States wanted extradited for the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. The prison was built specifically to hold human rights offenders, and at present there are 49 inmates serving sentences there. Some high profile prisoners, such as former secret police director Manuel Contreras and former agent Miguel Krassnoff, have been moved to a separate facility, the Penal Cordillera, which is run by the Chilean army.

The Centro de Investigacion Periodistica, CIPER (www.ciper.cl) recently published a four-part series on the Punta Peuco prison’s inmates. The first article  http://ciperchile.cl/2012/04/18/punta-peuco-i-la-fallida-operacion-de-inteligencia-de-alvaro-corbalan/  reported on the extraordinary activities of Alvaro Corbalán, former operations chief of the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI), the Pinochet regime’s secret police.  He is serving a life sentence for the 1983 murder of a carpenter, whose body was then arranged to look like a suicide, with a forged note claiming he was the killer of a trade unionist murdered the previous year. Other crimes include the murder of a young leftist in 1985 and the killing of a Chilean journalist in wake of an assassination attempt against Pinochet in 1986.

Corbalán is perhaps best known for organizing a political party, the Avanzada Nacional, to campaign for Pinochet’s re-election in a one-man presidential plebiscite in 1988. But  incarceration has not diminished his interest in political intrigue.  Guards at the prison confiscated a 10-page memorandum he was writing to Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, offering to collaborate with his government and help prevent a future electoral victory by the center-left coalition which narrowly lost the 2009 presidential election. He suggested posting a certain sympathetic prison guard in the Chilean Interior Ministry, who could then act as liaison for any future operations.   Corbalán also indicated a certain rightwing member of the Chilean Senate might act as a courier for further communications.

The reaction to this first CIPER report was understandable outrage.  The Chilean Congress’s human rights commission announced it would call Corbalán’s prison sympathizers to a hearing, while President Piñera made a point of visiting Santiago’s Museo de la Memoria http://www.museodelamemoria.cl/, a historical museum documenting crimes committed during the Pinochet years.

The second article http://ciperchile.cl/2012/04/19/punta-peuco-ii-los-cachureos-del-guaton-romo/ recounts the double life of Osvaldo Romo, a one-time militant leftist who joined the regime’s security forces shortly after the 1973 coup. The exact circumstances are a little murky, but it appears that Romo switched sides voluntarily and became one of the most notorious human rights violators of that period, often arranging the arrests and torture of former colleagues.  Romo later fled to Brazil, but was extradited in 1992 and died at the Punto Peuco prison in 2007.

The third article http://ciperchile.cl/2012/04/24/punta-peuco-iii-el-otro-muro-que-divide-a-militares-y-carabineros/ details the divisions between ex-army officers and officials from Chile’s carabinero police within the prison, and comments from one of the few former regime security agents who has publicly acknowledged wrongdoing.

The final article http://ciperchile.cl/2012/05/02/punta-peuco-iv-las-historias-no-contadas-de-familiares-y-presos/ describes how families of the prisoners cope, with many insisting their husbands and fathers are political prisoners who committed no crimes and others bearing a burden of shame.