“The most dangerous man in Chile”

Manuel Contreras with General Augusto Pinochet

Manuel Contreras with General Augusto Pinochet

He was the terrifying fist in the dictator’s glove, but even the dictator was afraid of him. Manuel Contreras, the Chilean army officer whose secret police agency, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), brought a new level of fear and terror to Chileans at home and abroad. died in Santiago’s Hospital Militar,  the same facility where General Augusto Pinochet died in 2006.

It was just a few months after the 1973 military coup that ousted President Salvador Allende, a socialist, when Contreras appeared at a meeting of Chile’s military commanders, cabinet and the intelligence directors of the army, air force, navy and national police, the carabineros. Pinochet announced that then-Colonel Contreras would be heading a new security agency, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA). Some of the officers expressed misgivings—the country was already under tight control, a state of siege was in effect and political prisoners were being rounded up and in many cases executed, so why the need for even more security services? The carabinero intelligence director, General German Campos, thought the new agency sounded like “a bunch of vulgar bodyguards” reminiscent of Salvador Allende’s Cuban-trained security detail.

Contreras’ DINA, which reported exclusively to Pinochet, proved to be much more than a group of bodyguards and would enable Pinochet to maneuver his way from one of four junta members to Supreme Leader of the Nation. Drawing officials from all the branches of the military, plus right-wing civilians, the new security agency expanded its tentacles, organizing secret detention centers throughout Chile. Every government ministry had its DINA informants; former junta member and air force commander General Gustavo Leigh told this blogger that he was surprised to discover a DINA agent working in his department. The junta’s press secretary once found that DINA agents had broken into his office and stolen press credentials, in order to disguise themselves as journalists. Contreras ingratiated himself with Pinochet’s wife Lucia, and obliged when she asked him to tap the phones of other military wives.

His most ambitious project was Operation Condor, a joint security program with the military regimes of Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia to monitor and eliminate leftists and any former officials who might prove troublesome. Chileans who had fled their country and found refuge in Argentina were arrested and made to disappear. María Cecilia Magnet was kidnapped, along with her Argentine husband, Guillermo Tamburini, at their home on July 16, 1976.  Luis Elgueta was arrested 11 days later with his wife and sister-in-law. None were ever seen again.

Cecilia Magnet and Guillermo Tamburini, who disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 and were never seen again.

Cecilia Magnet and Guillermo Tamburini, who disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 and were never seen again.

General Carlos Prats, Pinochet’s former army commander, was killed with his wife in a car bomb explosion in Buenos Aires in 1974. Two years later former defence minister Orlando Letelier and his American co-worker were killed by another car bomb in Washington, D.C., sparking an FBI investigation leading to a U.S. extradition request for Contreras and two other DINA officials. Pinochet refused the extradition request, and reorganized the DINA into a supposedly more benign agency, the Central Nacional de Informacion (CNI). Pressure from Washington continued, and Contreras was finally removed, though not before Pinochet promoted him from colonel to general. A series of suspicious bombings rocked Santiago, which the carabinero police investigated and found to be the work of Contreras’ agents.

As civilian Contreras formed a private security agency headquartered in downtown Santiago, and many suspected he continued to do jobs for the Pinochet regime. He was also on the board of a private company, Telefonica Manquehue, which received an exclusive contract to provide phone coverage in one of Santiago’s expanding eastern neighborhoods. (This blogger lived for a time in this area—and the service was terrible.) But change was coming to Chile, and in 1988 Pinochet lost a one-man presidential plebiscite and would be forced to hand over the government to an elected civilian.

Contreras was understandably nervous. According to a declassified U.S. State Department cable, in February 1989 Contreras sent an intermediary to the American Embassy with a strange message. He claimed to have had four separate meetings with “gringos” in which it was agreed that neither government would reveal any information damaging to Contreras, Pinochet or U.S. officials. The U.S. had broken this agreement with recent initiatives on the Letelier case, and if a new understanding was not reached, Contreras was prepared to take unspecified actions against the U.S. He was prepared to give a sworn statement in Chile on the Letelier assassination, provided that he and U.S. officials could agree on an “appropriate story,” such as stating that Letelier had been a pro-Castro Cuban agent killed by Cuban exiles. As if to show he could still provide useful information, Contreras indicated that one of his agents had been involved in drug trafficking with one of Pinochet’s sons. The cable, written by deputy chief of mission George Jones described Contreras as “the most dangerous man in Chile” and that the possibility of “a Contreras-initiated terrorist act” could not be excluded. A handwritten note attached to the cable suggests ways to drive a wedge between Contreras and Pinochet:

I would be rightly surprised if any USG {US government] person made any such deal with this piece of dogshit—we should talk with (deleted) how this could be used to further pressure Contreras—the best defence may be an offense, e.g., telling the For Min [Foreign Ministry] that this guy is threatening us and that we will hold the GOC [Government of Chile] responsible if any of this is carried out—might signal in our way that Contreras is obviously willing to make up stories about everybody to blackmail them into protecting him (i.e., that we realize Pinochet et al are in the same boat) and imply that it would behoove Pinochet to go ahead and cut this guy loose.”

Pinochet did eventually cut Contreras loose, but it would take years and the new civilian governments were wary of provoking a rebellion by the Chilean army, which Pinochet still controlled. Chile’s Supreme Court, which had rejected the U.S. extradition request, reopened the Letelier case in 1991. Four years later Contreras was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the double murder, and it would take several months of negotiations with his lawyers and family before Chilean officials could finally take him into custody. He was sent to the Punta Peuco prison north of Santiago, specially built to hold human rights violators. More investigations by Chilean prosecutors followed, and at the time of his death Contreras was serving combined jail sentences of over 500 years.

A Chile news summary

The BBC Spanish language network, noting the 15-year anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s detention in London, asks what real effects his arrest had.  According to Amnesty International, the case gave a boost to the principle of universal jurisdiction in human rights cases: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/noticias/2013/10/131015_chile_pinochet_arresto_vs.shtml

Bloomberg reports that a Pinochet-era business and investment system is being abused by very wealthy Chileans to avoid paying taxes, with only 0.3 percent of taxpayers paying the top rate: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-16/pinochet-era-investment-lure-at-risk-in-chile-election-taxes.html

The Financial Times reports on Chile’s presidential race, where former president Michelle Bachelet leads a field of nine candidates with 44 percent and her opponent Evelyn Matthei with only 12 percent. But the election is likely to go into a second round, as Bachelet seems unlikely to win a clear majority in next month’s voting. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/17c47e14-3266-11e3-91d2-00144feab7de.html#axzz2hvN2YX9M

The Heritage Foundation has an admiring article on Chile’s economic development over the past 25 years: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/10/chiles-path-to-development-key-reforms-to-become-the-first-developed-country-in-latin-america

The Christian Science Monitor reports on President Sebastian Pinera’s visit to the San Jose mine on the third anniversary of the miners’ rescue, an event which marked the high point of his administration. He attended the opening of a museum at the site, attended by 13 of the 33 miners and said the rescue changed the meaning of the “Chilean way.”

“Before, the Chilean way meant something half-baked and improvised. It transformed into doing something with faith, unity, and hope,” he said.

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2013/1015/Chile-mine-rescue-3-years-later-Pinera-tries-to-recapture-the-political-magic.

The triumph of “el No”

The logo of a successful campaign to defeat Pinochet in his one-man presidential plebiscite.

The logo of a successful campaign to defeat Pinochet in his one-man presidential plebiscite.

It was 25 years ago today that Chileans (and foreigners with at least five years’ legal residence in the country, including this blogger) went to the polls to cast ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes in a one-man presidential referendum to extend General Augusto Pinochet’s rule for eight more years. The actual balloting was clean, but the regime delayed releasing the results, announcing very partial returns that suggested Pinochet was ahead. At midnight Chile’s air force commander decided to “pull out the detonators,” as he put it, and told a group of reporters that the ‘no’ vote had won.

Here is a link to a short BBC’s Spanish language interview with former air force commander and junta member Fernando Matthei recalling that moment: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/noticias/2013/10/130930_video_chile_plebiscito_aniversario_matthei_pea.shtml

In Bangkok, where he just signed a free trade agreement between Chile and Thailand, President Sebastián Piñera said that October 5, 1988 was “a great day for Chile and a great day for our democracy.”http://noticias.terra.cl/nacional/politica/pinera-y-el-triunfo-del-no-fue-una-decision-sabia,d248fcf032881410VgnCLD2000000ec6eb0aRCRD.html

And Chile’s national television channel is preparing a miniseries based on Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated film No, about the campaign to defeat Pinochet, to be aired next year: http://entretenimiento.terra.cl/television/serie-sobre-la-pelicula-no-llegara-el-2014-a-tvn,b415fd6320481410VgnVCM10000098cceb0aRCRD.html

 

The Air Force Generals’ Daughters

Michelle Bachelet, left and Evelyn Matthei are the candidates in this year's presidential election in Chile

Michelle Bachelet, left and Evelyn Matthei are the candidates in this year’s presidential election in Chile

Michelle Bachelet, whose presidency ended in 2010, left office with an extraordinary approval rating of 84 percent, and although Chile’s constitution prohibits a consecutive second term, former presidents are allowed to run again for later terms in office. Last month her center-left political coalition held a primary to pick its candidate, and she won 73 percent of the vote. No surprise there.

Chile’s rightwing coaltion, the Alianza por el Cambio, also held a primary, won by Pablo Longueira. Then, bizarrely, he withdrew from the campaign on health grounds. A spokesman said he was suffering from clinical depression. Longueira is an ultra-conservative leader of the Union Democratica Independiente (UDI) who in his younger days helped organize rock-throwing demonstrations against Senator Edward Kennedy during his visit to Santiago in 1986. CNN-Chile has this report on the incident: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUkfsbPavMY

After some frantic conferring, the Alianza is now backing another UDI politician, former labor minister Evelyn Matthei. The Buenos Aires Herald has this good column on Chile’s political right by Patricio Navia: http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/136716/crisis-mode-in-the-chilean-right-wing

Matthei, an economist, is the daughter of a former air force commander and junta member under the Pinochet regime, and the relationship with Bachelet’s family is a fascinating story in itself. General Fernando Matthei and General Alberto Bachelet were air force officers with a friendship that went back decades. At the time of the 1973 military coup Matthei was air force attaché at the Chilean Embassy in London, while Bachelet had been appointed by President Salvador Allende, a socialist, to direct a food distribution program. Bachelet refused to go along with the coup, was arrested, tortured and died in prison in March 1974 (see earlier post https://notesontheamericas.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/justice-for-an-air-force-general-2/). Michelle Bachelet and her mother were later arrested and taken to the regime’s infamous Villa Grimaldi detention center, then released after a few harrowing weeks and went into exile in East Germany.

Matthei returned to Chile a few months after the coup and in 1978  joined the junta as air force commander when his predecessor was forced out of office after repeatedly clashing with Pinochet over economic policy and a timetable for a return to elected civilian government. Bachelet’s mother contacted this old family friend to inquire whether they could safely return to Chile, and they arrived back in early 1979.

During his years as a junta member Matthei discretely removed Chilean air force personnel from the regime’s murderous security forces, and according to the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation Report on abuses during this period, no air force officials were involved in human rights violations while he was air force commander: http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/resources/collections/truth_commissions/Chile90-Report/Chile90-Report.pdf

General Matthei’s most notable action came during the 1988 plebiscite, in which voters were asked to cast yes or no ballots to extend Pinochet’s presidency for another eight years. The regime delayed releasing the vote count, announcing partial results suggesting Pinochet was ahead. When Matthei and other military commanders were called to a meeting at the presidential palace that night, he approached a group of journalists to say the “no” vote had won, earning him the gratitude of Chile’s democrats and the eternal opprobrium of Pinochet and his supporters. When Michelle Bachelet became president in 2006, he told reporters of his friendship with her father and remembered her as a “little girl, playing in the sand.” She has been heard to address him as “Uncle Fernando.”

So what is Evelyn Matthei like?  In the early 90s she won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, becoming the first legislator in Chilean history to have a baby while in office. She later became a senator, then labor minister under President Sebastián Piñera, and aggressively pursued Chilean employers who exploited undocumented migrant workers from other countries.  When a group of Paraguayan laborers were discovered working in slave-like conditions on an agricultural estate in southern Chile, she brought charges against the landowner and met with the Paraguayan ambassador to apologize for the way citizens of his country had been treated. Her manner is sometimes blunt, and a diplomat in Santiago described Matthei to me as “a tough one.” Despite Bachelet’s huge lead in the polls, Matthei has said the election is winnable, and the two air force generals’ daughters should have an interesting debate indeed.

Over on Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, a great piece by the Caracas Chronicles’ Juan Nagel on how both Piñera and Bachelet snubbed Venezuelan opposition leader Hernan Capriles during his recent visit to Santiago:

http://transitions.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/07/24/chile_throws_venezuelas_capriles_under_the_bus

Chile and Chávez

Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president, with Chile's Sebastian Pinera at a summit in Caracas two years ago

Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president, with Chile’s Sebastian Pinera at a summit in Caracas two years ago.

Chile has declared three days of mourning and President Sebastián Piñera will fly to Caracas this Friday for the funeral of Hugo Chávez.  Piñera said that while he had his disagreements with Chávez, he admired the Venezuelan leader’s “courage and valor.”  One can only speculate what the conservative entrepreneur and flamboyant leftist really thought of each other, but somehow the two managed to keep bilateral relations on an even keel.

It didn’t start out that way. After winning the presidential run-off vote early in 2010 Piñera told foreign correspondents in Santiago that he had deep differences with the way public issues were handled in Venezuela.

“These differences are profound and have to do with the way democracy is conceived and implemented, the way the model of economic development is carried out, and many more,” he said. Chávez reacted by saying, in essence, that Piñera’s comments were what one might expect from a wealthy businessman.  “I think he is one of the richest in Chile and among the richest in the hemisphere,” he said. “We do not get involved in Chilean matters, so they should mind their own business.”

Chile’s rightwing Union Democratica Independiente (UDI), which forms part of the Piñera government’s political coalition, staged a walk-out when the Chamber of Deputies held a minute’s silence for Chávez Tuesday evening.  UDI leader Gustavo Hasbún said that while party members voted to hold the homage they refused to take part.

“We have always maintained that [Chavez’s government] was a disguised dictatorship which permanently violated human rights and freedom of expression,” he said.

 

Aftermath of a summit

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera with Cuba's Raul Castro in Santiago.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera with Cuba’s Raul Castro in Santiago.

Here’s a video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMYpdHIpvMU of Raul Castro’s speech at the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the European Union, held this past weekend in Santiago. The Cuban leader has just received the pro tempore presidency of CELAC and had a warm exchange with Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, a conservative and business tycoon.  Castro’s tone makes it clear he’s no softer, gentler version of his brother Fidel. There are brief shots of Venezuela’s acting president Nicolas Maduro talking to someone while Castro is speaking, and of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega stifling either a yawn or a cough.

Toward the end of his prepared speech Castro looked up and began some improvised comments about drug trafficking in Latin America, insisting there was no such activity in Cuba—aside from marijuana plants some Cubans grow in pots on their balconies.

“When tourism began to increase—and last year we had almost 3 million foreign visitors—Cuba became a target for drug traffickers,” he said. Castro said he met with various government agencies to unleash a “blood and fire” battle against the drug trade, and that more than 250 foreigners were imprisoned in Cuba on drugs charges. He made a reference to Mexico’s narcotraficantes, then began reminiscing about the voyage of the Granma yacht carrying 82 Cuban revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956.

Piñera had a private meeting with Castro to discuss the 1991 killing of a Chilean senator, Jaime Guzman, who had worked closely with the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and helped draft the regime’s 1980 constitution. Chilean investigators have linked five members of the now-disbanded Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodriguez, an armed leftwing group with close ties to Cuba, to Guzman’s murder and at least four of the five men are believed to reside in Cuba. According to Piñera, Castro promised to “study the background details and deliver his best cooperation.”  The story in El Nuevo Herald: http://www.elnuevoherald.com/2012/01/28/139769/raul-castro-se-compromete-ayudar.html.

But Cuba’s foreign minister offered a different version of the meeting, telling reporters in Santiago that “no document or specific information was delivered or received” and that Piñera had only offered to approach Cuban authorities.

“The Cuban government is awaiting this information which will be considered by judicial authorities in our country,” said Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla. He said the Castro-Piñera meeting was “fascinating, because a lot of time was spent talking about the insurrectional stage of the Cuban revolution” and that the Chileans showed “a surprising knowledge” of this history. http://cafefuerte.com/cuba/noticias-de-cuba/politica/2527-raul-castro-y-sebastian-pinera-hablan-del-moncada-y-la-sierra-maestra

And here is some background on the Guzman killing, courtesy of the U.S. State Department Electronic Reading Room.

  1. A declassified cable from the U. S. Embassy in Santiago describes the scene at Guzman’s funeral—which was attended by both the American and Soviet ambassadors: http://foia.state.gov/documents/StateChile3/000089A7.pdf
  2. A declassified Central Intelligence report describes how the Guzman assassination is fueling political tension just as Chile’s new civilian government completed an inquiry into human rights abuses under Pinochet: http://foia.state.gov/documents/Pcia3/00009232.pdf
  3. Another, almost completely redacted CIA  report on the case is three pages long and begins with the words, “In mid-April 1991” and then is blacked out until the last page, with a text which reads, [          ] has information indicating that a cell of the dissident faction of the FPMR (FPR/DI, which is infiltrated by former national intelligence director General Manuel Contreras Sepulveda) carried out the April assassination of rightist Senator Jaime Guzman.  [           ]  angrily told [           ] this was disinformation.”: http://foia.state.gov/documents/Pcia3/0000925B.pdf

The Financial Times ran an editorial entitled “Silly in Chile”on the CELAC-EU summit: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9acf0624-663a-11e2-bb67-00144feab49a.html#axzz2JNIWEzY9

And Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia has this column , “An unnoticed absence,” on the summit and U.S. Latin American policy in the Buenos Aires Herald: http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/122858/an-unnoticed-absence

Some news from Chile

Nearly 600,000 homes in Santiago were without water for two days when flooding and mudslides fouled three processing plants operated by the Aguas Andinas utility company. Water World quotes a Chilean water expert who said the utility company seemed not to have any emergency measures in place to cope with the crisis.  http://www.waterworld.com/news/2013/01/22/emergency-measures-in-place-to-prevent-water-crisis-in-santiago-expert.html

More on the subject of water: the Guardian newspaper’s sustainable business section has an article—or paid feature—by Anglo American on plans for a desalinization project in the Atacama desert. http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/securing-water-communities-chile-anglo-american

United Press International reports on Chile’s expanding activity in the Antarctic, with President Sebastian Pinera making his third visit and planting the Chilean flag on the site of a new base that will be the closest to the South Pole of all nations claiming a presence on the continent. http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Security-Industry/2013/01/23/Chile-expands-Antarctica-presence/UPI-52761358952132/

The Santiago Times has a piece on plans for preclinical trials for what might be the world’s first alcoholism vaccine: http://www.santiagotimes.cl/chile/science-technology/25637-worlds-first-alcoholism-vaccine-to-run-preclinical-trial-in-chile

Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s novel, Ways of Going Home, is the subject of an admiring review in the California Literary Review http://calitreview.com/34671 .  An excerpt:

Zambra’s fictional narrator writes, “I thought about my mother, my father. I thought: What kinds of faces do my parents have? But our parents never really have faces. We never learn to truly look at them.” Ways of Going Home is a mirror Zambra holds up to his generation’s parents, in an effort to see them clearly, to make sense of a past that is not clearly shown in documentaries and books about Chile, and in so doing to navigate his way forward as an adult.