Another book review

It’s been four years since publication, but this blogger’s second book, The General’s Slow Retreat: Chile after Pinochet, has gotten a rather favorable review in Cambridge University’s journal, The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Latin American History. An excerpt:

In The General’s Slow Retreat, Mary Helen Spooner reconstructs the private world of conflict, negotiation, and insecurity that marked the Chilean transition. Spooner takes her readers beyond the narratives produced for public consumption into the private meetings of military and civilian leaders, where deals were struck and positions that profoundly shaped the way forward for Chilean democracy were devised. Drawing on published interviews, news accounts, and memoirs as well as her remarkable access to dozens of key players—including presidents, senators, ministers, and military officials—Spooner has crafted a detailed and sophisticated account of Chile’s fragile transition, focusing with unfailing acuity on questions of Pinochet’s influence and the legacy of human rights abuses after the 1988 plebiscite.

Burn After Reading: Pinochet and the Iranians

Some time ago I wrote about a Freedom of Information request I’d made in 2007, searching for any documents dealing with the Pinochet regime’s arms sales as part of the research for my second Chile book, The General’s Slow Retreat.  The requested material was not released until five years later, and unfortunately did not contain anything that I could immediately use, especially since the book had already been published.

One of the documents, however, is worth summarizing here, in view of the Iran nuclear talks and the glimpse it provides into the murky world of arms dealing among developing countries. It is the story of the regime’s disastrous attempt to sell cluster bombs to Iran and is largely gleaned from Chilean and Spanish news sources, which broke the story early in 1990, just weeks before Pinochet was due to hand over the presidency to an elected president. And it reads like the plot of a Coen brothers movie.

But first, some background.  In 1984 an Iraqi plane landed at Santiago’s airport to collect a load of cluster bombs produced by a private Chilean arms dealer, Carlos Cardoen, who later accused the army’s munitions manufacturer FAMAE of stealing his technology to make its own cluster bombs. The Iran-Iraq war continued, and the Chilean army decided to see if it couldn’t get in on the action as well.  So in October 1985 one of FAMAE’s affiliates enlisted the services of an international arms broker, Bernard Stroiazzo, and an agreement was reached with Iran to sell 500 of its new cluster bombs at a cost of $14,000 each. As each bomb was estimated to cost around $2,500 to produce, the deal should have been lucrative indeed. But there are serious problems. The declassified State Department document, written by U.S. Ambassador Charles Gillespie, reports that

“During early 1986 on two separate test runs in Iran, the cluster bombs prove defective, destroying one Iranian phantom jet and nearly killing the head of the Iranian air force who participated in the demonstration. After the second incident, the Iranian authorities take middleman Stroiazzo and several Chilean technicians hostage pending financial compensation for Iranian losses.”

The Pinochet regime offers to replace the destroyed Iranian jet with an F-5 aircraft, if the Iranians will also purchase an additional $200 million in military hardware, including more cluster bombs and 15 additional aircraft from Chile. The F-5, however, had been purchased from the United States years before the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Chile for the regime’s human rights abuses.  To make this transaction, it would need U.S. government authorization, which seemed improbable. In addition, the Chilean air force was not keen to sell off so many of its aircraft and those officers hoping to rebuild ties with Washington were worried about possible repercussions. The head of FAMAE, Colonel Carlos Carreno, was scheduled to travel to Tehran to negotiate the deal, which presumably involves selling the F-5 by covert means. But three days before he is due to depart, the colonel is kidnapped by the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front,  whose earlier actions included an attempt to assassinate Pinochet. The deal with Iran falls apart. The hapless Colonel Carreno reappears three months later in Brazil, holding a rosary and refusing to say anything about his abduction.

Meanwhile, arms broker Stroiazzo somehow manages to escape his Iranian captors and “begins negotiations with Chilean authorities for financial compensation for Iran and for himself.”  An army general who heads the regime’s secret police offers Stroiazzo a potentially lucrative deal to build a toxic waste plant in Chile’s northern Atacama desert, but local opposition to the project causes authorities to back away from the project. Stroiazzo responds by filing a multimillion dollar international lawsuit and the story finally breaks. The document concludes that the political fallout “has some potential for damaging Pinochet’s and other elements of the armed forces’ image, but the incoming government does not appear particularly interested in actively pursuing the matter.”

9/11, the Chilean version

Chilean military guarding prisoners at the National Stadium after the 1973 coup. Photo by Marcelo Montecino

Chilean military guarding prisoners at the National Stadium after the 1973 coup. Photo by Marcelo Montecino

It’s been 41 years, but this year’s anniversary of the military coup that ousted Salvador Allende is one of the most stressful in recent memory. A bomb exploded in a food court at a Santiago metro station a few days earlier, injuring 14 people and prompting President Michelle Bachelet to convene an emergency meeting with cabinet and security officials. The Economist’s Americas blog has this post:

There have been small-scale bomb explosions in the past, but most have occurred late at night, when few people were around, and this is the first that seems to deliberately target the public. According to Chile’s interior minister, Bachelet’s mother was in the area when the bomb detonated (she was unhurt). Some background on earlier incidents from the BBC :

El Mostrador reports that 1,600 members of Chile’s paramilitary police force, the carabineros, have been mobilized and positioned in “the most vulnerable areas.” The electricity company Chilectra has also placed extra personnel on alert in case of power cuts.

Several organizations of retired military officials published a paid insert in La Tercera newspaper, defending the 1973 coup, which it described as “a task of reconstruction…which continues to be recognized by Chileans who love order and security.” The statement said that while “delinquents, subversives, terrorists and killers of military and police officers are pardoned, given amnesty or protected, those who fought and created the conditions of security and order which permitted the nation’s progress have been condemned without due process,” a reference to continuing investigations into human rights violations during the Pinochet regime.

And the investigations keep coming. Last week a magistrate indicted three more retired officials in the killing of folksinger Victor Jara shortly after the coup:

And Foreign Affairs has this exchange by Peter Kornbluh and Jack Devine on the U.S. role in the coup:


His wake was held at the Chilean military academy, but Pinochet was not given a state funeral and honors traditionally given to Chilean presidents.

About 200 people attended a memorial service for General Augusto Pinochet on Saturday, December 10, the fifth anniversary of his death.  This year it was held not in Santiago but at the family’s estate on the Pacific coast.  His widow Lucia Hiriart spoke to reporters outside the property, saying that her late husband “should be left in peace.”  She also noted the absence of any government officials at the service, saying that President Sebastian Pinera “seems not to be a very good friend of ours.”

Most Chilean heads of state are buried in Santiago’s General Cemetery, but Pinochet’s ashes are hidden away in a chapel on the estate.  He did not receive a presidential funeral, with full state honors, but a funeral for a former army commander and his family reluctantly conceded that placing his remains in a mausoleum would attract vandals and public protests. So after a wake at the military academy, a Catholic mass and fiery speeches by his daughter and grandson, Pinochet’s remains were moved to a crematorium and then transferred to the seaside estate.

There are no public monuments to Pinochet in Chile, though there are dozens of memorial sites dedicated to his victims, including an open air museum at the site of a former detention center and an enormous wall of names in the General Cemetery. The Pinochet Foundation (, located in a rather modest house in eastern Santiago, opened a small museum in his honor three years ago. There are four rooms containing some of his personal effects, including several statues of Napoleon, and a recreation of the office he sometimes used at the Foundation.

Captain Davis and “el caso Missing”

Charles Horman, a freelance filmmaker, was one of two American arrested and killed in the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 military coup.

In 1980 I was at a lunch hosted by the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce in Santiago, when a man sitting across the table began talking nervously about a book in which his name appeared.  Lies, he told the man sitting to my left, who nodded sympathetically.  Retired U.S. navy captain Ray Davis, formerly head of the US. Military Mission in Chile, had settled in Santiago and had his own version of what transpired during the country’s 1973 military coup.

I happened to have read the book in question, Thomas Hauser’s The Execution of Charles Horman, which describes the arrest and killing of a young freelance filmmaker, his family’s search for him, and the seriously unhelpful actions of the U.S. Embassy in Chile.  Horman and a friend had been in the coastal resort town of Vina del Mar when the coup occurred, and it was Davis who had given them a ride back to Santiago.  A nice gesture, perhaps, but Davis’s actions over the next several days seem questionable at best.  He went to the hotel where Horman had stayed and confiscated his registration card.  He also invited Horman’s wife Joyce and the Hormans’ friend Terry Simon to his home for dinner, claiming that a Chilean admiral who could help them find Charles would also be there.  The admiral never appeared.

I should have made some attempt to talk to Davis, but was too startled to do more than keep my eyes down and listen.

“And now there’s going to be a movie,” he was saying.  The film based on the book, Costa-Gavras’s Missing, was released two years later,  and won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay as well as Oscar nominations for Jack Lemmon (who played Horman’s father) and Sissy Spacek (who played Horman’s wife).  Missing takes some liberties with real life events, with Joyce Horman renamed Beth and shown being caught by the curfew and taking shelter in a stairwell the night before her husband’s arrest.  But in a 2006 documentary film, Cruel Separation, she said she had in fact gone “to say goodbye to friends” that day and stayed that night before returning to find their house ransacked and her husband missing.  Davis is not mentioned by name in the film—though there is a character clearly based on him—and even Chile is not mentioned.  But Davis, former U.S. ambassador Nathaniel Davis and former U.S. consul Fred Purdy filed a $150 million lawsuit for libel against Costa Gavras and Universal Studios, which was eventually dismissed.

Fast forward nearly two decades and the United States declassifies and releases hundreds of documents on Chile, and some of them contain disturbing information about the case. As one cable states:

“There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death. At best, it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [government of Chile]. At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware the GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia.”

There is a review of the circumstances surrounding Horman’s arrest and killing, and Captain Davis, now back in the United States,  is questioned.  Why had he taken Horman’s hotel registration card?  Davis at first denies having done so, but when shown the incriminating US document changes his story and says, “I don’t see why it’s important.”

This week a Chilean prosecutor, Judge Jorge Zepeda, announced he was seeking Davis’s extradition as part of his investigation into the death of Charles Horman and another young American, Frank Teruggi.  In his ruling Zepeda, who has been investigating the case since 2003 and has made extensive use of the U.S. declassified documents, said that Captain Davis could have prevented the killings of the two Americans “given his coordination with Chilean agents.”  The country’s Supreme Court will have to authorize the extradition request, and the American. Embassy in Santiago  said the United States  “continues to support a thorough investigation into the Horman and Teruggi deaths in order to bring those responsible to justice.”

A book, an invitation and ….oops!

invitación Krassnoff

Miguel Krassnoff is an Austrian-born former officer in the Chilean army and one of the more notorious members of the Pinochet regime’s security forces.  He is currently serving a 144-year sentence for 23 separate convictions for homicide and forced disappearances. But he has his supporters, who were planning a gathering on Monday to present a new edition of an admiring book, whose title in English is Miguel Krassnoff: Prisoner for Serving Chile.  The event was to be held at a venue in an eastern Santiago municipality whose mayor, Cristian Labbe is an unreconstructed Pinochetista.   During the former dictator’s detention in London from 1998-2000 Labbe ordered trash collection to be suspended at the British and Spanish Embassies located in Providencia, and made 14 visits to the United Kingdom to express his support for Pinochet.

Those invited include Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, and when the invitation reached his office a presidential staffer sent a response which may have automatically generated, saying the president’s schedule for that time was already full, congratulating the event’s organizers and extending the president’s  “best wishes for success.”  News of this event and the presidential office’s reply have outraged  human rights groups and a day later the government issued a terse statement calling its response “a lamentable error” which had not been authorized by President Pinera and “did not represent his thinking.”  There has been a chorus of disapproval from Chilean political leaders  and even the mayor’s own rightist Union Democratica Independiente (UDI)  has sought to distance itself, saying Labbe was not representative of the UDI just because he was a party member.

Labbe maintained this is a freedom of speech issue, but now says he will not be attending the event, claiming a scheduling conflict. Meanwhile, Krassnoff and his admirers have a blog,

The Weisfeiler case: still waiting

In late August that Chile’s Valech Commission published an updated list of human rights victims during the Pinochet regime, and conspicuous by his absence was Boris Weisfeiler, the Penn State mathematics professor who disappeared in 1985 while hiking in southern Chile. The omission was deeply upsetting to Weisfeiler’s family and friends, for earlier this year the missing mathematician’s sister Olga had travelled to Santiago and met with Chilean and US Embassy officials involved in the investigation into his disappearance.

It was her tenth visit to Chile, and she left with a cautiously hopeful feeling that the investigation was moving forward. But the Valech Commission’s failure to include Weisfeiler does not mean the end of the inquiry and “does not preclude criminal prosecution in the case,” according to the U.S. State Department. William A. Ostick, the State Department’s press advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told me in an e mail that the U.S government still considers it an open case.

“Representatives from the Embassy in Santiago have been in touch with Chilean officials since the publication of the Valech Commission’s most recent report,” he said. “We will continue to follow the case.”

Last week Chile’s Centro de Investigacion Periodistica (CIPER) published a story ( on the continuing judicial investigation into Colonia Dignidad, the secretive German colony used by the regime’s secret police to detain, interrogate and kill political prisoners. Colonia Dignidad, now renamed Villa Baviera, is located in the same general area of southern Chile where Weisfeiler was hiking, and a few years after his disappearance at least one informant told the U.S. Embassy that he had seen the mathematics professor inside the colony. The CIPER report cites two embassy cables released by Wikileaks—one unclassified, the other marked “confidential”—which describe the U.S. consul’s meetings in 2005 with Chilean judge Jorge Zepeda, who was investigating both Weisfeiler’s disappearance and Colonia Dignidad. Zepeda has come under criticism for offering immunity to some of his informants (“testigos reservados”) who had worked closely with the colony’s leaders, including one German colonist who admitted to helping dispose of the bodies of dead prisoners. Zepeda’s informants have maintained that Weisfeiler had never been at the compound, but how credible are their accounts? An excerpt from the unclassified cable:

Still, Zepeda added that he had reviewed the records of the original 1985 investigation and that he was convinced that a number of significant leads were not properly pursued. For example, he cited an interview in the court records of a local man who was found in possession of Weisfeiler’s drivers license, in which police did not ask elemental questions such as how he had come to be in possession of the document. Zepeda implied that Colonia Dignidad’s political influence in the area at the time might have influenced the course and thoroughness of the investigation. He said he had assigned his two best investigators to focus intensively on the Weisfeiler case, conducting what he described as a complete top-to-bottom review of all the available documentation and evidence, including the records of previous investigations.”

That was six years ago, and there have been no significant breakthroughs in the Weisfeiler inquiry. CIPER contacted Judge Zepeda, who declined comment, saying the investigation into Colonia Dignidad was still underway. Stay tuned.

A Chilean news roundup

“Do Graves of Dictators Really Become Shrines?” is the title of a report in Foreign Policy,9 surveying the funerals of over a dozen autocratic leaders, including General Augusto Pinochet.  The “tour of contentious burials from Qaddafi to Hitler” observes that Pinochet’s ashes were hidden away at a family estate, Los Boldos, located on the Chilean coast. Not only is there no public memorial to Pinochet anywhere in the country, but Los Boldos itself has fallen upon hard times and earlier this year police discovered a small marijuana plantation on the property, according to The Guardian newspaper.

The Economist has yet another good article on Chile’s student protests and the stalled negotiations with the government:

The website Earthquake Report is posting updates on the Hudson volcano explosion in southern Chile, where at least 128 people have been evacuated:

The Discovery Channel’s Spanish-language affiliate has produced a program on neo-Nazi groups in Chile as part of its “Mundos Extremos” series, which is scheduled to air December 7.  According to the channel’s web site, there are numerous youth groups in Santiago “which live under xenophobic and violent rules and chauvinistic dogmas” and find inspiration in Hitler’s national socialism.

The Santiago Times published a report on emergency bioterrorism drills underway in Chile,  under the auspices of Organization of American States (OAS)  Chile was selected for the exercise in view of the amount of air traffic Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benitez airport receives, making the capital “highly susceptible to airborne contagions.”


Herman Cain and Chilean social security

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s praise for Chile’s private pensions system is getting more critical coverage in the U.S. media, with an article by the Associated Press,  “Fact Check: Closer look at Cain’s retirement model” appearing in several major newspapers.

Business Week says that Cain’s Chilean social security model risks miring the United States deeper in debt and notes that Argentina attempted a similar program in 1994 in which workers paid pension contributions into private accounts, causing the government to lose $37 billion in revenues. The Argentine government later nationalized the system in 2008.

Some readings on inequality and social unrest

Patricio Navia is a Chilean political scientist at New York University and a prolific columnist and author.   He has a piece on the openDemocracy web site analyzing the background on the student protests and recent general strike in Chile, which he says is far from being a South American version of the Arab spring:

“The student movement is less about opposition to the market-friendly economic model than about inclusion within it, and expanding the range and structure of opportunities it affords. The protesters seek to improve the model with a host of measures: more protection for consumers, more rights for citizens and a more level playing-field so that the middle class can realistically aspire to upward social mobility.”

On the issue of consumer protection in Chile, read the interview with the director of Chile’s National Consumer Service, Juan Antonio Peribonio, in the most recent issue of Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce Magazine. According to Peribonio, Chile stands out in Latin American for its defense of consumers, but his agency is underfunded and hopes that a bill before congress will provide the tools needed to oversee the country’s financial sector:

And for a look at inequitable hiring practices in the Chilean job market, the Santiago Times has an excellent article on the ways potential employers grill job applicants on their families, religious observances and political views.  Although the country’s labor law prohibits such discriminatory practices, they appear to be widespread.  The article quotes one job seeker, a woman with a degree in business engineering who recently interviewed at several major Chilean companies:

“In Chile it is common to avoid hiring women with children,” she said. “In all the interviews I’ve gone to, I’ve been asked if I want more children, if my son goes to kindergarten and if he gets sick easily. I was also told I was not suitable for a position that required occasional travel because it was ‘not compatible with my role as a mother.’”