The Honeckers in Chile

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Erich Honecker’s funeral in Santiago in 1993. His widow Margot stands with her hands folded.

Margot Honecker, widow of the former East German leader Erich Honecker, died last week in Santiago, where the couple found a kind of refuge after the fall of the Berlin Wall. How this came to be is an interesting footnote to the Cold War, and has also spurred some debate in Chile over double standards when examining dictatorships.

After the 1973 military coup, thousands of Chileans sought political asylum in other countries and a significant number ended up in what was then East Germany. These included future President Michele Bachelet and her mother, along with prominent members of Chile’s Socialist and Communist Parties. Fast forward to Christmas 1991, when Chile had returned to civilian rule and the Berlin Wall had collapsed: Erich Honecker, now wanted for embezzlement and the killing of nearly 200 people attempting to flee East Germany during his rule, arrived at the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. The Chilean ambassador was Clodomiro Almeyda, a Socialist and former exile who had lived in East Germany and become good friends with the Honeckers, whose daughter had married a Chilean. Honecker had not officially sought asylum, but was treated as a kind of guest while Chile’s new civilian government found itself entangled in a diplomatic and political quandary as it negotiated with Russian and German authorities.

Chilean officials were divided as to whether Honecker should receive asylum in their country. Some members of the center-left coalition were strongly in favor, while others worried about what it would mean for Chile’s image if it were to protect a notorious human rights violator. Even some right wing politicians did not want to seem as submissive to Germany, which was making increasingly sharp demands for Honecker’s extradition. A year and a half later Honecker was finally escorted from the Chilean Embassy in Moscow and made to appear in a German court, after which German officials released him on grounds of his age and illness.

So Erich and Margot Honecker lived rather quietly in Santiago until the former’s death in 1993. A few years later a correspondent for Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper visited the archive at the Stasi Museum in Berlin and was able to examine some of files collected on Chilean exiles living in East Germany during the Pinochet dictatorship. Some exiles were spied on by fellow exiles, who dutifully reported to East German officials and dossiers were compiled even on younger Chileans who had little political experience. The reports noted that many Chileans complained about the jobs they were assigned, and at least 21 Chilean exiles were deported from East Germany in 1974.

“These are persons who cannot adjust to normal behavior in the RDA,” one of the files said.

But Margot Honecker, whom some called the Purple Witch for her hair dye and hardline Stalinist views, was unrepentant and occasionally surfaced in public. She was sometimes spotted taking part in activities with the Chilean Communist Party and in 2012 she said in an  interview that the Stasi secret police were a necessary institution and that those killed while trying to escape over the Berlin Wall were “stupid.”

In response, a municipal official in the Santiago suburb of La Reina, where the Honeckers had been living, declared her persona non grata and said her comments “showed no respect for life” and that the Berlin Wall had been “a symbol of intolerance and authoritarianism.” The municipal official, Francisco Oleo, just happened to be a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

A Chile weekend round up

Most of the attention toward Latin America in the next few days will be on Venezuela’s legislative assembly election, and whether the voting will be free and fair. But Chile continues to generate news, and here are some recent dispatches:

Foreign Affairs has an article on Michelle Bachelet’s embattled administration, noting that she won the election with a healthy 62 percent of the vote, but that her approval rating has now plummeted in wake of a corruption scandal involving her son and the economic pinch caused by low prices for copper, Chile’s chief export:

“According to the public opinion institute GFK Adimark Chile, Bachelet’s approval rate reached a historic low of 24 percent in August 2015. That month, her center–left coalition government had an approval rating of a mere 16 percent. The only group that fared worse was the center–right opposition Alianza, with 15 percent. The fact that Chile’s two leading political factions, which currently dominate national politics, have a combined approval rating of only 31 percent signals a deep crisis within the political class.” https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/chile/2015-12-02/bachelets-last-stand

One of those scandals involved a scheme by Chile’s largest paper manufacturer and a smaller producer to fix the price of…toilet paper.  The Economist reports that a consumer’s group estimates that the two firms bilked Chilean customers of around $500 million over a ten-year period: http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21679517-new-breed-competition-regulator-takes-cartels-toilet-paper-tangle

Reuters reports that Argentina’s newly elected president, Mauricio Macri, is seeking to build new trade links with Chile http://www.reuters.com/article/chile-argentina-idUSL8N13U01720151205#mMxPrzT1EF42s3KR.97

And the San Francisco Chronicle news site, SFGate has this piece on Chilean filmmaker Patricio Gusman’s new documentary, The Pearl Button, about the role water has played in the country’s history. http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Chile-s-tragic-history-through-a-film-poet-s-6670912.php

“A blatant example of a chief of state’s direct involvement in an act of state terrorism”

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The United States has turned over a collection of newly classified documents on the 1976 car bomb murder of Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976.  Letelier was a former Chilean ambassador to the United States and cabinet minister under the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-73); he and Moffitt worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank. A subsequent grand jury investigation resulted in an extradition request for the head of the Pinochet regime’s security agency, Colonel Manuel Contreras and two other Chilean intelligence agents—which the regime rejected.

The new batch of documents was delivered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting with President Michelle Bachelet this past week in Santiago. As I write this, only two have been published and they confirm what most people familiar with the case already knew–that Pinochet ordered the killings.  One is a 1987 memo from then Secretary of State George Schultz to President Ronald Reagan states

“We have long known that the Chilean secret police/intelligence service was behind this brutal act, perhaps the only clear case of state-sponsored terrorism that has occurred in Washington, D.C.”  Schultz then speculates whether the U.S. government would want to indict Pinochet himself, and that his role in the assassinations and cover-up “is of the greatest seriousness and adds further impetus to the need to work toward the complete democratization of Chile.”

The other document is a State Department cable sent early in 1987, with a couple of source names deleted and mentions assertions by Contreras that Pinochet had ordered the Letelier assassination. Contreras told another senior army official that he had hidden sealed documents in several locations “in the event of his, Contreras’ death.”

More documents to follow, and the National Security Archive web site, with its lengthy file on other declassified material on the case and on Chile, is a good place to find them:

http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB532-The-Letelier-Moffitt-Assassination-Papers/

Oh no, not Chile!

In many Latin American countries, when a police officer stops a motorist, there’s a good chance that money will change hands. This is not the case in Chile; in fact a few years ago, the Carabineros de Chile web site included an advisory to foreign visitors in several languages warning against this practice and here is the English version:

“If you commit a fault or crime during your stay in our country—according to the in force Chilean legislation—NEVER try to bribe a Carabinero, since only trying to perform this action you will incur into a crime. If it is the case you will be detained and the background of the case will be delivered to the court concerned.”

Sadly, the country ranked by Transparency International as one of the least corrupt in the region is groaning under the weight of a recent series of scandals across the political spectrum. There was a questionable land deal by President Michele Bachelet’s son and his wife, known as “daughter-in-law gate,” and the arrests of executives from one of Chile’s largest financial groups on charges of an illegal scheme to finance the right-wing Union Democratica Independiente (UDI) via money laundering and tax fraud. And the former son-in-law of the late dictator General Augusto Pinochet, Julio Ponce Lerou, is under investigation over payments made to rightwing political figures AND some members of Bachelet’s center-left coalition. The New York Times article explains it all:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/10/world/americas/chile-joins-other-latin-american-nations-shaken-by-scandal.html?ref=world&_r=0

The article quotes Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia of New York University, who compares the current crisis with a “trip to the emergency room with some chest pains.” Neighboring Brazil may be having a real heart attack, but doctors would tell Chile that “we’re overweight, not exercising and maybe smoking too much.” The scandals are a kind of warning that “we’ll end up with a heart attack five years down the road if we don’t change our ways now.”

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: http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2014/09/bombing-chile

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 :http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-28850708

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. http://www.elmostrador.cl/pais/2014/09/10/once-bomba-falsos-avisos-de-explosivos-y-1600-carabineros-desplegados/

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: http://www.ilovechile.cl/2014/09/05/anniversary-vctor-jaras-murder-prosecuted/119005

And Foreign Affairs has this exchange by Peter Kornbluh and Jack Devine on the U.S. role in the coup: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141859/peter-kornbluh-jack-devine/showdown-in-santiago

The day after

Friends reunited? Michelle Bachelet is congratulated by her electoral opponent and childhood friend Evelyn Matthei on her victory in Sunday's presidential runoff vote. Reuters photo.

Friends reunited? Michelle Bachelet is congratulated by her electoral opponent and childhood friend Evelyn Matthei on her victory in Sunday’s presidential runoff vote. 

It’s a shame the Chilean runoff election happened to take place on the same day as Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Michelle Bachelet won an easy victory over Evelyn Matthei, with an estimated 62 percent of the vote, and this will mark the first time since Chile’s return to democracy that a president will serve a second term.

Matthei conceded and personally congratulated Bachelet, telling her supporters that her “deepest and honest desire is that things go well for her.”

Now comes the hard part. The BBC’s Gideon Long reports that Chile’s Central Bank is warning that growth might drop to below 4 percent next year, as copper prices extend their recent decline http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-25398021.  Bachelet faces high expectations for education reform, but this will be costly and harder to bring off with lower export revenues.

On an entirely different subject, the Santiago Times has an interview with Chilean novelist and culture minister Roberto Ampuero, who recounts his extraordinary odyssey from young Communist Party member during the Allende years, to exile in East Germany and Cuba, to political independent and “liberal in terms of individuals, in terms of limited government, individual freedom and democracy.”http://santiagotimes.cl/qa-novelist-culture-minister-roberto-ampuero/

 

 

Chile’s Sunday vote

Preparations for a rally for Michelle Bachelet in Santiago. Photo by Odette Magnet

Preparations for a rally for Michelle Bachelet in Santiago. Photo by Odette Magnet

It is a first for Latin America: two women facing each other in a presidential runoff. On Sunday Chilean voters go to the polls to select either former president Michelle Bachelet or former senator and labor minister Evelyn Matthei. But despite the historical significance of these childhood friends competing against each other, the election is “a bit of a bore,” according to The Economist, as most Chileans are expecting Bachelet to win. http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2013/12/elections-chile

The Santiago Times has this good summary of both candidates’ positions on issues such as education, tax reform and health care: http://santiagotimes.cl/matthei-vs-bachelet-head-head-deciding-issues/

Bloomberg Business Week observes that with the price of copper, Chile’s chief export, at a three-year low, “Bachelet may be forced to choose between spending an additional $15.1 billion on her social program or balancing the budget by the end of her four-year term.” http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-12-12/bachelet-election-pledges-for-chile-face-hurdle-as-copper-falls

Here’s an interesting column by author and philosophy professor Arturo Fontaine on what Chilean voters really want: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/opinion/what-chiles-voters-want.html?hp&rref=opinion/international&_r=0