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Chile Re-opens Debate on Human Rights

On September 11, Chile will mark the 30th anniversary of the military coup that toppled the socialist leader, Salvador Allende. As in Argentina, country's civil society looks for alternatives to review its past
Chile's President Ricardo Lagos faces a tough debate over the recent history of this South American country, as the 30th anniversary of Pinochet's coup approaches. However, Lagos' center-left coalition looks unprepared to deal with an underway debate over the 3,200 political assassinations during Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship.


In recent declarations to the international press, Ricardo Lagos admitted he was not in position to overturn amnesty laws, as Argentine President Nestor Kirchner began doing it last week. "Despite criticism from Human Rights groups, I have no political force to overturn such laws", he admitted.


Instead of heading a political review of Pinochet's regime, Lagos opted to boost reparations for families who suffered persecution, both from the government and the leftist guerrillas of the seventies.  However, in a nationally broadcast address President Lagos said he understood that his plan "does not bring a definitive solution" to the suffering of many Chileans under Pinochet's 1973-90 regime. But he described it as "a step toward reconciliation" among Chileans.


According to the plan that is expected to be approved by the Congress, the pensions granted to some of the victims or their families, now averaging the equivalent of $398 per month, would be increased by 50 percent and extended to more people. The benefit would also be granted for the relatives of those soldiers killed during clashes with the guerrillas or rebel groups.


However, what outraged human rights defenders was Lagos' bid to propose reduced prison terms for armed forces officers or members of the security services who committed crimes against humanity under Pinochet. It is exactly the opposite direction that adopted Argentina's Kirchner, who pushed forward the overturn of a similar law voted in the eighties that left without punishment hundreds of killers of the juntas' regime.


Those who planned the abuses or issued the orders would not benefit from shortened sentences, but their trials would be expedited, according to Lagos' plan. There are currently some 300 trials involving retired and active duty military officers, including at least 12 generals, charged with rights violations.


Nearly 3,200 people were killed for political reasons during Pinochet's rule, according to an investigation by the civilian government that succeeded him. Some 1,200 of the victims disappeared after being arrested by Pinochet's security services.


During the brutal coup in which the Chilean military, with Augusto Pinochet at the head, seized power, at least 3,200 were killed and human rights organizations across the world claim for other 2,000 "disappearances" under military's regime. It was the first essay of a far-right military rule combined with neo-liberal policies in Latin America.  A couple of months before, Juan Maria Bordaberry gave a self-coup leading to a civilian-military rule in Uruguay; Argentina fell in March 1976, as Brazil returned to democracy only in 1985.


The Nixon administration involvement in the post-Sept. 11, 1973 period was reinforced last November when 11 residents of Chile filed a complaint against Kissinger and the U.S. government seeking damages for deaths and other rights abuses by the Pinochet government.


The Socialists are in power again in Chile. The current President, Ricardo Lagos, is the former Allende's Ambassador to Moscow and his administration made efforts to bring Pinochet to courts. However, the octogenarian general is still free alleging health condition.