October 15, 2007
Ghost, Bachelet’s Swamp
By Justin Vogler
· The full exposure of the Augusto Pinochet network's crimes offers only temporary respite for Chile's embattled
president, Michelle Bachelet.
Early on the morning of Thursday, 4 October 2007, Chileans
awoke to the stunning news that the investigative judge Carlos Cerda had delivered a damning resolution on the case of the embezzlement of public funds by the late dictator Augusto Pinochet and his cohorts. A week after the Chilean Supreme Court had authorized the reopening of Cerda's enquiry,
he issued twenty-four arrest warrants for members of Pinochet's immediate family and associates.
Cerda's investigation has built on the United States Senate
enquiry of 2004 that unearthed multi-million-dollar accounts in Pinochet's name in the Riggs Bank in Miami. The final report shows how, over 31 years, Pinochet and his henchmen systematically siphoned off
millions from Chilean army reserve funds; used false passports to open foreign bank accounts; earned huge kickbacks in international
arms deals; set up ghost companies and purchased a string of luxury properties. It concluded that after the family fortune
was totaled up, there was $20,199,753.03 that couldn't be "reasonably accounted for."
By mid-afternoon the entire Pinochet family, six retired generals, two serving colonels, the ex-dictator's lawyer and eight other members of his inner
circle were in police custody. Predictably, the general's 83-year-old widow, Lucia Hiriart, had an attack of hypertension
and was whisked to the secretive military hospital where her late husband so often took sanctuary.
Then came the indignation.
"This is indescribable political persecution," Pinochet's
daughter-in-law, Maria Soledad Olave, screamed at reporters. "Don Augusto is dead; let's leave the hate and vengeance behind."
Meanwhile Lucia Hiriart's lawyer denounced "an illegal abusive resolution that violates the most essential of a person's fundamental
But unlike political detainees during Pinochet's 1973-90
reign of terror, those accused of crime in Chile today do have rights; within 24 hours Judge Cerda had unexpectedly granted bail to all his prisoners. "Everyone has a right to liberty during their trail," he explained, adding that no
reason existed to keep them in preventative custody and as "I shall shortly be leaving the country, I have decided to give
them their liberty myself."
Thus, on Saturday, 6 October, Cerda left the Pinochets' lawyers
fuming and flew to Washington where he is to receive a $160,000 prize from the Gruber Foundation in recognition of his being "the only judge in Chile to pursue cases of human-rights abuses by the Pinochet
regime while the general was in power." The prize neatly highlights world opinion's disdain for the dead dictator and his
kin at a time when the Supreme Court will deliberate on the defense’s arguments for dismissing the charges. Moreover,
the judge's decision to leave his suspects free deprived their defense of the meager victory they might have scored by persuading
the Supreme Court to grant bail in his absence.
More importantly, Cerda's bombshell has obliterated any notion
that, following "Don Augusto's" death in December 2006, the Pinochets would be left to quietly enjoy their ill-gotten gains. This is much needed
evidence that Chile's legal system can work equitably. "No one in Chile should believe that anyone is above the law or able
to ignore judicial orders," said Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, on hearing of the arrests.
The rightwing opposition's reaction was inevitable. Ivan
Moreira from the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) said: "There goes the judge on holiday to collect his succulent prize
for the defense of human rights – and the more Pinochets he leaves in prison, the more money he will receive." Others
questioned Cerda's political independence and accused him of throwing up a "smokescreen" to divert attention from the many
difficulties of the current government of Michelle Bachelet.
People close to Cerda insist, however, that he has no political
vocation and that his tireless defense of human rights and pursuit of justice is motivated by his unshakable Catholic faith.
Furthermore, no one in government would dare pressure such an internationally renowned and notoriously principled judge.
Bachelet's Chile: from hope to anger
At the same time, a besieged President Bachelet may quietly
welcome the temporary diversion that the latest chapter in the Pinochet saga represents. Her popularity among Chile's 15 million
people has been waning. Polls published the day before the arrests showed her national approval ratings down to 35.3%. In Santiago, the figure is even lower at 26.9%; much of this can be attributed to the fallout
of a disastrous and disruptive transport reform in the capital, as well as of the riotous demonstrations there to mark the
anniversary of Pinochet's bloody 11 September
1973 coup which left one policeman dead, forty-two people injured and the cells full.
The problems run deep. In March 2006, just three months after
Bachelet's inauguration, a national strike by secondary-school students closed down schools throughout the country. In a textbook
example of civic mobilization, Chile's "penguin revolution" forced the forgotten issue of education reform to the top of the political agenda. However, in a country
where the government's own, highly questionable, figures show the richest 10% earning thirty-one times more than the poorest 10%, the secondary-school kids
were not alone in harboring pent-up social grievances.
In September 2006 workers at Escondida, the world's largest
copper mine, downed tools demanding
a share in the windfall from sky-high copper prices. Shortly after, subcontracted workers at the state-run mines
walked out complaining of disparity in their wages and conditions vis-ŕ-vis regular workers. Meanwhile, Mapuche Indians protested for land and justice and university students called for a long-overdue higher-education
At the same time, increasingly well organized groups are
mobilizing against wholesale environmental plunder that stretches from Barrick Gold's Pascua Lama Project in the far
north, to energy giants Endesa Spain's and Colbun's plans to dam the Baker and Pascua rivers in the deep south. Then in September
the trade-union confederation Centro Único de Trabajo (CUT) clanked into gear and called a series
of national strikes, demanding an "end to neoliberal hegemony and the construction of a social democratic state."
These dispersed social movements lack force, cohesion and
coherence. However, after 34 years of active repression and/or passive subservience, Chilean civil society is slowly awakening and demanding
that Bachelet honor her fervent campaign pledges of social justice and citizen participation.
Yet instead of throwing the state's weight behind the social
demands she encouraged, the president has prevaricated. Many in her unwieldy Concertación coalition do not share her penchant for social change and
are highly suspicious of "citizen participation." They see their own interests indelibly linked to those of Chile's powerful
economic elite. Trying to please everyone, Bachelet has appointed neo-liberals to head the economics, finance and energy ministries
and reserved the "political" posts for her socially minded cronies. Far from generating consensus, the combination has proven
inoperable. Two cabinet reshuffles have done nothing to improve coordination or stamp out the endemic infighting.
Bachelet's woes are underpinned by the bungled Santiago transport
reform. Chile's political class had come to pride itself on efficiently implemented up-to-the-minute public policies. Vast
tracts of the state bureaucracy and public infrastructure have been successfully overhauled during the past decade. But with
the Transantiago, Chile's technocratic elite – most of who hold higher degrees
from ivory-league US universities and probably never ride on Chilean buses – came unstuck.
Blame has heaped on the finance minister, Harvard economics
professor Andres Velasco. It was Velasco who apparently convinced Bachelet not to postpone the launch of the ill-fated plan, which
almost halved the number of buses on the capital's streets from one day to the next. The neoliberal think tank Velasco heads,
Expansiva, was instrumental in the Transantiago's designs. It also appears to
have been Velasco who insisted that, unlike every other major urban transport system in the world, the Transantiago was to
"It's a system designed with a financing mechanism and that
mechanism is operating," he insisted at the beginning of March 2007 as millions of weary Santiago residents waited hours to
get home. The same week Benito Baranda, the social director of the Catholic charity Hogar de Cristo, said: "The Transantiago has been the worst humiliation for the poor in a long time." People in the periphery
were "getting home an hour later and leaving the house an hour earlier."
Yet despite repeated calls for Velasco to go, Bachelet has
hung on to him. The business community sees him as their man in cabinet. With Sofofa, the powerful Chilean business syndicate,
now openly criticizing Bachelet's lack of "leadership" and accusing her labor minister, Osvaldo Andrade, of stirring up union unrest, she may not dare ditch him even if, as is probable, she reshuffles her cabinet
a third time before the end of 2007.
So yes, against this backdrop the mass arrest of Pinochet's
cohorts has been a welcome distraction for Bachelet and a timely reminder to the governing coalition of the historic opposition
to military dictatorship that welded them together. But Bachelet and the Concertación
need more than a nostalgia-laden rest bite. They need a clear project to transform Chile socially and politically.
Moving on from the Pinochet years is not just about an end
to impunity, corruption and fear. It needs to be about destroying the generals' legacy of social and economic injustice and
turning Chile into the equitable, prosperous, culturally diverse, happy, sustainable and beautiful country it can be and that
its people deserve.
Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist based in Chile, and he teaches political science
in the socio-economics department of Valparaiso University. This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.net, on October
8, 2007, and is published by Justin Vogler and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons license.