A look at Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce: Memoirs of A Revolutionary Daughter (2011); Heraldo Normeydo Mendoza’s The Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet (2008)
Having completed Aguirre’s very fine memoir, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter (2011), I thought it would be useful to compare her experiences with those of Heraldo Muñoz, who lived through the same time period as the “revolutionary family” from Canada in The Dictator’s Shadow, the title of his memoir. Muñoz worked closely with Salvador Allende in the 1970s as National Supervisor of the People’s Stores. When Munoz learned of the coup shortly after returning from Valparaiso, where he was at work on the Allende government’s highly effective government-supported food distribution program for shantytowns throughout the country, he was soon assaulted by the sonic boom of a jet fighter flying menacingly over Santiago’s skyline. He rushed to the local Socialist Party headquarters with his .32 caliber revolver, prepared to defend the constitutional government against the conspirators. He was in the midst of discussing with his compatriots what lines of defence might be developed when President Allende’s voice came over the radio airwaves. It would be his last speech. Displaying remarkable composure, Allende delivered a truly noble speech, which was interrupted once by the sound of a bullet shattering a window in his office. He talked about his defiance of the demand that he resign. He addressed “the worker, the peasant, the intellectual and those who will be persecuted”. He added that History will judge those perpetrating the terrorist attacks and that “the people must not permit themselves to be obliterated, demoralized or humiliated.”
Muñoz tells the amazing story of how, in the aftermath of the overthrow of Chile’s government, he and his wife escaped arrest, which would have been followed by certain torture and then, if lucky, enforced exile, only due to the fact that the soldiers who arrived to arrest him mistakenly went to his next door neighbour. The memoirist describes the barbaric acts of the army in the period immediately after, when friend after friend is arrested, often never to be seen again.
Muñoz brings his considerable political knowledge to bear on the main players and dramatically recounts the mafia-like machinations behind the putsch and its aftermath as Pinochet ruthlessly consolidates his position in the junta. We learn of the many members of the establishment, including the Catholic Church and the Supreme Court, which to their eternal discredit, provided public displays of support for the new regime. It became apparent early on that there would be only one Don here – Commander-in-Chief Pinochet, whose bulldog countenance would be seen regularly in pictures and on television screens. If you ever wondered why the General in the first years of the dictatorship was almost always seen with his dark glasses, Munoz helpfully supplies the reason – in a moment of candour and arrogance – Pinochet himself is quoted as saying that it is a way of hiding things, as lies can be discovered through the eyes, and he lied a lot.
The last section of the book provides gripping accounts of the efforts in both London and Santiago to investigate and try Pinochet for his numerous crimes against humanity and the various crimes detailed in the “Caravan of Death” and “Operation Condor” and other specific investigations. Amnesty International had been amongst the first organizations to call for Pinochet’s arrest, during a trip he made to London in 1994. It noted that Great Britain had, in 1988, signed and ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, and therefore had jurisdiction. By the time of the Chilean strongman’s next visit to London in 1998, the political landscape had changed. The Conservatives had been defeated and Tony Blair’s Labour party was in power, offering human rights advocates a more receptive ear. The Blair government took seriously the documented claims of Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón as part of an indictment for human rights violations. A famous sequence of lower court rulings and a final ruling by the Law Lords of the House of Lords on March 24, 1999 followed (the judgments of the British courts and of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords can be found on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute website). Muñoz delineates these truly unexpected and groundbreaking developments in a lively manner. Although, finally, the British government allowed the General to return to Chile on the basis that he was considered medically unfit to stand trial, the fact that he was detained for many months on the basis that he could be asked to stand trial for torture and other human rights violations, on the basis of the universal jurisdiction that was asserted, was an obvious watershed moment in international law. These rulings overrode the Chilean laws of immunity that were enacted under Pinochet. It has meant that no sitting or former head of state with serious human rights violations to his discredit can leave his own country without potential risk.
Although the former dictator was not tried in Europe, his legal troubles were far from over. Upon his return to Chile, judicial investigations, particularly under Judge Juan Guzman, continued. The Supreme Court of Chile ultimately removed legislated immunity provisions, given the grave nature of the charges against Pinochet. By the time of his death, General Pinochet faced upwards of 200 charges and was forced to witness the investigations, charges and, in many cases, convictions of his closest associates.
Carmen Aguirre in her memoir closes with the admonition that in Chile, the need to advocate for social justice must carry on, that “the struggle continues.” She would, of course, have wanted to see General Pinochet face a full trial in order to bring a truer sense of closure to the many who suffered greatly during his rule, which might well have provided an acknowledgement of what was done to them. If one reflects on the series of legal proceedings in Chile and abroad, though, I think it would be fair to say that such an acknowledgement in essence was provided, given the overwhelming evidence of human rights violations that were uncovered.