I came to Chile on a grim mission, to report on the human rights situation for Americas Watch. The friend who met me at the airport took me to have a drink at a bar on the roof of the Hotel Carrera. It was a clear January day, and in the summer heat of Santiago the snow-whitened Andes seemed very close. I looked down on Santiago’s famous Plaza de la Constitución, where citizens historically gathered to praise or protest the actions of their government. At first the expanse of grass in the plaza was pleasing, it was so green and neat. Then I remembered that it was Pinochet’s poorly paid minimum-work program for Chile’s large unemployed population that kept the parks so clean, indeed among the cleanest in the world. Pinochet had changed the layout of the plaza. More than two thirds of the traditional cobblestone public space was now subdivided into a series of well-kept elevated grassy sections. Citizens could walk along the guarded pathways but not congregate in the plaza—discouraging to protest.
Until September 1973 Chile had Latin America’s longest and strongest democratic tradition. The bloody aftermath of President Salvador Allende’s overthrow and death that month brought in a regime surprising in its persistent repression. According to National Police figures, in 1985 the police arrested 882,346 persons, or 8 percent of the Chilean population. Chile’s economic “boom,” which has been chronicled by The Wall Street Journal, has its underside. The unemployment rate in the slums, which was 6 percent in 1969, was 40 percent by 1985. In 1970, 10 percent of Chile’s families did not have sufficient income to satisfy the minimum food requirements recommended by international organizations; in 1983 the figure grew to 32 percent. The man who has headed the regime since 1973, General Augusto Pinochet, wants to hold a plebiscite this year in which his name will be the only name on the ballot, to be voted on “si” or “no.” If he wins, his term as president will last until 1997.
Although initially Pinochet’s supporters took his victory in the plebiscite for granted, and the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists wanted to boycott the voting, the plebiscite is setting off an unexpected new political struggle in Chile.
I went to Chile for two purposes, which I originally thought were separate—to help report on the human rights situation for Americas Watch and, more specifically, to help draft an evaluation of the human rights implications of the upcoming presidential plebiscite. I thought I would find an improving human rights situation, which would allow Pinochet to support his claim that Chileans had entered a “transition” to constitutional democracy. Indeed, in the regime’s propaganda, the plebiscite is depicted as the logical consitutional step toward electoral, party, and congressional democracy.
On my first day I went to one of Chile’s great public and spiritual centers, the Santiago cathedral, whose annex houses Chile’s principal human rights …