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Chile Asserts New Liberties, Digs Into Past

September 04, 1990|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUELQUEN, Chile — In a tiny cemetery, nestled between green fields and scrub-covered Andean foothills, a judge supervises workers digging up the bodies of three unknown people who were killed in the bloody repression after Chile's 1973 coup.

Police officers block the dirt lane leading to the cemetery from a paved road, where a dozen reporters and cameramen wait through the cold, misty morning. As the sun emerges after noon, several people show up across the road with signs expressing hope that Chileans who disappeared after arrest under the past regime will be accounted for and that justice will be done.

"Trial and punishment for the guilty," a hand-lettered banner urges.

"16 years of desperate searching," a poster reads.

The scene on a recent Saturday near the town of Huelquen, 25 miles south of Santiago, offers a telling sample of what is new in Chile.

Nearly six months after Gen. Augusto Pinochet surrendered power to an elected civilian government, a vibrant climate of freedom and change is spreading through this nation of 12 million people. And, as Chile asserts its new liberties and rebuilds its democratic institutions, it is also digging into dark corners of its troubled past.

The bodies of scores of people, killed and buried secretly under the dictatorship, are being discovered and exhumed around the country. A presidential Commission for Truth and Reconciliation is methodically collecting testimony and other information about political killings.

The government of President Patricio Aylwin, a centrist Christian Democrat, also has created a commission to help exiled Chileans return to the country.

Meanwhile, in the city of Valparaiso, the reopened Congress is beginning to tinker with Pinochet-era laws--including one that removed the legislative branch from Santiago and another that made Sept. 11, the date of Pinochet's 1973 coup, a legal holiday. Recently, however, the senate rejected a measure for returning the Congress to Santiago.

Other bills being debated by the Congress include proposed legislation more favorable to labor and to persons charged with guerrilla activities.

International music stars who opposed Pinochet, including the rock star Sting, will come to Chile in October for two concerts to benefit Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization.

Movies censored by the old regime are being shown without fear, books recounting the repression are best-sellers, and once-taboo posters of the late President Salvador Allende are on open display. Today, the body of the Marxist president who died in the coup will be transferred to an official presidential tomb amid mass gatherings and public ceremonies.

But, as Allende's controversial memory is being rehabilitated, Pinochet's stiff, brass-buttoned figure still looms large. One of the most remarkable aspects of the new Chile is that all the changes are happening while the ex-dictator continues to hold the powerful position of commander in chief of the army.

Today, Pinochet and his army will stand aloof as Allende is honored by Aylwin's administration, which includes ministers from Allende's Socialist Party. When asked by a Chilean newspaper if the ceremonies would include military honors, as befits a dead president, Pinochet replied curtly: "No."

After seizing power in 1973, Pinochet's new regime announced that Allende had committed suicide during a military attack on La Moneda, the presidential palace. Evidence supports that version, although some who were close to Allende say he was shot by the attackers.

Pinochet made sure then that Allende was buried quietly in the coastal city of Vina del Mar. He also ordered security forces to round up thousands of Communists, Socialists and other leftists who had supported or participated in Allende's administration.

More than 800 of the detainees disappeared, according to the current civilian government, and at least 1,000 others were executed.

Human rights organizations have documented much of the brutality under Pinochet, and some bodies were discovered as early as 1978. But only since Pinochet allowed free elections in October, 1989, has the extent of the brutality been freely reported in Chile.

And, since Aylwin took office March 11, authorities have been helping victims' relatives find out where the bodies are buried. The long map of Chile is now sprinkled with Xs marking the spots.

At Pisagua, a town on Chile's northern desert coast where the military government operated a concentration camp, a mass grave uncovered last June yielded the bodies of 21 executed prisoners. At the hamlet of Chihuio, west of the southern city of Valdivia, searchers turned up the skeletons of 18 peasants who were detained and killed by the army in 1973.

At the southern coastal town of Constitution early in August, diggers found the remains of 12 corpses, hands tied with wire, in a single clandestine grave.

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