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Settling Scores With a Past That Should Never Have Existed

The road from a dictatorship is often fraught with willful ignorance and forced tolerance.

November 02, 1998|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a political scientist and writer in Mexico City. He is teaching this fall at New York University

By early this week, Augusto Pinochet may well be back in Santiago or free on bail in London, having frustrated the efforts of Spanish and subsequently French, Swiss and Swedish magistrates and citizens, as well as the ostensible wishes of a broad majority of his countrymen, who according to recent polls want to see the dictator tried somewhere, anywhere, for his crimes.

But his arrest will still have served a purpose, beyond warming the hearts of those who knew and loved his victims and who have waited nearly a quarter of a century for justice. Over and above its ethical and legal implications, the dictator's detention will have brought to light many of the contradictions about how societies transit from authoritarian to democratic rule, and how they settle scores with a past that should never have existed.

Both in general and in specific reference to Chile, Pinochet's predicament raises far more questions than answers, which should have been asked years ago in Chile and Latin America and in countries as dissimilar as Mexico and South Africa today. The so-called transitions to democracy that took place during the 1980s and 1990s all rested on a few basic premises, which at the time seemed self-evident: Dictatorships do not just fade away; military rulers do not simply walk into the sun when they get bored or tired. Achieving their departure and the overall dismantling of their regimes implied providing them with a way out--a safe departure to a safe haven for a safe future.

On some occasions, the political golden handshake of explicit amnesty or tacitly letting bygones be bygones was accompanied by a willingness to know, if not to punish. Truth commissions, "never-again" commissions, White Books and whatnot were created and supported. But the implicit understanding always was that the personal and financial integrity of the dictators remained protected, and that aspects of their policies be preserved by their democratic successors.

In Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Korea, South Africa and even in some cases in Eastern Europe, this was the deal--formal and institutionalized in some cases, de facto in others--that made democracy possible. It seemed a small price to pay, a pill not too bitter to swallow, a necessary and sufficient condition for moving on.

But too many questions simply went unanswered. Who made the deals? Who did the political leaders involved truly represent? How freely did the leaders and the led consent to the deals they made, and how well informed about the entire arrangement were the most interested parties, that is, the citizens of the countries in question? Would the deal withstand international and historical scrutiny, particularly of a passionate and critical nature? Would those agreements resist the test of time, of further investigations and new revelations, and, most important, would the mother of all clauses of understanding--rebus sic stantibus (while existing conditions endure)--remain valid?

The current situation in at least two other countries illustrates the pitfalls all of this entails. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its findings on Thursday, in the absence of all of the nation's political parties and in the presence of acute tensions and discomfort between two old friends and heroes who are true role models for transitions everywhere: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Many reasons explain the disenchantment with the commission's report--actually, its very existence--but one clearly stands out: The notion that inspired its creation and work--that the spirit of national reconciliation that presided over the shift from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa also should prevail in dealing with the country's past--is no longer as relevant or widespread as when the commission was established. What then seemed fair, prudent and tolerant, today appears callous and cynical; what today is deemed unacceptable and insensitive then felt cautious and moderate.

Perhaps it was better to demur in asking too many questions back when Mandela was freed, when negotiations with the white minority were in full swing and hanging by a thread, when civil war and/or a mass exodus by the white community seemed imminent. Then again, perhaps that was the time to formulate those doubts, rather than now, when resentment and discontent have set in.

The same is true for Mexico. The country is painfully proceeding with its move toward democratic rule, and while settling scores with the past is certainly not the most pressing task, it is one of the most delicate ones. From the student massacre in Tlaltelolco in 1968 to the localized "dirty war" of the 1970s, to the electoral fraud of the 1980s and the corruption of the 1990s, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has a great deal to answer for.

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