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Have Chileans Become Strong Enough to Grow Up?

Pinochet was like an abusive parent; the children still are addicted to the toxic relationship.

October 28, 1998|ARIEL DORFMAN | Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean writer and research professor at Duke University, is the author of "Heading South, Looking North," a memoir about surviving Pinochet

For 25 years, I have been preparing for the trial of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Dreaming of that trial, asking him questions in my mind that I could not ask him in reality, biting my tongue and accepting the fact that he would never be held accountable, that this was the price we had to pay for our democracy, that we had to respect the amnesty he gave himself for crimes against humanity during his 17-year reign of terror. I wanted this trial so desperately that I wrote an anticipation of it; I imagined a woman, Paulina, who believes she recognizes the man who raped and tortured her during the dictatorship and, aware that the newly elected democratic government of her country cannot punish him, decides to tie the man up and judge him in her beach house. I let Paulina loose on that doctor, let her say to him the things I would have said, so many of us would have shouted from the rooftops in Chile if we had not suffocated our hope, if we had not been afraid that this would destabilize our transition, if we had not been sure that if we went too far in our demands, the military would come back and punish us yet one more time for daring to rebel.

And yet, even as my imagination ran rampant, even as I savored a society turned upside down and inside out, where the hunted of yesterday became the hunters of today, even in a play where the author supposedly can write whatever he wants, I found myself reluctantly prodding Paulina toward an ending she did not want and I did not want and yet was there, waiting for us and the people of Chile: My protagonist, having tried to bring some measure of justice to the world, sits down, when all is said and done, in a concert hall in close and uncanny proximity to the doctor she thinks damaged her irreparably, both of them sharing the same space, the same music, the same peaceful and miserable and lying land. In "Death and the Maiden," I could not, Paulina could not, imagine another ending. The tragedy of my country is that we cannot put the murderers and violators on trial. That is the pact we have signed, the consensus we have reached. Our ambiguous freedom depends on coexisting with the dictator's shadow and more than his shadow. Coexisting with his threats, with his oblivion of our memories, with his command that people like Paulina be silenced and ignored and excluded. With his presence as senator for life in a Senate that he himself closed down.

That is the truth of who we are, the sad fact that the resistance was not strong enough to overthrow Pinochet and the glorious fact that we were able, nevertheless, to make the country ungovernable and to negotiate him out of office. The truth we have to swallow because we cannot deny it: The third of the country that adores Pinochet and controls the armed forces and most of the economic power will react violently if he is touched.

In the play, that truth was told to the other two characters by Paulina's husband, Gerardo, a human rights lawyer who defends the doctor who may have raped his wife and pleads with her for that life. A decent and flawed man who wants to save his land more suffering.

And now, suddenly, that truth and that land have exploded. Suddenly, what we could not do, what we desired and also feared, has come to pass: The English government and a Spanish judge have arrested our enemy in the name of international law and in the name of a humanity that claims that a violation of one of its members is the ravaging of all.

I cannot predict if Pinochet will be released or it he will stand trial, whether this sets a precedent and warns all dictators to be wary or whether this becomes just another brave yet failed attempt to globalize justice as finance and communications have been globalized. Whatever the outcome, this faraway act of justice, rather than a form of meddling in our internal affairs as Margaret Thatcher has suggested, should be considered a gift to Chile, a unique opportunity to face our common future, which Pinochet had hidden from us.

In one sense, of course, the fractured antagonistic zones of my country have become more intransigent than before. Pinochet's followers, used to having their way, in love with their own invulnerability, are furious and threaten retaliation. The victims feel vindicated and, after decades of suffering, will not give an inch in their demands. And the buffeted government tries to mediate and is pressed from one and the other.

And yet my hope is that this turbulence may be transitory and will be replaced by maturity. We should be able to withstand the spectacle of Pinochet's trial, the very trial that we are witnessing at this moment, as he stands accused in front of the eyes of all mankind. It should be a cleansing experience, the start of what could be a healing of my nation, a real rather than a sham reconciliation.

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