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Truth Commissions and Transitional Justice: A Case Study of Post-Pinochet Chile
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For 17 years Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile with authoritarian power rivaling that of the 20th century’s most terrible dictators. As a vehement anti-communist, he garnered the support of the United States before the military coup d’état and committed crimes against humanity that are still shrouded in mystery today. His regime placed the entire country under a state of siege that targeted anyone friendly to the former Popular Unity alliance headed by Salvador Allende. Thousands were arrested, tortured, murdered or disappeared. The fate of over 1,000 people is still unknown (Mark Falcoff, 1989) even after an exhaustive, nine-month long Truth and Reconciliation Commission and two decades or research into the subject. 

The Aylwin government inherited a politically mutilated Chile when Pinochet relinquished the Presidency in 1989. Even while he stepped down from the executive office, Pinochet maintained a substantial amount of public support and power in the years following his dictatorship. In a democratic referendum in 1988, he lost by a margin of only 12 percent with almost half the voting public still on his side (Gregory Weeks, 2000) and maintained a position at the head of the military. The referendum paved the way for Aylwin to win the election in 1990 with “a platform centered on truth, justice, addressing political prisoners, and reparations” (Eric Brahm, 2005). Nearly one month after his election, Aylwin directed a former Senator, Raúl Rettig, to chair a Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación, or the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.

My research seeks to present an accurate historical context in respect for the country and the victims of human rights violations; beyond painting a picture of how the coup took place and the horrendous actions that followed, this paper is interested in how the Aylwin government reacted. It will attempt to answer questions of how the new regime decided to pursue a truth commission, what was investigated, what the results were and what was recommended for the future of Chile. In addition to answering the aforementioned questions, this paper endeavors to defend the idea that, despite many perceived failures and even violence occurring after the fact, the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation yielded more positive than negative outcomes, that the transitional government became a stable one and that, while human rights abuses are still committed in Chile and everywhere, truth commissions are a necessary step in overcoming and preventing future atrocities.

History: 1970-1973 and Pinochet’s Chile

On September 4th, 1970, Salvador Allende, the leader of Chile’s socialist party, the Popular Unity alliance, was elected by the Chilean people to the office of the President. Two months later the United States’ National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, expressed his concern to President Nixon; in a secret memorandum, declassified by the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, Kissinger posits that “the election of Allende as President of Chile poses for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere” (Henry Kissinger Memorandum, 1970). Such extreme and superlative language disappears from American rhetoric about Chile after the 1973 coup d’état; Kissinger, promoted to Secretary of State the same year as Pinochet usurps the executive office, encouraged his new staff to deflect questions about some 2,700 bodies that had been piled in a Santiago morgue by saying “we should not…be in the position of defending what they’re doing in Santiago. But I think we should understand our policy—that however unpleasant they act, the government is better for us than Allende was” (Secretary of State Staff Meeting Summary, 1973). While the number of deaths and disappearances was closer to 1,200, the point is significant because rumors were spreading north and Kissinger lacked any interest in their accuracy, or in the murders that were the Pinochet government was committing.

Questions over the United States’ and the CIA’s involvement in Pinochet’s rise to power and Allende’s contested suicide have spurred controversy for decades. In 2000, the CIA admitted their intelligence about “coup-plotting by the military” but denied any effort on their part to instigate it (CIA Library, 2007). A former CIA agent, Jack Devine, who was stationed in Chile in 1973 affirmed in an interview with a Chilean news host that the CIA only found out about the plans two days before they were executed. He condemns the general perception that the CIA helped the military organize but acknowledges that their instructions were to follow the policies of the White House (Uri Friedman, 2004). While the CIA maintains their position, a drastic increase in U.S. military assistance from 1971 to 1973 in the amount of nearly $10 million indicates active involvement (Falcoff, 1989).

Allende had been democratically elected by a slim plurality in a three-way election and had his victory confirmed by a Congressional vote. He faced criticism for and harsh opposition against many of his polices even though the rate of inflation decreased, minimum wages went up, the GDP increased and a campaign against illiteracy was launched and spread throughout the rural parts of the country (Felipe Larrain and Patricio Meller, 1991). He was the first Marxist chief of state freely elected anywhere and the first to be held “accountable to an electorate which was to return to the ballot boxes twice during his presidency” (Falcoff, 1989). When his economic policies began to fail, the country lurched into tumult and in the months before the coup, the political climate was rich with apprehension as the government and the armed forces openly disagreed with each other. On September 11, 1973, tension boiled over and the Chilean military stormed the Presidential Palace. The Popular Unity government was overthrown and Allende died in the attack while his widow was exiled to Mexico and his cabinet members were arrested (Falcoff, 1989). The coup solidified the military’s belief that their autonomy was essential to the nation’s stability. Civil liberties were suspended as thousands of citizens “labeled as subversive were rounded up, detained, imprisoned, brutalized and killed” (Weeks, 2000).

Pinochet’s military power was unlike any army Chile had ever known before. The armed forces were larger, better paid, better-equipped and fully incorporated in the administrative structure of the country (Falcoff, 1989). An assistant professor of political science at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert in United States foreign policy toward Latin America, Gregory Weeks, wrote that before Pinochet’s legacy, “the military in Latin America has historically been a fully legitimate actor in the political game, given its constitutional missions and support from various segments of political and civil society,” (Weeks, 2000) while immediately after the takeover the junta intended to and did rebuild the country’s political foundations. During his Presidency, “the military regime was characterized by both military unity and coherent strategy coordination, which led to a controlled transition and intrusion into civilian affairs” (Weeks, 2000). Playing and maintaining a strong institutional role constitutes the “core interests” of the Chilean military, according to Weeks. The military’s politicization and control of civil life aided in serving Pinochet’s goal to round up and eliminate any traces of communist empathy.

The worst of the violence came in the first year (and really in the first 3 months) after the coup when around 1,200 people were murdered or disappeared with no explanation and thousands more were arbitrarily detained, raped or tortured. Many citizens were sent to camps or cites, like the now infamous Colonia Dignidad, at which they were experimented on, tortured and later found in mass graves (Al Jazeera Correspondent, 2013). Chapter One of Part Three of the Rettig Committee’s report details human rights violations committed by government agents or persons working for them that occurred solely between September and December of 1973. It depicts the arbitrary arrests made throughout the country of mayors, aldermen, local political leaders and anyone considered an “agitator.” It also reports that when the searches and arrests took place, they were met without opposition or “agitation” but with fear and complacency.

Pinochet’s regime is modernly characterized by the results of the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation; his authoritarian, solider-like rule was harsh, systematic and found to be ideologically malicious. Still, many histories of Chile between 1973 and 1990 depict a robust economy, brought from a socialist model to neoclassical capitalism by the Chicago Boys (Falcoff, 1989). Pinochet managed to restore Chilean savings and investment despite a lack of foreign aid, an increase in the price of oil, and a “catastrophic drop in the price of copper” (Falcoff, 1989). Some authors also credit Pinochet with stabilizing the political climate in Chile by brutally rebuking communism. He made a speech in 1978, known as the Chacarillas speech, in which he outlined a process of political transition that would eventually lead to democracy; and yet, the absolute control with which the military dictated Chilean political decisions and civilian life at Pinochet’s command defied the basic tenants of democracy. Any “stability” he brought to Chile occurred only after he directed his military to scout, arrest, detain, torture and kill Chilean citizens and is therefore negated.

National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation  

Six weeks after Patricio Aylwin’s inauguration, he issued Supreme Decree No. 355 which appointed eight members to a committee that spearheaded a National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. Four of the eight were men who had been former officials in the Pinochet government, intentionally chosen on the basis of nonpartisanship and who enforced the power of the final report when it was wholly endorsed by all committee members upon publication. Aylwin presented the commission as “a compromise solution, the lesser of two evils to both those on the left and the right of the political spectrum” (Brahm, 2005). After his election, the negotiated terms of the transition to a civilian government (which included Pinochet retaining a powerful position) limited the ways in which Aylwin could ensure that justice be served to those who perpetrated crimes against humanity. Pinochet’s 1980 constitution remained intact and laid out that the tenants of his authoritarian rule and legitimized an amnesty law he passed in 1978; Pinochet’s amnesty law assured that he would not be prosecuted for prior crimes (Brahm, 2005). Aylwin’s limited ability to pursue formal legal action was also enforced by questions of the judiciary’s legitimacy. The committee reported that after the coup d’état the courts “did not respond vigorously enough to human rights violations... [and didn’t work] to protect the essential rights of persons when those rights were jeopardized, threatened, or crushed by government officials” (Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, English Translation, 1993). The contested validity of the judicial branch compounded with the news of turbulence in Argentina after their new democratic government attempted to prosecute corrupt military leaders (Brahm, 2005) left Aylwin’s government with really no other viable option, but the success of the truth commission is still regarded as Aylwin’s greatest achievement as president.

The eight body members of the commission were aided by a staff of approximately sixty people and began the investigation with extensive records from non-governmental organizations that had long criticized a lack of movement against human rights violations in Chile (Priscilla Hayner, 2001). They took thousands of testimonies from victims and families of the missing or killed; the report explains that the duty of the commission was “to determine what really had happened in every case in which human rights had been seriously violated. Only by determining what had happened in each individual instance would the Commission be able to draw up as complete a picture as possible of the overall phenomenon of the violations of basic human rights” (Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, English Translation, 1993). By the commission’s strict mandate, they were able to conduct a thorough investigation and review over 2,900 of the 3,400 cases brought to them.

The commission came to three essential conclusions during their investigations. First, it documents 3,428 cases of disappearance, killing, torture and kidnapping, including many brief accounts of the victims’ testimonials to which it listened. Second, it holds the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) responsible for a tremendous amount of political repression during Pinochet’s regime. DINA was a military delegation of army majors and colonels that expressed “virulent anticommunism,” designated any members of the left the “enemy” and set out to “utterly destroy it [by] identifying, locating, and killing its leadership or members regarded as especially dangerous” (Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, English Translation, 1993). Third, and in conjunction with an aforementioned point, most of the disappearances took place in the first years. Between 1974 and 1977 as a planned and coordinated strategy, DINA and the military increased the number of arrests (United Institute of Peace, 1990). and there were more and more missing person reports.

Post TRC: The Final Report, the Victims and a Reparations Program

The final report, an eighteen hundred page “indictment of the practices of the Pinochet regime” was released nine months after the committee began its investigations.

The Chilean truth commission and its subsequent report are regarded with positive feedback and praise in the study of transitional justice. After Aylwin died in April of 2016, a New York Times reporter recognized the establishment of the truth commission Aylwin’s greatest accomplishment. (Johnathan Kandell and Pascale Bonnefoy, 2016). There were, of course, valid criticisms of the proceedings and the commission that warrant discussion here. José Alaquett wrote an introduction to an English edition of the final report and emphasizes that “although Chile could learn from recent precedents, sobering lesson they taught was that the political stakes involved in settling accounts of the past are extraordinarily high” (Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, English Translation, 1993). To add to this thought, from discussions we have had in class and from numerous reading we have studied, one can note that a fully satisfactory outcome is unlikely. This is not to say, however, that an effort to determine a collective narrative of the truth shouldn’t have been attempted.

One of the most significant complaints, and a prominent theme in Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden, is the problem of victim selection. The mandate set by Aylwin for the commission and established in the final report reads that “serious violations are here to be understood as situations of those persons who disappeared after arrest, who were executed, or who were tortured to death” (Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, English Translation, 1993). Erin Daly writes a critique of truth commissions that questions how they identify “worthy victims” (Erin Daly, 2008); for example, victims of rape, like the main character of Dorfman’s play, victims of torture that did not result in death or victims of coercion are usually neglected and left outside the scope of a truth commission’s mandate. To counter this point however, many pro truth commission political scientists recognize the challenge that any committee faces when the scope of the violence and abuse is as great as it was in Chile.


Chile’s commission, in fact, had significant consequences for victims. It provided dozens of families relief from “administrative and legal limbo” due to the unknown status of some disappearances (Brahm, 2005). Much of the information published in the report would be used later by lawyers and judges in specific cases against government officials who worked under Pinochet. Pinochet himself was arrested in London in 1998 on an extradition charge from a Spanish judge who used the final report to build and support his case (Hayner, 2001). Furthermore, the 1990-1991 truth commission’s neglect of victims of torture was recognized later and was a fundamental change to a second commission that took place in 2003. The legal ramifications may do little to mollify an unquenchable anger, a tangible hurt that many Chileans and Latin Americans have suffered, but they offer a great promise for the people of these countries: the promise of functional democracy – of justice and accountability for violations of human rights.

Katherine Lee is a pre-law senior at Boston University pursing a B.A. in Political Science and English. Her academic areas of interest are education policy, human rights, Latin-American foreign relations and 19th Century American Literature. Born and raised in New England, she is a die-hard skier with an ambition to ski her way through the Andes. This is her first publication. 








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Brahm, Eric. “The Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” The Beyond Intractability Project, the Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado. 2005.

Daly, Erin. “Truth Skepticism: An Inquiry into the Value of Truth in Times of Transition,” The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 2, 2008.

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Friedman, Uri. “The Other 9/11: A CIA Agent Remembers Chile’s Coup.” The Atlantic. 2004.

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