Uneasy U.S. torn over Pinochet case
By FRANK DAVIES
Herald Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- One of the biggest human rights questions in years -- what
do with former Chilean military ruler Augusto Pinochet -- has left U.S. officials
tongue-tied, conflicted and defending an awkward neutrality.
This week, as British officials decide whether to allow the extradition
to Spain to face charges of genocide and torture, pressure is growing in
Washington to do more: to promptly declassify documents and turn them over to
Spain, or even seek the extradition of Pinochet to face charges in the assassination
of a Chilean exile leader and a U.S. citizen in the nation's capital 22 years ago.
``This case has had tremendous impact,'' said Jose Miguel Vivanco, a
Chilean-born Human Rights Watch activist and lawyer who monitors events in
Latin America. ``And it is forcing the United States to deal with important issues of
universal human rights.''
Michael Moffitt, the only survivor of the 1976 car bombing on the streets
Washington ordered by Pinochet's secret police, has a complaint: ``My own
government has been absent without leave in the Pinochet case.''
U.S. officials say that assessment is unfair, and they're trying to achieve
balancing act. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said she understands the
desire for justice and accountability in this case, and last week even acknowledged
U.S. complicity in helping Pinochet seize and keep power in the 1970s.
``We are reviewing and releasing documents related to the Pinochet era,''
in Atlanta. ``It is part of trying to deal with the terrible mistakes and problems of
Many U.S. officials also say they are sympathetic to the Chilean government's
request that Pinochet be returned home. Albright said Chile's position should be
given ``significant respect.''
The new assistant secretary of state for human rights, Harold Koh, discussed
competing pressures in a recent visit to Miami.
``Accountability is an important issue,'' Koh said. ``On the other hand,
recognize that Chile is going through a process. And we need to understand what
Chile has gone through to get where they are.''
Chile granted Pinochet and other military leaders immunity, while finding
rule was responsible for the death or disappearance of 3,197 people.
In Washington, officials in and out of the government cite three main reasons
U.S. policy has amounted to quiet support for Chile and a hands-off attitude
toward Britain and Spain:
Genuine concern for the fragile nature of democracy in Chile, where Pinochet's
arrest has polarized the nation and angered a military that retains considerable
Chile's ambassador to Washington, Genaro Arriagada, has argued that his
-- like South Africa, El Salvador, and post-Franco Spain -- has worked hard to
achieve its own path to peace and stability, building ``a political consensus
whereby we tolerate those who until yesterday we did not tolerate.''
But human rights advocates complain that the Chilean solution ended any
chance for justice.
``What Pinochet demanded to leave power 10 years ago was extortion -- he
impunity,'' Vivanco said.
A consistent, wary approach to any advance in international human rights
U.S. leaders can't control. U.S. officials, for example, have opposed the creation
of an international criminal court.
``The world is moving toward a set of universal principles on human rights,
especially with regard to torture,'' said Arturo Valenzuela, a former deputy
assistant secretary of state who heads Latin American Studies at Georgetown
``But getting there, and enforcing these laws, is proving very difficult
-- for the
United States and others,'' he added.
A desire for flexibility in easing dictators out of power, as U.S. officials
done in Haiti and the Philippines. U.S. officials worry that the Pinochet precedent
may make future strongmen more reluctant to leave the protection of their
That's a short-term view, say some rights activists. Their hope is that
case will deter future atrocities.
``What can we do to prevent rights abuses?'' said Carroll Bogert, communications
director of Human Rights Watch. ``The best answer is insuring that guilty parties
don't get away with it.''
The Pinochet case has special resonance in Washington, where Orlando Letelier,
Chilean exile leader, and Ronni Moffitt, Michael's wife, were murdered in the
Embassy Row car bombing.
On Capitol Hill Monday, six relatives of victims of Pinochet's rule praised
European nations for their pursuit of the 83-year-old former ruler, and pressed
U.S. officials to join the effort. They said clear evidence exists showing that
Pinochet ordered the 1976 murders.
In a recent interview, the prosecutor who handled that investigation, Lawrence
Barcella, said he is convinced that Pinochet ordered the murders, and he wants the
United States to seek Pinochet's extradition for that crime.
Herald staff writer Rick Jervis contributed to this report.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald