Overturn Pinochet constitution

Leaving Straw to extradite the dictator is not enough

Chilean society is deeply divided. The arrest of Augusto Pinochet on October 16 and this week’s decision by Jack Straw that he must be extradited to Spain have carried with them the threat of reopening all the old wounds. This threat of ‘destabilising Chile’s fragile democracy’ has been one of the main arguments from Pinochet’s supporters in their demand to free the self-appointed ‘senator for life’. This is nothing less than a veiled threat of a coup. There is in other words a burgeoning constitutional crisis.

According to a Mori poll 60% of Chileans believe he is guilty of mass crimes. Only 16% think he is innocent. And 57% want him to face trial. But the majority is so far passive. As a result Pinochet’s supporters are more visible.

The difference is programme. The Chilean right is out to save its constitution. However, the left is not out to destroy it. According to the British/Chilean Ad-hoc Committee for Justice, up to 500 rightists are on their way to Britain to demonstrate for Pinochet’s release. They must be swamped. We in Britain must organise mass demonstrations insisting his extradition be upheld and demanding his jailing in Spain. This is the best way to encourage and empower the working class in Chile.

Far from fearing the reopening of political divisions, the working class movement in Chile can use this opportunity to solve the country’s constitutional crisis positively. Falling meekly behind ‘official’ Chilean society and its liberal and socialist spokespersons actually emboldens the right and the forces of reaction.

Even though there has been civilian rule since 1990, Chile has a blatantly undemocratic constitution. Moreover, the active participation of the military in political life continues both overtly as well as covertly. And the constitution reserves a permanent role for the armed forces as ‘guarantors’ of the nation’s institutions. Pinochet himself only retired as head of the armed forces in March this year, to immediately take his seat as senator for life - despite demonstrations to oppose him.

On numerous occasions since the handover to a civilian president, those who have suggested that Pinochet be prosecuted have themselves been threatened, attacked, arrested or imprisoned, and actions against human rights violators have been frustrated.

Examples include:

Sending back Pinochet to Chile for ‘trial’ would have been the equivalent of freeing him. That is why it remains correct for us - be we in Britain, Chile or Spain - to keep up the pressure for his extradition to where he really will stand trial. But that is not all that must be done. A guilty verdict would be gratifying. But now is the time to overturn the Pinochet constitution in Chile.

As a life senator, Pinochet is immune from prosecution. Nevertheless, the seemingly innocent offer from foreign minister José Miguel Insuzla to pursue 11 existing legal cases against him has been the crack in the wall which has opened a flood of questions about the ‘reconciliation’ process in Chile.

From the time of the coup against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government on September 11 1973, Pinochet’s regime justified itself in terms of anti-Sovietism. The coup was referred to as the ‘day of national restoration’ by the right wing, and claimed as a defence of the nation and constitution against communism. Pinochet was given full backing by the US. Secretary of state Henry Kissinger famously said: “I don’t see why we should stand idly by and see a country turn Marxist because of the stupidity of its own people.”

On April 19 1978 the military junta declared the amnesty law. The law pardons all individuals who committed crimes between September 11 1973 and March 10 1978: that is, throughout the state of siege period. This piece of legalism was followed up with the drafting of a new constitution and its approval in a sham plebiscite on September 11 1980. The 1980 Pinochet constitution included several ‘transitional’ articles which ended with the return to civilian rule in 1990.

As well as demanding justice against Pinochet, the Chilean left must campaign for the total rejection of the constitution and all the legal protections for the former regime. The current legal and judicial system cannot be relied upon to deliver justice. The demand must be for the reopening of all cases of the disappeared through a rejection of the 1978 amnesty decree and the convocation of a constituent assembly.

The arrest of Pinochet must be placed in the context of the New World Order. Despite having no Soviet rival, imperialism, under the hegemony of the United States, needs political legitimacy for its global domination. The new doctrine of making dictators pay, even if they are the ‘legitimate’ heads of state, initially applied to rogue regimes. It is permissible to gun for Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong il or Slobodan Milosevic - this was all test-run when the US invaded Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega, then public enemy number one. Now that doctrine has been extended to ex-dictators. Imperialism is cloaking itself in democracy. It can do that only in conditions of working class passivity and defeat. That can and must be changed.

An upsurge to sweep away Pinochet’s constitution would open up the possibility of the working class and its organisations winning political hegemony. Only then should the Chilean people accept the return of the dictator, in the full expectation of winning justice at last.

Marcus Larsen